Developing Canon

As we’re approaching the April 1st premiere of season 2 of Game of Thrones, I thought it’d be worthwhile to take a look back at the early days of Dothraki.

To start us off, let’s take a look at the Dothraki that existed in the books before I took a crack at it. Step number one was deciding how the words in the books would (and/or could and/or should) be pronounced. I came up with a solution (summarized here), but it wasn’t without controversy. In analyzing the words in the books, I held to the following principles:

  1. The spellings in the books are canon.
  2. Different spelling = different sound.
  3. The resultant phonology should be linguistically sound.
  4. The resultant phonology shouldn’t be too difficult for an English-speaking actor to pronounce.

As a result of the above, the hr in hranna is pronounced differently from the rh in rhaggat, and so forth. There were a couple of changes I made, though, and they’re worth discussing. One minor one was a spelling change that can be illustrated nicely with one name: Jhiqui.

That’s how her name is spelled in the book. I didn’t quite know what to make of jh when I first saw it. It contrasts with j by itself (consider haj and Jommo), which means that jh should be a different sound from j. Since the “h” in English tends to make stops into fricatives (cf. “t” > “th”) and move the place of fricatives towards the palate (cf. “s” > “sh”), I thought it’d be reasonable to assume that jh stood for a voiced palato-alveolar fricative ([ʒ], like the “z” in “azure”). I may have been influenced by the fact that [ʒ] is my favorite sound, but I still think the supposition is a reasonable one.

Anyway, this is where I made a decision. Since jh is rather a bizarre digraph, I decided to change the spelling to zh. I’ve always thought that that was the best way to represent the sound to an English speaker, because it fits this analogy:

s : sh :: z : zh

That, however, has not proved to be the case. Not only did some of the actors have trouble with zh (often pronouncing it as if it were z), but I’ve also heard from others that zh is problematic.

There are two reasons I can think of that an English speaker wouldn’t do well with zh for [ʒ]: One, they don’t know how the digraph ought to be pronounced (at a glance), or two, they misinterpret it as a sequence of z and h.

At the heart of both problems, I believe, is the nebulous nature of the phoneme [ʒ] in English. There are no minimal pairs (or at least no common ones. Perhaps if someone knows of one, they can leave a comment), but there are near minimal pairs in “pleasure” and “pressure”. (Ooh… Actually, what about “azure” and “asher”?) Additionally, there is no systematic way to spell the sound. It appears as “ge” in “rouge”, “g” in “genre”, “s” in “leisure”, “si” in “fusion”, “z” in “azure”, “j” in “Taj Mahal”, and part of “x” in “luxury”. English has a funky spelling system, but for just about every other consonant phoneme, there is a definite, basic spelling. Not so with [ʒ].

Daenerys has suggested that it’s more difficult to get zh right before a and o; less so before i and e. This makes intuitive sense because zh is a palatal sound, and i and e are front vowels. She suggested that zh might be spelled zhy, but perhaps just in front of a and o—which does make sense. I’d thought previously of spelling the sound zy. For the sake of neatness, though, I’d want to respell what is now spelled as sh as sy, which doesn’t seem ideal… As a result, I think we’re stuck with zh.

Anyway, the whole point of bringing this up is that I decided to respell jh as zh (thought it’d be easier. Oh well). This doesn’t mean, though, that the spellings in the books ought to change. Since it’s a one-to-one correspondence, jh is just the book’s way of spelling Dothraki zh (or vice-versa). This means that if anything from modern Dothraki with zh shows up in the books, it would be spelled with jh, e.g. jhavvorsa, mahrajh, vejhven, etc.

Oh, and also present in Jhiqui’s name is the change from qu to kw, which shouldn’t be too controversial. Beyond that, though, I made a couple of other changes which are worth noting.

The letters p and b occur almost nowhere in Dothraki. In fact they only appear in two places: In the names Pono and Bharbo. Given the sound change I proposed (a merger of older p and f as well as b and v), it seemed reasonable enough to have them survive only in names. As the Havazh Dothraki is large, it seems reasonable to assume that there are probably several different varieties of Dothraki spoken by different khalasars. They’re probably mutually intelligible (being able to communicate in Vaes Dothrak is motivation enough to maintain communicability), but it seems likely that some varieties may have preserved the p/f and b/v distinctions, meaning that this is a dialectal variation that Dothraki speakers everywhere are likely aware of (kind of like the t/k distinction in Hawaiian).

While for the most part the schema I came up with above worked out pretty well, there were a couple places where it may have caused more problems than it solved. One obvious one is the word khaleesi. Going by Dothraki’s spelling system, the word should be pronounced [ˈ] (or KHA-lay-yay-see). More often than not, though, it’s pronounced [ka.ˈ] (or kah-LEE-see). There’s not much to say about the [k] and the stress (bound to happen), but the “ee” part is troubling. It seems quite sensible that any English speaker would pronounce the “ee” as if it were like the “ee” in “keep” or “seem”. What wasn’t sensible, perhaps, was my idea that it wouldn’t be any trouble to switch over to the “real” Dothraki pronunciation (i.e. pronouncing it just like it’s spelled). Evidently they made an executive decision on the show to pronounce it like the “ee” in “keep” even when it’s spoken in Dothraki. And I suppose I can’t blame them. It does seem reasonable enough. If I had it to do over, perhaps I would’ve bent the rules just a little bit and made the official spelling khalisi—or maybe even khalissi to get the stress right. Oh well. Live and learn.

One I’ve mentioned before elsewhere (but not here, I believe) is George R. R. Martin’s peculiar pronunciation of the word “Dothraki”. Those who have seen him in person know how he pronounces it, but if you haven’t, he pronounces the last “i” as if it were like the “i” in “bike” or “fungi” or “alumni”. I was shocked the first time I heard it. I thought I simply misheard him, but no: His pronunciation is consistent on this point. It does certainly change the character and flavor of the word quite a bit. As far as I know, though, he’s the only one that pronounces the word this way, so I didn’t feel too bad about giving it the usual “ee” pronunciation.

Finally, there’s the issue of the vowel sequence ae. I honestly had no idea what to do with this. I thought I’d be well served in treating the two as separate vowels (as in Spanish “caer”). It seems, though, that the preferred pronunciation is like the “a” in “gate”. Aside from the variant of “Rachel” spelled “Raechel”, I don’t think we have that sequence pronounced that way in English, so I’m not sure if I would’ve guessed that that was how it was “supposed” to be pronounced. On the show, most of the time they went with standard Dothraki pronunciation. The one major time where they didn’t was with the pronunciation of the name “Rhaego”. That, however, is Dany’s old brother’s name (Rhaegar) with a Dothraki -o added in place of the Valyrian -ar, so it’s not too bizarre that the spelling has a different pronunciation (it’s not a true Dothraki name, after all).

Well, I had intended all of this to be rather the introduction to a longer post. The word count thingy at the bottom of this post tells me I’m up over 1400 words already, though, so I suppose I’d better bring this to a close. I’ll likely revisit this topic some time in the future, though, as there’s more to be said. Until then, fonas chek!


  1. Intersting observations.

    Isn’t part of the reason why people get things wrong and speak a broken language that they simply assume that they know how something is pronounced rather than actually studying and learning how it is pronounced?

    It’s seems to me that there is a sense of laziness involved in getting some of these things wrong.

    1. I don’t mean the voiced/devoiced stuff like sh/zh since that can easily get mixed up in the flow of speaking but things like khaleesi seems like some people just go with what they assume rather than actually learning it.

    2. Perhaps for the casual fan, but for the show, it was a conscious decision. They got together and decided how everything was going to be pronounced beforehand and stuck with it (including words like “maester” and the various names of Westeros). And that was a good idea, because it ensures consistency from actor to actor and throughout the series.

  2. Thank you, zhey David for confirming the proper pronunciation of /zh/. Fortunately, the way I have been pronouncing it is the correct way. And thanks to you and the others here, I have always pronounced ‘khaleesi’ correctly!

    BTW, /zh/ is not a problem for me at all, even with the vowels mentioned by Daenerys. The problem must arise from subtle differences in ones’ vocal tract and/or years of pronouncing things in an anti /zh/ manner.

  3. The “zh” sound followed by an “a” or “o”, when pronouncing the word alone is no problem. I like the “zh” spelling, only for learning a sentence, more like reading dialogue, I thought that a “y” following the “zhy” before “a” or “o” might be helpful. I mean this only in a pronunciation guide, along with stress marks, not for spelling in writing a sentence. :)

  4. wow my head is spinning! it all sounds good, i think im getting it…i just name my 2 new dobermans after drogo & daenerys & want to train in dothraki! so i am getting down the basic commands for now…..any help will be great….!

    1. Ha, ha. That’d be fun. Here are some that I can think of:

      Nevas! “Sit!”
      Vikovareras! “Stay!”
      Astos! “Speak!”
      Fichas! “Fetch!”
      Chorkas! “Roll!”

      And then…I don’t know. What else do you command a dog to do?

      1. lots! in the show & schtz ring! lol here are some…
        dont move,attack,walk,trot,run,slow,now,wait,hold,bite,
        turn,follow,watch,focus….to name some! lol

        1. Dang! That’s a lot. Let’s see what I can do:

          Zohhe! “Down!”
          Yath! “Up!”
          Sek! “Yes!”
          Vos! “No!”
          Jinne! “Here!”

          I have no idea what “heel” means. lol You can probably get a lot of these others from Do dogs really memorize all of these?

          1. “Heel” I believe is the command to get the dog to follow by your side. In Swedish the command is “fot” which means “foot”. So perhaps “rhae” would be a possible command for that.

    1. lol xactly….btw the dogs vocab is limited to my vocab…being from boston my grammar isnt so good in the 1st place lol so learning this is tricky! vos is a must..thx for ur tips ive also, come up w/these dont know if theyre correct….slow-vroz,come-jadi,here-jinni,yes-sek,mine-anni,in-mra,cross-yoma,on-she,stop it-nakhi,stop-nakho,dont move-os,be still-ohos,seize him-qura mae,walk-ifa,now-ajjin,there-hazze,bad-mel,rest-mithri,to urinate-navat (good b4 im ready to go in the ring & better than saying go pee,lol),staight-nris,bite-osto kiss-zoqwa….now there are some i found with a “to” in front of instead of just the word ie. to stand- kovarat in the ring i would just say stand…some others….to wait- ayolat instead of wait…to trot-loshat instead of trot….to turn- notat instead of turn……to follow-silat instead of follow….to watch-vitihirat instead of watch. havent found one for back as to back up….pups show names are KHALEESI DAENERYS DRAGON STONE “Daenerys” & Khal Drogo Fire and Blood “Drogo”..they are only 12 wks old so give me a month and when i have them trained in dothraki i will video it & send u a link! it will be pretty cool! thx for ur help!

  5. Serious question about the animals thing: would the Dothraki have a word for “mammoth”? If I understand the rules you’ve set out here, the Dothraki have no word for “Direwolf” because they’re not native to their part of Essos (or do they? If Dany is discussing news from Westeros and says “the lions of Lannister are fighting the direwolves of House Stark” or…if Dany or her followers are reacting in shock to…the events of the Red Wedding, and one of them explains “They did such and such to the direwolf”…would they have a world for direwolf? Or do they just substitute “wolf”?

    Anyway, from Lands of Ice and Fire, we’ve seen that the Ibbenese have colonies on the northern shores of Essos, bordering the Dothraki Sea, and it is mentioned that the Ibbenese have Mammoths just as exist Beyond the Wall in Westeros: would this be reasonably justification to invent a Dothraki term for these “big hairy elephants” from Ibben?

    1. Despite contributing to it, I’ve never seen The Lands of Ice and Fire, so I couldn’t say anything about the flora and fauna mentioned therein. With direwolves, I never said they wouldn’t have a word for it: just not a native one. Since there are no languages to borrow from, there are no borrowings at present.

  6. Interesting question. Without getting too far off track, here’s some thoughts.

    In our world, there is some form of wild canine on most continents. Wolf-like ones are the most common in cool climates, and dog-like ones in warmer climates. Our domestic dogs and wolves are very closely related, enough so that many researchers use the same scientific name for both species: Canis lupus and Canis lupus familiaris. I don’t know how close a species like African wild dogs are to C.l. familiaris, but I bet it is fairly close.

    It is interesting to note that the lion Panthera leo is one of the most successful mammals of all time. It currently lives in Africa and Asia, and in North America until about 10,000 years ago. This same phenomena apparently exists in GRRM’s world as well, so lions are found in all places that there is a suitable prey base (and they might make a good ‘living’ following a Khalasar around).

    Mammoths were also quite widespread in ancient times. In general, a cooler climate tends to support larger animals.

  7. My favorite minimal pair for /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ is “Confucian” [kənfjuʃ̩n̩] and “confusion” [kənfjuʒn̩] (not marking aspiration or vowel lengthening). I will agree that they aren’t common words, but I use this comparison for my Psychology of Language class.

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