Welcome to part III of our series on fictional constructed languages, which is part of this year’s Fund Drive theme, linguistics and pop culture. ConLangs—and we do mean languages constructed for creative fiction, not languages like Esperanto designed for the real world—have contributed to popular culture in rich and varied and sometimes really weird ways. We started with Part I, which briefly covered J.R.R. Tolkien’s Quenya as one of the world’s first prominent creatively constructed language, focusing on the real-world linguistic influences. Part II got a little lengthier in an attempt to examine how creative linguists use phonology to create a range of human-like and non-human-like effects in the creation of “alien” languages for Science Fiction.
Now welcome to Part III, where we’ll try to cover some of the aspects of the world’s newest wave of influential ConLangs, specifically focusing on what we think is probably today’s most popular ConLangs, Dothraki and Valyrian and the role of languages and multilingualism in fictional worlds.
This blog is dark and full of spoilers!
Still with us? Okay.
Dothraki and Valyrian are the show’s most prominent ConLangs, and both of them are used by one of the series’ main protagonists, Daenerys Targaryen, who has a lot of titles.
George R. R. Martin’s fantasy books do not have a usable language in them, despite the many other ways in which the epic series takes its cues from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (either by means of inevitable cultural assimilation that happens with such influential works as Lord of the Rings, or by intentional subversion.) A few Dothraki words, like Khal and its feminine variant Khaleesi, did, however, appear in the books and provide the base for linguist David J. Peterson’s development of the language. Peterson not only worked with the existing words and utterances from the books, but developed the language to be easily pronounceable for the actors—it had to sound convincingly foreign to a primarily English-speaking audience, but also sound natural and fluent in the mouths of mostly L1 English speakers. The Language Creation Society, of which Peterson is a member, now has a page devoted to Dothraki.
In terms of phonology, the most salient element of a ConLang to the audience, we find some interesting features. Those stops, nasals, and laterals that would be alveolar in English are instead dental—a small adjustment that for most of the audience may invoke the sound of Spanish. Peterson did include very un-English-like phonemes, like a uvular stop, and a velar fricative, and there is both an alveolar stop and a trill (but no English-like rhotic!) This phonological make-up is probably what prompted Peterson himself to describe Dothraki in an interview as evoking both Spanish and Arabic.
Aspirated stops may occur but not contrastively, and there’s geminates of just about every consonant, including geminate fricatives like /xx/ and /θθ/. That one is really smart, in my opinion—typologically rare, (especially as a geminate!) but still no challenge for the actors. Peterson also took phonological rules into account, devising, for example, regular place assimilation among vowels under the influence of neighboring consonants. Honestly, spoken Dothraki just sounds really cool.
It’s also an interesting point of comparison with Klingon—probably both fictional cultures can be said to be based on some of the same literary and pop-cultural tropes, and they manifest in some of the same ways. I’d be willing to bet any fictional language invented by English-speakers for an English-speaking audience intended for use by warlike cultures has velar fricatives in it; I don’t know why and it’s only a casual observation. (Quick! I need a sociolinguist to survey ConLangs phonology for velar fricatives.) Perhaps that sound strikes English speakers as sufficiently foreign and sufficiently “guttural,” (but still sufficiently pronounceable) for use in a language intended to come off as harsh and powerful. But Dothraki is very much a human language and it has a pleasantly even consonant space—no weird, alien gaps like we found in Klingon.
Dothraki’s syntax is equally rich and interesting. It’s a highly inflectional language with five cases, including nominative, accusative, genitive, allative, and ablative, as well as three tenses and two different imperatives. (The Dothraki and a very imperative people.)
And there’s an archaic participle. There’s actually a lot of thought put into the diachrony of Dothraki, including archaic spellings that reflect older pronunciations—Dothraki has no bilabial stops (they’ve lenited to labiodental fricatives) but some words, particularly names, are still spelled with Romanize p and b or bh. The regular irregularities produced by diachrony are one of the most persuasive and inventive aspects of fictional languages to me, because it means the creator imagined a history for his language. Like the world it exists in, there’s more to Dothraki than a snapshot of its synchrony. It creates the impression that this world and its languages have existed for a long time before now, not just as stories.
But this has already gotten long! Let’s talk about Valyrian so we can talk about Daenerys so we can talk about the rest!
High Valyrian was also developed by David J. Peterson, and the first thing I learned about it when reading for this blog post was that it has derivative variants. Peterson is no slouch. (Also the variants are mentioned in the books.) Valyrian has plenty of phonological overlap with Dothraki as one would expect, and also, joyously, contact phenomena—Dothraki loanwords have resulted in the introduction of those fantastic Dothraki fricatives /x/ and /θ/ mentioned earlier. The phonological inventory of Valyrian is larger in general than that of Dothraki, with a full series of labials (except /f/, basically), including nasals, a full series of alveolars including contrastive voiced and voiceless trills (cool), all the way back to uvulars and glottals. The vowel system involves six major vowels /i e o a u y/ (Dothraki had four, /i e o a/ not including the allophonic alternations), and contrastive vowel length. Like Dothraki, Valyrian has a well-thought-out diachrony, and the front rounded series /y/ and /y:/ in High Valyrian are no longer pronounced as such in its descendant variants. Like Latin, High Valyrian no longer has native speakers in Essos and Westeros, although Daenerys does call it her “mother tongue,” before ordering her dragons to roast a guy. In Astapori Valyrian (one of the variants), the length contrast in vowels in gone.
Valyrian has four grammatical numbers—singular, plural, paucal, and collective—eight noun classes, and four grammatical genders. According to Peterson, who talks about Valyrian grammar in this exceedingly interesting discussion on Dothraki.com, the genders are called vēzenkor qogror “solar class”, hūrenkor qogror “lunar class” tegōñor qogror “terrestrial class” embōñor qogror “aquatic class,” and most animate nouns wind up in the solar or lunar genders while others wind up in the aquatic and terrestrial genders—the names of the genders are prototypical members of each. He described gender as phonologically predictable generally, but also being influenced by the derivational properties of the Bantu languages.
There is an enormous amount more that can be said about the very complex and fascinating structure of Valyrian, and it’s one of the most developed fictional ConLangs we have ever seen. But I really want to get to how these languages interact with the worlds and the people they are used by because that is, after all, what makes language come alive.
Like J.R.R. Tolkien, Peterson designed his languages with a view to the people who would be speaking them, their world, their history, their philosophy. The depth of their complexity and the sense of history and development and change over time is what makes them feel like lived-in languages for real people. Daenerys Targaryen, one of the main protagonists, ends up using both of them, as well as the Westeros common language (English, functionally.) As a member of the ruling class (well, sort of, her family has been ousted at the beginning of the series), Daenerys is educated in Valyrian, but for her, it’s more than that—she’s descended from the rulers of Old Valyria and regards Valyrian as her mother tongue (in season 3, episode 4, an Astapori Valyrian speaking slaver insults her in Valyrian while conducting a deal with her, only to have her declare herself and her lineage, and, as previously mentioned, command her dragons to barbecue him. He deserved it.) She also teaches her dragons to respond to commands like “dracarys!” which means “dragonfire,” (Or, more pragmatically, “barbecue him!”) pronounced beautifully by Emilia Clarke.
Daenerys identifies with the language of her heritage, which is also the language of her name, and that’s interesting to me. Language plays a part, not only in the plot (as mentioned above) but in the characterization of the people who carry out the plot, and none more than Daenerys. She goes through a lot during the course of her story, not least of which is being married off to the Dothraki Khal Drogo as part of a political move. As her character develops, she learns to cope with the extreme distress and trauma of her life, becomes more and more empowered, and begins acquiring the Dothraki language. While still regarding Valyrian as her language. Her process of acculturation within the Dothraki is a major part of her arc, and is portrayed in the books and TV show alongside her becoming more and more fluent in Dothraki. By the current point in both the show and the books, she’s one of the most powerful political players, most realized and human characters, and fluently multilingual. She’s a perfect example of the way that language can add depth to a fictional character as much as it adds depth to a fictional world.
Today, ConLanging, casual and professional, is more popular than ever. If you follow Steve the Vagabond and Silly Linguist on social media (and you should, for a good laugh) you will have seen snippets of Atlaans, a Germanic-based ConLang invented as the mother-tongue for an alternate linguistic history of the world (check it out here!) There’s plenty of alternate-history ConLangs, but I have already promised that ConLangs intended for the real world are not my subject here… except if you create an alternate history language that is also part of a work of fiction.
Having already talked at length about books, movies, and TV shows, I think it’s time to bring up the latest world-building venture that involves ConLanging: video games. Far Cry Primal, by Ubisoft, released in 2016 and involves a ConLang called “Wenja,” developed by University of Kentucky assistant professors Andrew and Brenna Byrd, which is spoken by the inhabitants of a prehistoric world from thousands of years ago. Indo-Europeanist Andrew Byrd described Wenja as like Proto-PIE, something that might have been used thousands of years before PIE is hypothesized to have been spoken. Not much is said in the interview about the mechanics of Wenja, except that it had to have been pretty much imagined, and they developed a very robust vocabulary that could easily suffice for a real-world language-user. But the language, according to its creators, didn’t feel alive until Brenna Byrd began teaching it to the actors. Who began using it and practicing it among themselves, and inventing cries and greetings to fit in the game. Andrew and Brenna Byrd managed to find the meeting place between a totally fictional language for a totally fictional world and a hypothetical language that could have existed in the real world, which is amazing on its own. But it wasn’t until it was deployed among real speakers that it was electrified to life.
What I think is important about ConLangs, specifically fictional ones, and the reason I am so interested in them, is what they represent. ConLangs created to fill the lives and form the expressions of fictional people who live in imagined worlds, are in a way representative of how we imagine our relationship with language in the real world. That gets reflected in the way that fictional languages can become integral both to their worlds and to their speakers’ identities. They come to life in the hands of real speakers, and carry with them a sense of the history that has led the world and its people, even up to individuals like the initially-unassuming Daenerys.
As everyone knows, there’s a lot of trouble in the world. But it’s not all trouble out there, and it’s worth thinking about that today more than ever, creators are invested in talking about what it means to communicate with each other. What it means for peoples and cultures and individuals to cross and recross language boundaries. They are invested in creating rich and diverse worlds full of people who have their own individual and cultural relationships with the very concept of human communication.
And that’s pretty neat.
Well, this has been way longer than we ever intended it to be. There’s too much interesting stuff to talk about with language, and it turned out there were a lot more fictional languages than I ever could have covered!
If you enjoyed this series, please support us here at the LINGUIST List by donating here! This series was written as part of our Fund Drive’s focus on language and linguistics in media and pop culture. We work hard to help provide a space for linguistic resources. Thanks so much for being with us all these years!
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on behalf of the LINGUIST List team