Tag Archives: HBO

Invented Languages from Hollywood to Bollywood

[Note from Patrick Cox: Hollywood and Bollywood compete (sort of) in language invention in this week’s podcast. Below is Saul Gonzalez’s post on an HBO-commissioned language]

Dothraki is a language spoken by fierce, fictional warriors in a far-off land. The language was invented closer to home by David J. Peterson, whose is neither fierce nor fictional. He lives in a studio apartment in Southern California.

Peterson is a U.C. Berkeley-trained linguist, He created Dothraki for HBO’s fantasy drama Game of Thrones. He works in the rarefied field of constructed languages. He and most people like him don’t just study languages. They make up new ones from scratch.

Peterson has invented a dozen languages, with names like Kamakawi and Njaama. He was creating his languages in relative obscurity when he heard that Hollywood had a gig for someone with this talents. HBO was looking for a someone to develop the language of Dothraki for Game of Thrones, adapted from the popular book series.

Peterson got the job. Starting with the books, which had a handful of Dothraki phrases, he went to work on a 300-page grammar and dictionary for the language.

The Dothraki portrayed in the books are “a natural, horse-riding, semi-barbarous people,” says Peterson. “They are nomadic…They hunt and they raid.”

Peterson says the TV series producers were looking for a language that embodied that aesthetic—something that would sound gruff but authentic.

People have been making up languages for centuries, often for philosophical or religious reasons. Probably the best known is Esperanto. It was invented in the 19th century with the idea that if everyone on the planet spoke the same language, they would all get along.

Later, Hollywood got into the created language act. Perhaps the most famous example is the invention of Klingon for the Star Trek movies. Klingon has since taken on a life of its own, with a small but dedicated group of speakers who have added hundreds of words and phrases to its vocabulary.

Na’vi is a more sophisticated language, with a wealth of grammatical rules. It was created for the movie Avatar by Paul Frommer of the University of Southern California. But because Dothraki was invented for a television series that could run for many seasons, it may end up having the widest vocabulary of any Hollywood language so far.

Peterson gave me a survival lesson in Dothraki. “If you want to greet some respectfully, you say Mathchumararoon.”

And then there are insults. Everyone, including TV producers, wants to know how say them. In Dothraki, the word ifak means a ‘walker’. “The Dothraki are a horse riding people,” says Peterson. “They respect people who ride horses. So, if someone is a walker they are not worthy of attention.”

Peterson concedes that there is a “rather vocal” minority of language inventors who believe there should be no created languages in movies and TV. They see language creation as a “private activity, something special to them. And the more people who know about it they less special it is.” But Peterson says most language inventors support his work for Hollywood.

And he’s doing more. His next project is to create two languages for a upcoming TV series for Syfy (formerly the Sci-Fi Channel).

Patrick Cox adds:

Bollywood’s contribution to language invention may be more modest. We don’t know too much yet about the language christened Gaalaguzi that is reportedly spoken in the upcoming movie Joker. Although invented for a movie in which aliens feature, it’s humans who speak it. These humans live in a remote, unmapped village. With India’s hundreds of minority languages, many of them spoken in remote villages, why invent a new one? Perhaps for legal reasons—or so that no-one can accuse the actors of mangling a beloved local tongue.

Related previous podcast episodes:

Interview with Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language.

The past, present and future of Esperanto.

A screening of Avatar in the Amazon to speakers of real endangered languages.



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Britain Today: Hoodied Looters, Language Tests, and a Cuss Box

London’s burning, again. There was the Great Fire of 1666. There was the Great Tedium, as documented by Joe Strummer and The Clash (“London’s burning with boredom now, London’s burning, Dial 99999”). And now there is the Great Looting Spree, in which the city is vandalized by people often described as “hooded youths”.

No-one in Britain seems satisfied with the state of the nation. There’s finger-pointing galore: at the looters, the police, the Murdoch press, the politicians, the footballer-celebrities. And, of course, at the immigrants.

As of late 2010 the UK requires applicants for some immigrant visas to take a proficiency test in the English language. If you want to settle in Britain, the logic goes, you should learn the language. Cities should not be multilingual mosaics. Everyone should speak the common language.

Try telling that to the 58-year-old Indian husband of Rashida Chapti. Chapti, a naturalized British citizen, was born in India. Her husband still llives there. Before the language requirement came into effect, securing a resident and work visa for her husband would have been virtually automatic, as it is in the many nations that have family reunification immigration policies. But in Britain, Chapti’s husband must now prove that he has a basic command of English.

Chapti’s husband lives in a remote village, more than 100 miles from the nearest city, where he could take English lessons. In any case, she says, he wouldn’t be able to afford the lessons. Chapti is suing the British government under the European Convention of Human Rights.

Also, in Britain, the town of Barnsley has starting fining people for swearing in public. Heck, yeah. Not sure how widely that’s being enforced amid the riots and looting (which, I hasten to add, have not spread to Barnsley).

In Alaska, meanwhile, no-one’s too worried about swearing. (I briefly lived in Alaska, where I learned a great deal about American English expletive usage.) Some Alaskan children are learning a language. But not English, which they already speak.

These kids are the American-born children of  Sudanese refugees. They  are learning their parents’ native Nuer language. Some may end up speaking it at home. Some may use it if they visit their parents’ homeland. Some may never use it outside their Anchorage classroom.

Finally in the pod this week, a conversation with Greg Barker, director of  Koran by Heart.This is the story of three children who take part in a competition to memorize and publicly recite the entire Koran.

Hearing the interview reminded me of an encounter I had a few years ago in Bangladesh. I visited a  madrassa, a religious school.  The school building was essentially a countryside shack.  Inside were a few tiny classrooms, each with a dozen or more students crammed inside.

I talked with several students, including one who told me of his primary educational goal: to memorize the Koran. He recited a lengthy segment of it for me– in Arabic, not his native tongue, Bengali. He’s the student on the far left in the picture below.

I talked to the head of the madrassa. He said that although this was a religious school, most parents who sent their kids here weren’t especially devout. The choice, like in so many parts of the world, was between underfunded, sub-par government schools and religious school like this one.


Listen to the podcast via iTunes or here.


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