The 7th season of Game of Thrones has just started and it already seems that it’s going to be even more weird, dark and blood gushing than ever. In all that chaos, it’s easy to miss the details that may be less important to the plot itself but as interesting as the whole show – the languages of Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones has become a pop culture phenomenon which can be compared to other iconic series like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. All of the above was a real challenge for their translators. Not only did the authors make up a lot of words (like muggle in Harry Potter), but their creators also brought to life new, complete languages.
So if you feel a bit like Jon Snow cause you know nothing about the languages of Game of Thrones, here’s a little compendium that may be of interest not only to the enthusiasts of the books or series, but also those who just love linguistics.
LANGUAGES OF WESTEROS
At first, The main focus of the books and the TV series was on Westeros which is one of the four known “continents” in the world of Game of Thrones (the others are called Essos, Sothoryos and Ulthos). Even though the culture of Westeros is diverse and its history is long and fascinating, the languages of Westeros are pretty… boring.
People of Dorne, the Iron Islands or The Vale of Arryn all speak the same language – the Common Tongue. It’s most widely used in the show and in the books, as it’s a lingua franca of the whole continent.
It was introduced around six thousand years ago by the Andals. Yet, as every die-hard fan of Game of Thrones knows, the Andals were not the first people living in Westeros. Before the Seven Kingdoms were established as a result of the invasion of the Andals, the First Men had spoken the Old Tongue. This language is still remembered and sometimes used by the free folks or giants who live beyond the Wall.
LANGUAGES OF ESSOS
George R.R. Martin didn’t actually write the languages of Essos. The authors of the show knew how madly popular the books were and wanted to get into the fandom’s good graces, so they hired a true language whisperer – David Peterson, known also for inventing and writing down languages like Kinuk’aaz from a TV show Defiance and two languages of Essos – Dothraki and Valyrian. You can be sure that every time Daenerys or a dothraki warrior says something in the show, it’s not just some random gibberish – they speak a real language with its own grammar and vocabulary.
Valyrian is actually not a language, but a group of them. It comes from the High Valyrian – the old language of Essos (which served as a universal language on the continent, just like the Common Tongue in Westeros). High Valyrian went out of everyday use after the realm of Valyria was destroyed. We can assume that nowadays, Daenerys is the only native speaker of High Valyrian, as the house Taergaryen was the only one fromValyria that survived to this day.
You have probably heard her saying dracarys a few times (even though usually few people stay alive after those words have been spoken). Valar morghulis and valar dohaeris (“All men must die” and “All men must serve”) are another two examples of High Valyrian.
After the fall of Valyria, the common tongue of Essos evolved into a group of languages called the Low Valyrian or the Bastard Valyrian. It’s not sure either whether the variants of the Low Valyrian should be called languages or just dialects. For example, each of the nine free cities has its own variant of the Low Valyrian – Pentoshi in Pentos, Braavosi in Braavos, Lorathi in Lorath and so on.
Interestingly, David Peterson – the creator of the language – said that Jacob Anderson (who portrays Grey Worm, an unsullied soldier) speaks the language better than Peterson himself ever could.
As a language spoken by the horse-riding, nomadic tribe with the same name, most of the vocabulary is somehow bound to horses. For example, to ask “How are you” in Dothraki you should say: Hash yer dothrae chek?, which literally means “Do you ride well?”.
David Peterson, who also created Dothraki language, says that he was inspired primarily by Russian and Arabic. He also said that the vocabulary is based mainly on Genghis Khan-era Mongolian, because they share some experience and lifestyle with Dothraki.
Peterson often talks to Game of Thrones’ fans who ask him for translations. The other day, a student asked him to translate “sociology girl” into Dothraki, as she wanted to get a tattoo with this inscription. Peterson explained that sociology doesn’t exist in that world, neither does a word for it. He proposed Nayat fin avitihera vojis sekke which literally means “A girl who stares at people too much”. This, and the fact that there even is a tongue twister in Dothraki (Qafak qov kaffe qif qiya fini kaf faggies fakaya – “The trembling questioner crushed the bleeding boar that squished a kicking corn bunting”), shows how serious Peterson is when it comes to inventing a language.
Other languages of Essos:
A language of the magical incantations which originated in the far east. You could hear it used by Melisandre or Mirri Maz Duur – the witch who cursed Khal Drogo.
Lhazar is a language spoken by the shepherds of Essos. It’s only mentioned a few times in the books, but never heard in the show.
The language of Qarth – very difficult to learn by foreigners, so the people of Qarth usually opt to speak the Common Tongue to visitors from Westeros. It was used in the show by Xaro Daxos – the man who tried to steal Daenerys’ dragons.
Also called the Great Tongue – a simplified, pidgin version of the Old Tongue. Spoken by the giants beyond the Wall.
The language of the White Walkers, resembling cracking ice. Unfortunately, despite being created, the language was not used in the show. The producers decided to use some icy sound effects.