Linguistic legend shocks area nerds with perfect Dothraki

A White Walker on Display during the launch of The Game of Thrones Touring Exhibition at the Titanic Exhibition centre in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. The exhibition is made up of authentic costumes, props and settings from seven seasons. (AP Photo)

AURORA | Even if you’ve never heard of David Peterson, chances are you’ve heard his words echo across the mythical lands of Essos and Westeros. 

Peterson has a strange but satisfying job. 

He’s famous for creating entire fictional lexicons and languages with alien rules and structures. The tongues are fluid and romantic, or halting and gruff. And if you’ve watched a wink of the blockbuster HBO series “Game of Thrones,” you’ve heard them through the lips of its star actors and actresses. 

Peterson, 38, recently arrived in Aurora for a fantasy and science fiction convention, Myths and Legends Con. He presided over the celebration of nerdom as its “linguistic guest of honor.” He’s a regular at such conventions. 

David J. Peterson

Once a community college instructor, Peterson has been invited as a guest lecturer on language creation to universities since his groundbreaking work on Game of Thrones. He has even critiqued Game of Thrones actors’ deliveries of his lines for a viral Vanity Fair video

Peterson’s expertise is now also in high demand, he says. 

He’s worked on over 20 shows and movies. That includes creating an elven language for “Thor: The Dark World” and alien languages for the TV show “Defiance.” But the crown jewell is his work on the forthcoming movie production of Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” the groundbreaking 1965 science fiction novel. 

His career started around 2000. Only, it wasn’t a career.  

As an amateur language creator in university classes, he started making tongues for “fun” and, and later, the Dothraki and Valyrian languages for Game of Thrones from scratch. 

Truly from scratch. 

The languages do not sound familiar and do not abide by the usual rules. Peterson created four noun genders in High Valyrian, the language of the learned in the Game of Thrones universe. (Three genders exist in German, including the neuter.) Its sentence structure is unfamiliar and uncanny.

For Dothraki, the language of a nomadic culture, Peterson has created about 4,000 individual words (compared to about 171,000 English words in use today, according to the Oxford Dictionary).

He himself speaks the language impressively. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a linguist, he meticulously pronounces words and intones phrases. 

Dothraki was also the key to his career in language creation. That’s not something he gravitated to as a career choice, he said, because there simply was no demand. It was unfathomable to him that he could earn money with it some day. 

That’s because creating an entire language was largely considered unnecessary in screen productions, Peterson said. Fictional languages are prominent in “The Lord of the Rings,” “Star Trek” and “Avatar,” but not much else. Screen writers would usually have aliens and mythical cultures employ English like other characters. 

He said that Game of Thrones creators felt the same way, until they saw how necessary languages would be for the series. 

The fictional universe is based upon a leviathan book series chronicling characters in two continents and countless cultures, all distinct. 

“They tried to do gibberish, and it didn’t work. It was terrible,” he said. 

Peterson earned the HBO gig about a decade ago by creating Dothraki in a contest. He explained drily that HBO paid him more in “exposure” than anything else, but the work opened many doors.

Even in Aurora. 

While Peterson spoke on Friday with The Sentinel at Myths and Legends Con, attendees dressed as video game characters and wizards wandered through the hushed halls of the Radisson Hotel. Multiple mermaids guarded one wing. At one point, a man walked by, adorned in flowing robes and a fake sword on his back. 

Peterson later sat on a panel conversation about fictional languages. (The venue was the “Old Valyria” wing, referencing a region in Game of Thrones. He’d created its language.)

Other panelists at the convention included an author of a novel series about vampiric cats, a self-described “Astral Scribe”, a woman who sings songs about Harry Potter and a man who says he helped send spiders into space.