When Nathalie Emmanuel’s final scene as Missandei on “Game of Thrones” hit screens, we collectively cheered through our tears. Even though her grisly death was the first truly shocking one in quite a few episodes -- we knew that OGs would bite it in the Battle of Winterfell, so Missandei’s demise was more emotional, I feel -- her last words were by far the best. Or, word: “Dracarys.”
This word meant little to us when Daenerys first uttered it in the second season of this show, after she birthed (hatched?) her dragons. Though context clues, we learned that it more or less communicated the act of fire-breathing.
When Missandei, who in the show was famously fluent in 19 languages, uttered “dracarys” six seasons later, it meant a lot more to the viewer than it did when Drogon was just a little baby. By then, Daenerys had used the command to ignite more than a few horrible people, and Missandei, who died at the hands of Cersei Lannister, meant it literally: burn them all to the ground.
Now, we use “dracarys” in daily language -- with the popularity of “Game of Thrones,” its fictional languages have seeped into our own vocabulary, and that takes a special talent. The Dothraki and Valyrian languages in GoT are just two examples of plenty of conlags (constructed languages) that linguists have made their life’s work.
David J. Peterson, the man behind the “Thrones” languages as well as those from “Thor: The Dark World,” SyFy’s “Defiance” and “Dominion” and The CW’s “The 100” and “Star-Crossed,” has studied over 20 languages throughout his career and started by drawing inspiration from George R.R. Martin’s books.
“I wanted to make sure I analyzed it for its sounds and its grammatical consistency,” he told the New York Post.
Creating an entirely new language from scratch, really, just takes a working knowledge of other languages and a creativity that isn’t cliche.
“My wife’s name always gets in there -- in Dothraki, her name is the word for kind: Erin,” Peterson said. “I recorded it the way it should be said exactly [for the show], then slowly, then in English.”
What’s more, Dr. Paul Frommer, the creator of the Na'vi language from “Avatar,” told Cracked that it's about having an ability to remove yourself from your own native language and work outside of its boundaries.
“Suppose you come up with a word for ‘long.’ Does it only refer to physical length, or can it be used for temporal length as well, as English does when we say ‘a long time’?” he explained. “Maybe it doubles as the word for ‘tall.’ Those answers aren't obvious; you need to determine such things if people are going to use the language accurately.”
Part of why Peterson is the most prominent name in the game at this point (and not just because he writes for the biggest show on television right now -- he told The Atlantic he now has full-time work as a language creator) is his ability to do just that. He thought of the history of his words, forming new and old versions depending on how the language would have been used, even coming up with words that would never see the light of day on the show.
It was a different approach to how past language creators had done it.
Marc Okrand, the linguist behind the Klignon language from “Stark Trek,” for example, operated on an as-needed basis; he used the handful of words that had appeared in previous franchise films as a guide and organized a glazed-over set of grammar rules, only creating the new words that the scripts called for. Once the crew encouraged it, though, he came out with a full Klignon dictionary.
It was a necessary step: Like Peterson quickly realized during “Game of Thrones,” gibberish won’t fly with today’s viewers. They’re paying closer attention and expect a certain amount of effort from showrunners and filmmakers, given high production values and budgets. Peterson would spend hours running lines with actors to get pronunciations correct, even if they’d still sometimes botch it on camera, as Emilia Clarke admitted to Seth Meyers.
“Learning a language is definitely not the same thing as creating a language,” Peterson told Wired. “I know that intuitively because I feel way more comfortable picking up and speaking Arabic than I do Dothraki, even though I would say I know Dothraki better.”
The fictional languages concocted in Hollywood these days are usually completely fleshed out, with accurate syntax and grammar across the board. While you may not find a word for “coffee” in High Valyrian, you bet that Daenerys wasn’t just screaming baby words when she rallied the Dothraki to her cause.
Even Minionese -- yes, the quirky little squeals from the yellow fellows in the “Despiscable Me” films -- is learnable.