David J. Peterson, Language Originator

The Trade: HBO’s hit show “Game of Thrones” immerses viewers in a fantasy world where characters speak complex fictional languages. Rather than use dialogue that’s nonsense, the producers employ a linguist who approaches language creation scientifically.

As a junior at Pacifica High School, Garden Grove resident Peterson decided to teach himself French because he didn’t have enough room in his schedule, and he wanted to learn the language. He eventually learned not only French, but seven other languages, including Egyptian hieroglyphic and American Sign Language. With bachelor’s degrees in English and linguistics, and a master’s in linguistics, Peterson, 35, paved his way as the first full-time language creator for American TV, for which he has received national media attention.

Were you exposed to different languages as a child?
I was. Growing up in Garden Grove, you always heard Korean and Vietnamese. In addition, my mother spoke Spanish, and my stepdad was fluent in Armenian. My family didn’t teach me these languages, but they probably affected me on a subconscious level.

David J. Peterson
David J. Peterson. Photo by Jake Reinig.

Photo by Jake Reinig

When did you make the jump from studying languages to creating your own?
I was taking Arabic, Russian, and Esperanto at UC Berkeley when I took an introductory course in linguistics. I decided to create a language for fun. That’s where it started, and it never stopped. My first language was terrible. It was called Megdevi, which was
(an oddly spelled) combination of my name and my girlfriend’s name.

How do you begin?
First, I start with a sound system and build off of that. I decide on all the sounds that will be used and which sounds will make a syllable, begin a word, and end a word. I make sure that the phonetics and syntax are consistent. If it’s for a TV show, I talk to the executive producers and learn where the people come from and what they look like. For most of the science fiction shows, they’re pretty similar to humans, and they have vocal tracts.

How long does it take?
If I’m working fast, a couple of months. I rarely have as much time as I want. I only had two weeks with one show.

How did you get your first job creating a language for TV?
There was a competition to create the Dothraki language for an internal pilot of “Game of Thrones.” The language-creating community is large—thousands of people create languages. When the competition was announced, everyone was applying; it was terrible. You could submit as much or as little work as you liked. I figured there would be someone who would put in the most work and submit the largest package. I had the time, so I decided I would be that person. I produced more than 300 pages. There were two rounds of judging. I was confident about the first round because it was run by language creators. The second round was judged by show producers. I was nervous because they didn’t have a linguistics background. Luckily, I got the job.

It sounds as though it was more hard work than luck.
Well, I did everything within my power to outwork the competition … but since the last round wasn’t judged by language people, it was out of my control. So I consider the final win a mix of luck and skill.

George R. R. Martin made up some Dothraki words in the books. Did you use existing phrases?
I took account of everything in the books and worked off of it. It’s an interesting language with five cases and no articles. It’s most like Russian. I was very impressed with George R. Martin’s language because I had extremely low expectations. Most of the time fantasy authors do the worst job, but all of  Martin’s material was consistent. He made my job easy.

Did you work on the set?
No, I worked from home in Orange County. I would translate the material, record it on MP3s, and send it in. Dialect coaches work with the actors on pronunciations.

How does it feel to make up languages for different shows on Syfy and for “Game of Thrones?”
I’m the first person to make a career out of this and it feels good, but mostly it feels good to be financially stable. I would be doing this anyway, even if I didn’t get the job. … I don’t think this will last forever. Right now I’m going to see how it goes, but I’m always doing other things, like focusing on publishing. I have written two books, “The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building” and “Living Language Dothraki,” an instructional guide.

How do you think fictional languages help tell a story?
If I’m watching something like a James Bond movie and he parachutes into Kazakhstan, I want to hear them speaking Kazakh and I want it to be correct and fluent. I don’t want James Bond to parachute in and then they say a couple phrases and switch to English. It breaks it. Every language has a unique sound to it. You can’t travel everywhere to hear languages, but you can through movies or television. When you hear a language you’ve never heard before, it adds to the story and connects you to the world.

Can you say something in Dothraki?
Me allayafa anni, jin Vilajerosh Adori. (I love “Game of Thrones.”)

Watch him! Watch David explain how he developed Dothraki here on The Daily Show.


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