Monthly Archives: October 2011

Accents in Dothraki

Today’s topic was suggested by ingsve over at the Dothraki fora, but it comes originally from Blizzard over at Westeros.org. Blizzard writes (in the Requests thread of the Dothraki subforum):

How the Dothraki would pronounce the words of the westerosi houses? Or “Where is my horse?”

Well, the latter’s pretty simple: Finne sajo anni? But the former is today’s topic—specifically, Dothraki-accented English.

When I put together my initial proposal for Dothraki, I included materials for how an English speaker would pronounce Dothraki, and also materials for how a native Dothraki speaker would pronounce English (or Common). I’ll be drawing primarily from that document here.

All speakers are different, of course, and as I’ve mentioned at other times, it seems likely that the Dothraki spoken by different khalasars would differ from each other in more or less consistent ways, but with the Dothraki accent I had in mind, I came up with three different pronunciations for three different levels of fluency. I call these the Thick Dothraki Accent; the Middling Dothraki Accent; and the Non-Native Fluent Dothraki Accent.

Regarding word choice, there are a number of things that could be said about changes that are made by less-than-fluent English speakers with Dothraki as a native language (e.g. dropping articles, mixing up the gender of third person pronouns, etc.), but I don’t want this post to be too long, so I’ll focus on pronunciation. Here are some of the phonetic characteristics of Dothraki-accented English:

  • The English “r” ([ɹ] in my dialect) is one of the most difficult sounds for any non-English-speaker to pronounce. It seems likely that none but the most fluent speaker would ever master it, replacing it with the tapped or trilled Dothraki r.
  • A Dothraki speaker will inconsistently produce a distinction between English “f” and “p” and English “v” and “b”. They can hear the difference, of course, and produce it, but the pairs don’t distinguish meaning in Dothraki, so a Dothraki speaker is unlikely to treat the distinction as an important one.
  • Diphthongs are uncommon, at best, in Dothraki, so the common diphthongs of English will likely be broken into two vowel sequences (e.g. “lice” might come out as lais rather than lays).
  • No Dothraki word ends in g, p, b, q or w. English words that end in (well, the first three of) these sounds will have an epenthetic e attached to the end. Additionally, words that begin with “s” plus some consonant will have an epenthetic e attached to the front (much like Spanish).
  • The epenthetic e will also break up long word-internal clusters foreign to Dothraki. So a word like “kingsguard” would probably be pronounced kin-gess-guard.
  • The large vowel system of English will be radically simplified in Dothraki-accented English. For example, in English we’d distinguish between “who’d”, “hood”, “hoed” and “hawed” (if you’re from the East Coast). In Dothraki, they’d all probably come out the same—or, at least, would be produced inconsistently.
  • The alveolar obstruents “t”, “d”, “n” and “l” will be pronounced dentally, as they are in Dothraki. In addition, the voiced version of English “th” (i.e. the “th” in “that”, “this” and “thou”; not the unvoiced one in “thing”, “thin” and “think”) would be pronounced as a Dothraki d. [Note: A native English speaker would likely not hear the difference, as what is supposed to be a fricative in English is often produced as a dental stop—much like the Dothraki d.]
  • No words in Dothraki begin with a w. For English words that do, the sequence “w” + vowel will probably be rendered as a two vowel sequence beginning with o.
  • Finally, as Dothraki stress is regular (not lexical), unfamiliar words will likely be stressed with the Dothraki stress pattern (e.g. “backpack” would get stressed on the second syllable). For the many words of English that have penultimate stress, a coda consonant will likely be lengthened to produce a situation where Dothraki would also have penultimate stress (for example, the r in the name “Viserys”, which we stress on the second syllable, would likely be doubled in an attempt to reproduce the conditions for penultimate stress).

Okay! That’s a long list and might be a bit opaque, so the best thing to do would be to actually hear the difference. To illustrate, I’ll read the following short passage from the prologue of A Game of Thrones:

His heart stopped in his chest. For a moment he dared not breathe. Moonlight shone down on the clearing, the ashes of the firepit, the snow-covered lean-to, the great rock, the little half-frozen stream. Everything was just as it had been a few hours ago.

For the purposes of comparison, here it is first in my ordinary reading voice:

Now here it is with a Thick Dothraki Accent:

Now with a Middling Dothraki Accent:

And finally, the Non-Native Fluent Dothraki Accent:

That should give you an idea about how one would pronounce English with a Dothraki accent. Now to the meat of Blizzard’s original question: How would you pronounce the words of the Westerosi houses? That’s kind of a tough one unravel. Is it just how are the houses themselves pronounced with a Dothraki accent? The houses and their words (i.e. their slogans or mottoes)? Or how would they all be translated into Dothraki? I wasn’t sure, so I just recorded a number of the house names themselves. If the words are wanted, I can do those later. Here are some of the most prominent houses:

House Stark:

House Baratheon:

House Targaryen:

House Lannister:

House Tully:

House Arryn:

House Tyrell:

House Martell:

House Tarly:

House Greyjoy:

House Royce:

Now that I’m thinking about it, it seems more likely that the original poster was asking about having the house mottoes translated into Dothraki… Oh well. At the very least, here’s House Targaryen’s motto: Vorsa ma Qoy, “Fire and Blood”. A pretty cool slogan, though I do like the motto of House Plumm: Come Try Me! Heh, heh…

Citation Form

I got a question from Hrakkar which begins:

This thread brings up a good question: What is ‘lexical form’ for Dothraki?

To read the full question, go here. Basically, I think there’s two questions here:

  1. What is the citation or dictionary form of a given Dothraki word?
  2. What is the bare stem in Dothraki?

I’ll try to answer both questions.

To begin to answer both of them, first I’ll go over how the language is built. There are many different ways to build a language (and by “build” here I don’t mean construct so much as build up, or flesh out), and I’ve used different methods for different languages. Two different methods can be illustrated by glancing at the dictionaries of two of my other languages: Kamakawi and Zhyler.

Kamakawi is a language that is largely isolating with some agglutination. There’s no stem-internal alternation, and its writing system is glyphic and isolating (somewhat akin to Egyptian hieroglyphs). As such, each word kind of stands on its own. There are relationships between words, of course, but since many word forms can be used as verbs, nouns or adjectives, listing words separately makes more sense than listing them together. Here’s a sample of a page from my Kamakawi dictionary:

Part of a page from the Kamakawi dictionary.

Click to enlarge.

As you can see, in Kamakawi’s dictionary a single word is used as the head of each entry, and related words that differ in form get a new entry.

Zhyler is quite different. The script is alphabetic (and was meant to approximate the appearance of Latin), and Zhyler words (both verbs and nouns) are built off of a number of noun classes. Consequently, a single root will have somewhere between 3 and 17 forms associated with it whose phonological form is predictable, and whose meaning is often partially predictable. Here’s a sample of the dictionary that’s about the same size as the Kamakawi sample:

A sample of the Zhyler dictionary.

Click to enlarge.

Each root, then, gets its own entry, and words derived from that root (usually via noun class suffix) is listed under that entry. The idea for this type of dictionary came from Arabic, whose dictionaries are ordered alphabetically by triconsonantal root (which, if you know Arabic, makes a lot of sense).

As I think I mentioned somewhere, Dothraki is built in the same way Zhyler is (I like to think of Dothraki as being run on a Zhyler engine). Even though the languages are radically different, I flesh Dothraki out in the same way I flesh Zhyler out: by starting with a root and deriving words from it.

The reason this works well for me is that even though Dothraki doesn’t have noun classes the way Zhyler does (Zhyler has 17; Dothraki nouns, rather, fall into one of two broad classes: animate or inanimate), separate word forms tend to look different from one another, and are built in unpredictable ways. This is on account of Dothraki’s “pseudo-classes”, as I like to call them. Final vowels in Dothraki often serve no function other than to distinguish words from one another (one can easily imagine them dropping off some time in the future, as many word-final central vowels did previously).

Here’s one quick example using the root em:

  • emat (v.A) to smile
  • eme (ni.A) smile

A smile is, undoubtedly, related to the verb “smile” in some logical way. The final vowel -e though doesn’t define a process that takes one from a verb to a noun that describes an instance of a particular verb: It’s just a vowel used with this particular root for that function. Here, for example, are two other roots where this pattern doesn’t hold. First, the root yanqo:

  • yanqolat (v.A) to gather, to collect
  • yanqokh (ni.A) collection

That latter is a particular collection of something, not the act of collecting something. The next root is gach:

  • gachat (v.A) to figure out, to solve
  • gache (ni.A) place, environs

Many of these final vowels for inanimate nouns, then, form these pseudo-classes that have nothing in common with each other other than form (though there are patterns that hold if one considers a subset of the lexicon). By grouping such words under a single root, one can see how a given root has been fleshed out, and a single word will often make more sense in the context of its root than outside that context.

Another reason grouping words together by root makes more sense for Dothraki is that often words are not derived from one another, but derived directly from the root. As such, related words may have definitions that don’t look anything alike. By grouping them under the root, it’s easy to see that, ultimately, they come from the same source.

In my response to Hrakkar‘s comment I said this was going to be quick, so I’d better wrap this up. So now that we’ve seen what the dictionary looks like, more or less, I can answer the first question I posed above. In Dothraki, the various word types have the following citation forms:

  • Nouns: nominative singular.
  • Adjectives: singular uninflected.
  • Verbs: infinitive.
  • Other: maximal form.

That latter really only applies to prepositions like ma which can appear as m’ if they occur before a word that begins with a vowel. Anyway, those are the citation forms for each word, but they don’t tell the whole story. It’s important that (in my dictionary, at least) words are listed with their associated roots. Consider the following verbs (in their infinitive forms):

  • hoyalat (v.A) to sing
  • indelat (v.A) to drink

One of these roots ends in a vowel; the other ends in l. Can you tell which is which? Absent of some other mechanism (like a hyphen or a period), there’s no way. However, if you know the root of hoyalat is hoyal and the root of indelat is inde, then by simply having the infinitive, one can fill out the rest of the verbal paradigm.

Aside from that, the reason I chose the infinitive as the citation form for verbs is that it’s fairly stable. In most cases, the singular past tense of a verb will be the simplest form of the verb, but it will often look like another word form (for example, haqe is an adjective which means “tired”; it’s also the past tense singular of the verb haqat, which means “to be tired”). For that reason, it makes more sense to use the infinitive which will (almost) always be unique.

Other languages, though, do things differently. In Arabic, for example, the citation form of the verb is always the third person singular masculine past tense. That may seem downright absurd unless you know what verbs in Arabic look like. Here’s a partial paradigm of kataba, “to write”:

Present Tense Past Tense
‘aktub “I write” naktub “we write” katabtuu “I wrote” katabnaa “we wrote”
taktub “you(m.) write” taktubuun “you(m.pl.) write” katabta “you(m.) wrote” katabtum “you(m.pl.) wrote”
taktubiin “you(f.) write” taktubna “you(f.pl.) write” katabti “you(f.) wrote” katabtunna “you(f.pl.) wrote”
yaktub “he writes” yaktubuun “they(m.) write” kataba “he wrote” katabuu “they(m.) wrote”
taktub “she writes” yaktubna “they(f.) write” katabat “she wrote” katabna “they(f.) wrote”

Bearing in mind that the non-finite forms for a verb in Arabic often look radically different going from verb to verb, the third person masculine singular past tense form (which, given Arabic’s writing system, is written with just the three consonants of the root) is the obvious choice for representing the verb—plus, that form (CaCaCa, where C stands for a consonant) doesn’t occur anywhere else in the language (say, as a noun). It was made for dictionaries.

For Dothraki (to finish up the discussion of verbs), if you don’t list the root, it’s probably best to set off the infinitive suffix from the root (e.g. inde.lat and hoyal.at). Since Hrakkar brought up the Dothraki vocabulary list on the wiki, though, one can achieve the same effect by also listing the past tense singular form of the verb. The reason is that the past tense will be either the bare root, or the bare root plus -e. By comparing the infinitive and the past tense, then, one will know for sure what the root is.

For nouns, in addition to knowing whether a noun is animate or inanimate, one will also need to know a couple pieces of extra information (for some nouns, at least). For inanimate nouns ending in a vowel, there are two broad classes which I call A and B. Class A nouns lose their final vowel in the accusative; class B nouns take an -e in the accusative. Certain other nouns will have a modified accusative form (so the accusative of tolorro, “bone”, is tolor).

And (a bit of new information), there are also a very small number of irregular animate nouns. These nouns all end in i (actually a vowel followed by i). These take vowel-final animate noun case endings in all cases, but in the accusative, the i becomes a y. One noun like this is mai, “mother” (so the nominative plural is maisi, but the accusative plural is mayes).

All right, this short response has gotten unruly and taken up much more space than I intended, so I will cut it off here. If you have questions about any of the above, feel free to ask in the comments. If you’ve read this far, you’re a real davrasok. Hajas!