In the world of "Game of Thrones", High Valyrian is an ancient language from the Valyrian Freehold. At one stage the Valyrians held an empire that encompassed massive swathes of land. As a result, a version of the language known as “Low” Valyrian is still spoken in the region and in the nine Free Cities to the West (though each has its own distinct dialect and linguistic evolutions). The use of High Valyrian is now mainly limited to the clergy and the gentry, making Daenerys’s fluency a surprising but useful strategic tool. Unlike Dothraki, the vocabulary created for the books was limited to a handful of words and phrases, making its realization an exciting challenge for linguist David J. Peterson.
George RR Martin (co-executive producer and author): I really have to give David Peterson 95% of the credit on the languages. Tolkien was a world-class linguist, and even before he was writing Lord of the Rings, he created not one but two elvish languages. He also created the language of the dwarves, Westernesse, and Númenor—he loved creating fantasy languages. His true heir, in that sense, is absolutely David Peterson. I’m not a linguist. I don’t speak Old Norse or Old English the way that Tolkien did. When my books go out internationally, I rely on translators. For me it’s like a conjurer’s trick—I create a few words and try and give it a particular flavor. Then I just write the line and add “Daenerys said in High Valyrian.” Of course, you can’t do that on a show. I used to get letters, before the show came out, from language enthusiasts who were asking about vocabulary and syntax for High Valyrian. I’d have to write back and say, “Sorry, fella, I’ve only invented seven words of it, and when I need an eighth, I’ll come up with that.” This is definitely a case of the show picking up the ball and running with it far further than I would have been able to go.
David J. Peterson (linguist): In much the same way as I began with the Dothraki language, my first step with Valyrian was to pull all the words George had created from the texts. This took much less time than with Dothraki because, other than valar morghulis, valar dohaeris, and the words for “little brother,” there were really only a few stray ones. Anyone who has read the books knows how memorable and strong they are as phrases, so it didn’t take long to gather them. I didn’t want to start with valar morghulis, as that would take us into the complexities of all the grammar. I knew that George wanted High Valyrian to inhabit the same place in their society that Latin does in ours. Aside from that, I tried to collect all the names that were either definitely Valyrian or looked Valyrian in shape.
The names proved to be quite useful. In fact, I started with the names, broke down all the common endings of each of them, and used them to work out all the noun classifications with a certain number of fixated endings. From that I was able to generate a gender system, but unlike Latin with just masculine, feminine, and neuter, I decided to do something a bit more fun. Based originally on an older split between animate and inanimate nouns, where both came in two varieties, I created a four-gender system, which became the solar, lunar, terrestrial, and aquatic genders. Certain characteristic nouns that fall into those classifications—like some of the more common irregular nouns, like in solar the word for sun and in lunar the word for moon—those became the paradigms for those genders. That starting point was definitely where the most help came from the books.
In effect, there are actually two versions of High Valyrian. There are people who still speak it, like Daenerys, but she doesn’t quite pronounce it the way that they would have back when it was the actual language. In fact, it almost exists grammatically closer to the old language than it would have in the Valyrian Freehold before the destruction. Back then, they would have just been speaking the language, and it would have changed and evolved. The idea is that the Targaryen line wanted to keep the language pure, so they would have kept away from changes that other Valyrian lines would have been using so it’s not grammatically altered. At the same time it doesn’t reflect the reality of the language as it would have been. She’s effectively representing a snapshot of a destroyed empire.
In contrast, the radical changes that you see in Low Valyrian in particular are the ones you hear spoken in and around Slaver’s Bay. They can all understand each other, though the language of Yunkai and Astapor are much closer to each other than to the language of Meereen. The comparison would perhaps be the difference between someone speaking with a thick Scottish accent compared to someone from New England. For Daenerys, the language in Meereen would be near impenetrable; it’s just too different. I had a lot of fun creating both the original language and the descendant version, one that would be related in the same way that Latin would be to Spanish. It’s not something we’ve really ever had a chance to see before. If you look at Tolkien’s work, we never saw the most ancient versions of the language in the actual books, only the descendants.
Jacob Anderson (Grey Worm): At the start it seemed almost impossible. I remember looking at the first email from David Peterson with MP3s, thinking, “How am I going to do this?” In the beginning I thought I could maybe just copy what he was saying, but I quickly realised that was not going to work. You have to know what he’s saying, and I wanted to know what he was saying. It’s another challenge again to work out what each word means, what the vowel sounds are, where the emphasis is. It’s the biggest challenge I’ve had, but it’s fun.
David J. Peterson: Jacob Anderson is without a doubt the best performer I have ever seen when it comes to working with a created language. Literally, of everything I have seen or worked on, he is the best I have ever come across. I was also really taken by Emilia Clarke, who did such an amazing job with the intonations. This is a language that has a very distinct rhythm that is quite different from Dothraki, and she just nails it. The way she puts it together, it sounds like full sentences and clauses and in precisely the right way. That’s the main thing the actor has to do with a created language to really sell it.
Inside HBO's Game of Thrones: Seasons 3 & 4 by CA Taylor, David Benioff, DB Weiss and George RR Martin is out this week from Gollancz for £20.