The Dothraki Industry
On the continent of Essos, a nomadic people live on steppeland so boundless the expanse is a veritable ocean. It carries the nomads’ name, the Dothraki Sea. To cross this terrain to raid their enemies, the Dothraki use horses—as both transport and food for their warriors. Dothraki is derived from the word for “rider,” and the language has more than 30 words for horse and horse products: nerro, lame, chafi, jedda, sajo, vezh, manin. … Fresh horse meat is gavat; the dried variety is zhifikh. Fermented mare’s milk is lamekh. The main word for horse itself is hrazef. And there are hrazefs of different colors—cheyao, ocha, qhalan, messhih.
Whoa! (Affa in Dothraki.) If you are wondering what cosmos you’ve stumbled into, you aren’t one of the countless fans hooked on the violent, lascivious, melodramatic, completely addictive alternate universe in HBO’s four-year-old hit series, Game of Thrones. (It drew more than 19 million viewers a week during its 10-episode season last spring; Season 5 comes in April.) In 2009, David Peterson, co-founder of the Language Creation Society, invented new Dothraki words for the show’s pilot after winning a contest for the gig. He’s since started a blog where he discusses the language and how it’s taken on a life of its own. And for aficionados who already have a smattering of Dothraki from watching the show, Peterson and Living Language—a division of Random House—recently released a book-and-CD set ($19.99), a sort of immersion course on the language and culture of the nomads and their friends, enemies, and horses.
Dothraki isn’t likely to be on the curriculum at any college, but a small coterie of fans has emerged to talk up the language. Peterson hosts regular online conversations with devotees to discuss the finer points of Dothraki grammar. Tim Stoffel, a 54-year-old broadcast engineer from Reno, Nev., manages Dothraki.org, a website that offers lessons in both Dothraki and another Game of Thrones tongue, High Valyrian. He says he can carry on a conversation in Dothraki—he’s one of the few. My “interest is almost more scholarly than being a conversational speaker,” he explains.
The vocabulary, currently about 2,000 words, is extensive enough for people to have a simple conversation. More words are on their way—Peterson’s always working to improve and expand Dothraki. The Game of Thrones subculture emerged in a big way only after the HBO show premiered in April 2011, inspired by a series of books by George R.R. Martin. The Living Language volume that Peterson put together is a slim textbook. It has six chapters devoted to the nuts and bolts and includes basic expressions such as “How are you?” (Hash yer dothrae chek?; literally, “Do you ride well?”); “I’m fine” (Anha dothrak chek; literally, “I ride well”); and “Be cool!” (Dothras chek; literally, “Ride well”).
Fans who think that learning a language (old or invented) is too much of a chore can indulge in other aspects of Game of Thrones consumerism: scooping up branded clothes, jewelry, cookbooks, and toys. HBO’s online store carries more than 350 Game of Thrones-related items, and a search on Amazon.com brings up more than 18,000 results in the clothing, shoes, and jewelry section alone. In 2012 there was a surge in the number of babies named after two principal characters from the series—Khaleesi and Arya.
Ben Wood studies linguistics at Cal State Fullerton and spends his days trying to revitalize Native American languages before they die out. He speaks five languages besides English, including German. “I grew up hearing German because my mom is from Germany, and I can speak German without an accent,” he says. “I knew Dothraki existed for several years, but it never interested me until a couple of months ago. I thought I needed something crazy to do because I’m bored, so I might as well learn it and play with it a little.”
There may have been another inspiration. When Wood recently posted a video of himself speaking Dothraki on YouTube, the person he delighted the most was his mother. She’s a Game of Thrones loyalist. At the end of a good Dothraki conversation, she’d likely exclaim: Dothralates! “Let’s ride!”
The bottom line: There is a growing alternative universe of linguists drawn to a language invented for HBO’s Game of Thrones.