David J. Peterson
Photo by Jake Reinig

David J. Peterson: “Does it fit the culture?”

Short Profile

Name: David Joshua Peterson
DOB: 20 January 1981
Place of birth: Long Beach, California, United States
Occupation: Language creator, author

Mr. Peterson, as the language creator for productions like Game of Thrones, Thor: The Dark World, and Doctor Strange, what would you say makes a fictional language convincing?

Well, to start, the sound of it has to be convincing. And then also, the actors have to, not necessarily believe it but they have to get the feeling of it as if they speak this language very well. Part of that is the performance, and part of that is the construction: in order for it to be a believable language it has to have a believable intonational pattern, it has to work grammatically even if that's not something that anybody can tell just by listening to it. Going further, there’s also consistency so that one word means the same thing from line to line. And even beyond that is functionality: does it have a full and complete grammar, does it have all the words to convey any possible meaning?

But so far these standards could also apply to English — are there also considerations for what makes an invented language unique?

That’s absolutely right, functionality is a bit of a low bar to clear because beyond that, there is of course originality. As you mentioned, you could just rework the English language and it would be both consistent and functional but it wouldn't be original. So then a step beyond originality is authenticity. In other words, does this thing make sense as something that might have evolved for the speakers in the show? Not just does it fit the culture but could it actually pass a test of being a natural language?

“I'm not perfect and every so often I make mistakes… And believe me, if there's anybody that's going to catch mistakes, it's fans that care.”

Are there TV or film languages that haven’t passed that test, in your opinion?

When it comes to gibberish, it has a place I think. If you just have one line of something, just one line, even if it's subtitled, you don't need anything special for that. One of the positive examples of gibberish I think is Disney's Lilo & Stitch. There's a wonderful scene in the beginning, when Stitch is being put on trial and they asked him basically to justify his existence. They say to Stitch, "What can you show us to prove that there is some good in you?" And Stitch says something in an alien language, it's just gibberish and it's not subtitled so the audience has no idea what he said. But it sparks reactions of such horror from everybody at the trial that you know it just had to be something awful.

It’s almost better that the audience doesn’t know what he said.

Right because whatever it was, your imagination is going to be able to come up with something much worse and that just makes it funnier. Now conversely, in Return of the Jedi, there's a scene at the very beginning where Leia is coming with Chewbacca to bargain for Han Solo, who's frozen in carbonite. You don't know it's Leia, she's dressed up as a bounty hunter. She has a small exchange with Jabba the Hutt, she says basically the same three things over and over, but they have radically different translations in the subtitles. It just couldn’t possibly work. And that’s something that anybody could pick up if they were paying attention.

And these days, most fandoms are incredibly passionate, even to the point of obsession; it must mean you have to be extra careful to craft a language that lives up to their standard because they would easily pick up on any mistakes.

It's interesting because of course, before Game of Thrones started, for example, George R. R. Martin's books had a very big fandom for a fantasy series that had never been filmed. Fandoms can get very interested in details, and I'd kind of imagined that that would be the case — so I wanted to be sure that everything I created would stand up to scrutiny. To me, that level of interest in the details is not surprising at all.

How come?

Because I’m that type of person! If I hadn’t been hired to create Dothraki and High Valyrian, it would be something that I would want to look at just because I guess language creators are very interested in other people's languages. We love looking into details like that.

In one of your Reddit AMAs, someone asked a very specific question about the pronunciation of a certain sound or letter in High Valyrian — it’s pretty fascinating how deep into the language fans can go. You can even learn High Valyrian on Duolingo.

(Laughs) It’s really nice because before the Duolingo thing, there weren't as many people interested in the languages that I was creating. And sometimes it's frustrating now that people can learn the language so easily because of course, I'm not perfect and every so often I make mistakes… And believe me, if there's anybody that's going to catch mistakes, it's fans that care. That's always frustrating, it's like, "Ah, crap. Yeah, that shouldn't have been that way, and that's on me." I can't blame it on the actor!

“The moment you create a word for anything, you've already prescribed some of what not only the culture is, but who the speakers are and what they are like.”

What is it like for you to see an actor bring to life the language you’ve created?

I've had a lot of different experiences with actors using my languages and the vast majority of them have been very good — and some of them have just been exceptional. The one that stands out to me is Nichole Galicia on the series Defiance. She was one of the speakers of a new language that I was creating just for the third season, and she put in so much effort into getting things perfect and was constantly asking me for feedback to get things right, even having me translate other English lines to expand the role. It was extraordinary.

You once said that the first step in inventing a new language is to ask yourself why you’re doing this. What other questions do you ask yourself during that process?

Well, the problem with creating language is that the first thing people will think of is, "If you're creating a language, what's the word for whatever going to be?" And the thing is, the moment you create a word for anything, you've already prescribed some of what not only the culture is, but who the speakers are and what they are like. Imagine if you were working on Arrival and you started to create some words for these characters and you created a word for book, you have to ask yourself, "Does that even make sense? Do these creatures even have books in the way that we do?” People will sometimes ask me things like, “What’s the Dothraki word for airplane?” (Laughs) Like, are you serious? It’s never going to exist.

Apparently you consider the first language you ever made to be a failure because looking back, you realized you were just reinventing English in a different way. Is it challenging to let go of your innate knowledge of language when you’re creating?

It's a challenge for all language creators, in fact. Not just distancing yourself from the knowledge of your native languages, but also the languages that you studied. I think many language creators go through a similar progression to what I did which is you create your first language and it is your baby and it's the best language that anybody on the earth has ever seen or heard of. And then you realize that's not the case! Then you go through a period of creating languages based on Turkish or one that’s really similar to Japanese or Portuguese… It’s a constant struggle, and you’re always wondering, “Am I doing this because this is what makes sense in my native language or am I doing it because it makes sense for this language that I'm creating right now?" The idea is that it just makes sense within the context of your language. Once you can create an entire language like that, that's really the goal.