Back in 2001, Andrew Garrett, now UC Berkeley’s linguistics department chair, had a promising student by the name of David J. Peterson in his undergraduate historical linguistics class. While Garrett was impressed and intrigued by Peterson’s penchant for inventing new languages, he lamented to himself that such interest was likely to remain a hobby rather than a career path.
But within four years of earning a master’s degree in linguistics at UC San Diego in 2005, Peterson was hired as a language creator for the warrior horsemen galloping across HBO’s Game of Thrones. “From there,” said Peterson, “I’ve worked on about a dozen other shows and movies. Language has become my entire life and my livelihood.”
‘Sons of California’ in Dothraki (first stanza)
Kish’ rizhi Kalifornya, Kisha qothakasar, Donaki Ka-li-for-ni-ya, Dothray najahheyaan, Hoyalaki asqoyif Azzhonathay visshiy Hajas zhey Ka-li-for-ni-ya, Zhey thelis, hoshori!
Among his non-HBO credits: the Syfy channel’s Defiance series, for which Peterson developed four full languages; MTV’s Shannara Chronicles; the CW’s The 100; Marvel’s Thor; NBC’s Emerald City; and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. For Game of Thrones, Peterson created both the Dothraki and High Valyrian languages.
Three years ago Peterson came out with Living Language Dothraki, a one-hour CD and 128-page official guide to the language, which he describes as most resembling a mix of Arabic and Spanish. In 2015, he published a guide to language construction, The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building, that traces the history of language creation and shares tools for inventing and evolving new languages.
Last fall, Garrett heard Peterson speak to the Society of Linguistics Undergraduate Students (SLUgS), a club that promotes linguistics and interaction among interested students. Around that time Garrett also attended a meeting of department chairs where someone mentioned a new course in film studies based on Game of Thrones.
A light bulb went off. Garrett approached Peterson about teaching at Berkeley. Peterson is now finalizing plans for his three-unit course, “The Linguistics of Game of Thrones and the Art of Language Invention,” which he will lead four days a week in the May 22-June 30 summer session.
A life changer
A co-founding member of the Language Creation Society, Peterson is excited to return to campus to share his passion for language creation, which caught fire his sophomore year at UC Berkeley 17 years ago in his very first linguistics class. The course changed his life, said Peterson, who quickly adjusted his major to include linguistics as well as English. He earned bachelor’s degrees in each in 2003.