David Peterson invents languages for sci-fi and fantasy dramas such as ‘Game of Thrones’; linguistic construction should be taught at school

March 6, 2014 4:30 pm

Seven words for sword thrust

By Emma Jacobs

When he was a student in linguistics and English at the University of California, Berkeley, David Peterson worked on a secret language for two months. It was called “Megdevi”. This was an amalgam of both his own name and Megan, his girlfriend at the time. Once satisfied with his new words and grammar rules, he presented it to her. It was his grand romantic gesture: a private language they could use to communicate only with each other.

“We didn’t use it”, the 33-year-old admits today, 15 years later. While Megan appreciated the effort, she did not want to learn the language. “It was far too much work.” Now married to someone else, he is more agitated about the technical shortcomings of Megdevi, describing it as “an abomination”. He laments: “It tried to be a bunch of different things at once and ended up being nothing.”

Back then he was under the illusion he was the first person to create a language just for himself. “I thought I’d cornered the market and there would be demand for invented languages.” Later, when he searched the internet, he saw there were legions of people just like him, picking holes in grammar rules and admiring the poetry of their new lexicons in chat rooms around the world.

The invention of new languages has a rich history. Some have a political purpose such as Esperanto, created in the 19th century to foster peace, or the feminist Láadan, created in 1982. Another, Toki Pona, uses positive words to engender positive thinking.

Today Mr Peterson is a professional “conlanger” – the name that those who construct languages give to themselves. What transformed his hobby into a trade was the growing desire by television and film producers to infuse science fiction and fantasy dramas with authenticity, including completely fabricated and naturalistic languages. Fans scrutinise the languages, sharing inconsistencies on Twitter and discussion forums.

Mr Peterson’s big break was Game of Thrones , the lavish HBO drama, which next month starts its fourth season.

He records every line that he writes in Dothraki so that actors can learn how to pronounce the words

In 2008, after completing a masters in linguistics and teaching English at a community college, Mr Peterson found himself unemployed. He entered a competition set by the Game of Thrones producers for members of the Language Creation Society, a group he had co-founded, to promote, discuss and deconstruct invented languages.

The group was invited to devise a language – Dothraki – for the show. He won both rounds – the first, judged by his peers, the second by the television executives. It changed his working life.

Unlike previous languages he had worked on, Dothraki had some basics already in place. George RR Martin, author of the five volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy saga on which the TV series is based, had created some words already. By analysing these, he fleshed it out to create a “naturalistic” language, reflecting the feudal pseudo-Mongolian society’s preoccupations. There are, for example, seven different words in Dothraki for striking with a sword. These include: “hlizifikh”, a wild but powerful strike; and “kolverikh”, a straight sword thrust.

While Mr Martin has insisted he did not pay attention to linguistic rules, Mr Peterson believes the author has a “natural language affinity”. Typically, he says, fantasy writers “do a terrible job”. Their languages are inconsistent and merely bastardised English.

By the start of the first season, Mr Peterson had created 1,700 words and now has added another 2,000. He has set a goal of 10,000, though he has become derailed by working on other science fiction and fantasy projects.

He records every line that he writes in Dothraki so that actors can learn how to pronounce the words. Actors do a pretty good job, he says, although when he sees the final product he often cringes (mistakes are made, he says, by editors and directors who do not have an ear for his language and might choose a clip best left on the cutting floor).

Originally Mr Peterson’s goal had been to become an English teacher in high school. While an undergraduate at Berkeley, Mr Peterson, who is half-Mexican and speaks Spanish, studied different languages for fun: basic Arabic, a term of Russian. At his mother’s suggestion he learnt linguistics, which sparked his interest in language creation.

Once he started he realised there was no chance he would ever stop. “It’s addictive,” he says. He has always had tunnel vision when it comes to his personal passions. When he was very young it was drawing, then writing, until he became focused on languages.

The work satisfies the mathematical side of his brain, he says, by trying to “solve the problem of communication”. But it is also artistic. “Filling out a lexicon means filling out the back story. It is not purely mechanical.”

The transformational moment for conlangers was Klingon. Marc Okrand, a linguist, was hired to create a language for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Klingons had largely spoken English in the original Star Trek television series), which was released in 1984.

Later came James Cameron’s science fiction extravaganza, Avatar. For that the director hired Paul Frommer, a linguistics expert from the University of Southern California, to create the Na’vi language spoken by a 10-foot-tall alien tribe.

Professor Frommer’s modus operandi includes determining the sound of the language (deciding which sounds are included and pronunciation rules); the morphology (word-building rules); and the syntax (rules for combining words into phrases and sentences). It was also important to plan how the Na’vi culture would be reflected in the language.

Good language creators, Prof Frommer says, have a deep understanding of linguistic principles; knowledge of a wide variety of languages; sensitivity to the interplay between language, culture and environment; imagination and a clear idea of purpose – how and why will the language be used. Without a goal, Mr Peterson says, a language is “a jumble, with choices made seemingly at random”.

. . .

Science fiction and fantasy films inspire fierce devotion. Some fans have tattoos using the writing system Mr Peterson created for the sci-fi TV series Defiance. “That blows my mind,” he says.

Video games should be a rich source of work yet developers care more about the artwork and gaming than linguistic consistency, he says. However, he makes an exception for one game in development, which he declines to name.

Professional linguists can be rather sniffy about conlangers, although Prof Frommer insists conlangs “can serve as laboratories to test ideas about language”. Mr Peterson, who believes linguistic construction should be taught at school, sees television’s use of conlangs as educational. “People are coming to linguistics because they are interested in my work.”


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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