“I amar prestar aen, han mathon ne nen, han mathon ne chae a han noston ned ’wilith.”
“The world has changed; I can feel it in the water, I can feel it in the earth; I can smell it in the air.”
—Galadriel, opening narration of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (film), Sindarin Elvish
Time was, if you were creating a fantasy or sci-fi world in film or TV, you could simply make up some lines using sounds that English speakers didn’t hear much and get away with few people noticing or caring.
Now, if you want a truly immersive story, you need to hire someone to create not just one but several languages for your project, thoughtfully consider which scenes will and won’t use those languages, and make sure the actors you hire can sound convincing when they deliver lines in those languages.
The bigger shows and movies that use these constructed languages, or conlangs — your Game of Throneses, your Star Treks — may not seem like much of a trend in and of themselves. But there are also shows like The CW’s The 100, AMC’s Into the Badlands, and likely Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings series; movies like Netflix’s Bright; and dozens of other productions in both the recent past and near future that feature at least a few lines spoken in a language created solely for their specific characters and worlds.
Conlangs are officially a Pop Culture Thing. Part of the deluge seems to stem from audiences’ never-ending quest for “authenticity,” the desire for meticulous televisual world building. And film and TV creators have adopted a similar mindset — a yearning for verisimilitude that extends all the way to shelling out to have new languages written, even as natural languages are disappearing at the rate of one every two weeks.
But when, and how, did we get here?
Conlang creation in Hollywood has exploded over the past decade
While most people’s minds race to Star Trek’s Klingon when thinking of pop culture conlangs, the modern roots lie in J.R.R. Tolkien’s world of Middle-earth — specifically, the two different kinds of Elvish he began creating in the 1910s, and the histories he wrote to explain why there were two of them.
Still, conlangs had a long way to go before reaching their current level of permeation. Klingon, created in the 1980s by Star Trek producer Marc Okrand, was for a long time treated as a punchline, despite a devoted fan base and speakers.
Then the Lord of the Rings movies made billions of dollars and won Oscars in the early 2000s, showing that a nerdy element like a fictional tongue wasn’t exactly a turn-off for audiences — that a fully realized invented language, with a real grammar, syntax, and a vocabulary of thousands of words, could be an asset. The opening lines of the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, were spoken in a conlang — as the royal elf Galadriel delivered a monologue partly in Sindarin Elvish — marking an important turning point.
David J. Peterson, who created Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones and has written two books on conlangs, also credits the box office success of 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, a movie entirely in Aramaic — not a conlang but a dead language unrecognizable to its audience.
Peterson’s theory is that The Passion, which grossed around $610 million worldwide, convinced Hollywood that audiences were more willing to sit through stretches of dialogue in unfamiliar languages than previously thought. “There was a sense of, not only will people tolerate this, but they will pay for it and enjoy it,” Peterson says.
Then came Avatar in 2009, with its fully realized Na’vi language, and Game of Thrones in 2011 with its khals and Valyrian-speaking priestesses. Suddenly, conlangs were a vital storytelling tool, judging by the 60 productions that have contacted Peterson to inquire about him creating one since Game of Thrones put him on the professional conlanging map.
But getting from “We should have a language made” to Khal Drogo’s blood-stirring Dothraki speeches is not simple.
Conlangs are key to building fictional worlds that feel real
Rockne S. O’Bannon was developing a show about aliens on Earth called Defiance when he realized that his series, which ran for three seasons on Syfy between in 2013 and 2015, needed a conlang. Actually, more than one: There were a few kinds of aliens in the world of Defiance, which required the creation of two languages right from the start, with more to follow.
”Verisimilitude was important to us,” O’Bannon says. “But I didn’t know anything about glottal stops or nasal consonants.”
So he turned to Peterson — who definitely knows about glottal stops and nasal consonants — to create the languages needed for not just the show but also the massively multiplayer online game that took place in the same universe.
It’s an investment that O’Bannon doesn’t question at all. “You can’t leave it up to the actors to make up nonsense, because it also has to match what other people say,” he says. And it would wreck the show’s credibility to have aliens, even those who have been on Earth for decades, speak only English.
“A language never gets more real than when we speak it,” Peterson said in a 2013 TED talk. “If it’s used in a television show or a film, anybody can sit there, write down what’s said, and analyze it to see if it’s systematic, or if it’s just gibberish. ... There is no ‘stage’ version of a language. To create an authentic-sounding language, one needs to employ an authentic methodology.”
How to create a conlang
Peterson’s background was in linguistics; he has a master’s degree in the subject from UC San Diego. His path to conlanging for film and TV was paved in part by co-founding the Language Creation Society, a nonprofit organization composed of thousands of members that runs the world’s only international conference devoted solely to conlanging. Through this group, Peterson met Arika Okrent, author of the revered conlang tome In the Land of Invented Languages, who pointed the Game of Thrones showrunners in Peterson’s direction.
According to Peterson, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss originally had Dothraki characters speaking gibberish during the casting process; George R.R. Martin’s book series contained a few snippets of Dothraki, but Benioff and Weiss quickly realized there wasn’t enough to fill out entire scenes onscreen, and they couldn’t just make things up as they went along. They needed someone who could build off the books to create a real language.
From there, Peterson’s career was born. Today, he breathes the rarified air of conlangers with some fame, alongside Paul Frommer, the creator of Na’vi, and Okrand, creator of Klingon.
Peterson says he has a more or less standard language starter pack he charges for, then works with the production for as-needed translations. His rate can range from $500 for simple work to six figures for a fully developed language. (Creating a writing system is extra, but it’s also Peterson’s favorite thing to do.)
”If you just have some place names, you don’t need a whole language,” he says. “But if you’ve got so much as one whole clause? You need a whole language.”
That’s because a whole clause implies the existence of some kind of grammar. Writers need to know how the words should be ordered, and why. They need to know, at the very least, how the verbs are conjugated, whether the nouns change depending on their function in the sentence, and what the sound system is.
To create the Dothraki language, Peterson started by looking at the Dothraki culture as it’s presented in the Game of Thrones books, then began to “shape a lexicon that would represent it.”
The Dothraki are nomadic warriors who travel on horseback; the imagery is woven into the way they talk about all sorts of things. In the scene below, as Khal Drogo prepares for a fight, he calls his unborn child “the stallion who will mount the world” and refers to ships as “wooden horses” that ride across water:
Peterson has also drawn from the Dothraki culture to give the language its unique characteristics. Because the Dothraki language is oral, with no writing system, there’s no native word for “book.” They also lack a word for “thank you.”
These elements mimic the quirks of natural languages: Finnish has one genderless pronoun for the singular third person (whereas in English, we have “he” and “she”); Russian uses the same word for both “please” and “you’re welcome.” That doesn’t mean Finns are gender-blind, or that Russians can’t distinguish between asking for something and receiving it — but such differences can be indicative of what a culture emphasizes (or doesn’t).
Similarly, not having a native Dothraki word for “book” doesn’t mean that the Dothraki don’t understand books or the concept of reading. So Peterson had Dothraki “borrow” these words from another of Game of Thrones’ languages, High Valyrian, in keeping with the way natural languages borrow words all the time.
Peterson expands on that concept in this video, explaining how the culture behind a language can determine everything from the presence of specific words to how insults are conceived:
Once the language has been created, translation of a project’s script can begin. Typically, writers will write entirely in English and send the scenes requiring translation to Peterson — which sounds straightforward, but even that process can be hindered by writers who are looking for an exact, one-to-one rendering of the lines they’ve written.
“In English, we pack so much into each syllable,” Peterson says. “English speakers don’t understand this. So much is inferred or dropped.” Sentence lengths are going to be different, and there just isn’t going to be a word-to-word correlation, which can disrupt the rhythm and timing of a scene. Note the differences in length and rhythm between the English subtitles and the dialogue being spoken in this video:
For actors, learning to speak a conlang is like learning to speak any other language
Acting in a different language — particularly if you’re supposed to sound like a native speaker — can take some getting used to.
Adina Porter, who plays a leader of a group of people left on Earth after a nuclear apocalypse in The CW’s The 100, recalls panicking when being given a script in which her character speaks in Trigedasleng, the native language of her people. (Trig, as it’s often referred to, is another Peterson creation.)
”I didn’t know when I was cast that they were going to be creating another language,” she says. “I remember being quite shocked when I was up in Vancouver and being told, ‘We’re going to send you some words in the Grounder language.’”
A dialect coach can help a tongue-tied actor, though having one on hand is not a particularly common practice. Game of Thrones has one, but many other productions, including The 100, don’t. Dialect coach Erik Singer considers it essential, however — particularly in genres with fans whom we might call heavily engaged (i.e., quick to voice outrage over the smallest perceived error).
For Singer, while the bar for speaking a conlang correctly is perhaps slightly lower than, say, successfully faking a posh British accent, the goal is the same: to give an actor the ability to perform without consciously worrying about whether they’re getting the basic sounds right. Getting to that place can take months of work.
To help ease Defiance’s actors into their conlangs, O’Bannon would generally start off their characters with what he calls “handholds” — simple cultural terms, slang, insults — before dumping a bunch of conlang lines on them.
“The other thing that made things maybe a little easier was making the dialogue in the language more emotional,” he adds. “The more emotionally charged or heightened, the easier it is to get an actor out of their own head. It’s easier to get the rhythm with real emotion or energy.”
Porter laughs, thinking of her initial panic: “It’s already kind of a scary thing, reading phonetics. And then to have to act with that?” But after she mastered the sound system and the particular musicality of Trig, Porter says she felt a deeper connection to her character.
”It did affect how I spoke English [while in character],” Porter says. “It became more formal” — the classroom, by-the-book kind of English you’d learn as a second language. Porter has even suggested, in certain scenes, that she say certain lines in Trig rather than English, as they’ve been written. That generally involves a phone call or frantic email to Peterson for a translation. Sometimes, Porter says, there just isn’t time, or the producer says it needs to be in English.
But in one case, she got her wish. “It was a banquet scene and we were under attack,” Porter recalls. “My character was calling out commands in English, and that just didn’t feel right. Trig is her birth language; her instinct would be to use that.” So producers pulled in Peterson and got the translation, and the scene ended up feeling a lot more natural — like an actual attack on unprepared characters.
Conlangs are a living, breathing art form that continue to evolve offscreen
The motivation behind any pop culture conlang comes down to wanting to tell the best version possible of a story. A conlang can also tie fans to the story more tightly, and offer a form of life and legacy beyond books or sequels.
But what happens when a conlang starts to find a foothold in the real world? Once a conlang is spoken by a dozen or more people, can its creator tell those speakers that the new words they’re adding are wrong?
Peterson does feel a sense of ownership over his creations, but he doesn’t take a prescriptivist approach. “Let’s say, for whatever reason, I was fired from Game of Thrones before the last season and they had a fan do the translation, and that fan added a bunch of words and maybe used the grammar differently,” he says. “Obviously, I would be upset for the lost income and respect, but in terms of the language, it would be up to fans who use the language to decide if the new material ‘counted’ as Valyrian or not.”
In other words: A language, more than any book or film or painting, is meant to be a living thing, a shared method of communication. Much of the beauty of language lies in how individual speakers bend its rules and make their own contributions, and all of these conlangs have shown they have lives outside their onscreen worlds. High Valyrian is now available on Duolingo. Star Trek fans have translated Hamlet into Klingon and staged productions. Na’vi speakers congregate at Avatar conventions. And Peterson is constantly fielding requests for translations from fans who want tattoos in Trigedasleng (from The 100) or Irathient (from Defiance).
It’s easy for fans to take conlangs for granted, too — Peterson often hears grumbling from Game of Thrones fans, in particular, who are irked by translations of certain prophecies from the books. But beneath every conlang lie complex layers of decision-making and craft. All so that you can mutter, “Zaldrīzes buzdari iksos daor,” when your boss asks you to work over the weekend (“A dragon is not a slave,” in Valyrian), and feel less like a put-upon cog and just a bit more like a khaleesi.