Vojjor Ershe ma Sashi

Another week, and another blow to the Dothraki speakers of Essos. This week we lost a big one: Dany’s handmaiden, and the one with probably the most Dothraki lines in the show, Irri. Her death probably came as a shock to those who’ve read the books, because Irri lasts a whole lot longer than that in the books. Upon reflection, I think the effect of unexpected deaths like this on fans of the books is amusing. After all, the book series itself is known for killing off main characters—even the good guys. Fans of the books got to sit back and snicker as new fans of the show were shocked by Ned Stark’s death back in season 1. But now what, book fans?! Not only are your favorite characters not safe from George R. R. Martin—they’re not safe from Dave and Dan!

Seriously, though, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the wonderful work of Amrita Acharia. Not only did she do a great job in the role of Irri, her Dothraki was my favorite. She spoke fluidly and had a convincing accent. If anyone saw the episode of CNN’s The Next List on Dothraki, you will have seen some interview footage with Amrita Acharia, which I was grateful for (she didn’t have to take the time, but she did). Not only that, but she delivered a line she had memorized from season 1. Think about that. Season 2 was already done filming, and she was able to reproduce from memory a full Dothraki line from season 1 (the episode “A Golden Crown”, to be specific). Just outstanding. So to Amrita, thank you so much! You did a terrific job. I can’t wait to see you in something else.

Apart from that shocking discovery, there was also a shocking lack of Dothraki dialogue. Odd, since you’d think Talisa would speak Dothraki (I mean, since we’re making stuff up for her anyway, why not?). But, of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Dany’s story does kind of take a back seat in A Clash of Kings. Those who’ve read the book, though, know that some good stuff’s coming (I can’t wait).

About the rest of the episode, I do have some thoughts on Talisa (and on similar types of events), but it crucially depends on scenes that are coming, so I’ll have to hold off. Suffice it to say, though, I know the pressure the writers are responding to, and I think they’re doing as good a job as can be expected. George R. R. Martin has this habit of introducing events that have happened in the books, with explanations coming chapters and chapters later—and for the books, that’s cool. I don’t think it can translate directly to a television show, though. It will help to be able to work with a specific example (and I have two in mind) to illustrate just what I’m talking about, but the scenes in question haven’t aired yet, so I’m going to have to hold off until they have. But trust me. I’ve got a good explanation right up my sleeve…

Since there’s no Dothraki dialogue to discuss, I figure I may as well tell the story behind the Dothraki word for “friend” (something Daenerys has been asking for for a while now). It does exist, and it almost made it into the show, in fact. When the call came to translate dialogue that ended up in last week’s episode, I saw one of Dany’s lines in there was, “Thank you, my friend”. You may, in fact, remember this line from last week and that it was in English. That was no accident.

Not wanting to disappoint, I did, in fact, translate the line (in fact I gave a couple options for it), but I reminded Bryan et al. that we’d made kind of a big deal about Dothraki having no word for “thank you” in the premiere. I let them know that we could translate it as san athchomari (which, as those working with Dothraki know, isn’t really the same thing as “thank you”), but that if anything was subtitled as “thank you”, undoubtedly every fan in existence would point it out and be all like Ki fin yeni?! So I gave them options. I said they could go with that, or they could have her say “thank you” in English, and follow it up with “my friend” in Dothraki. I also suggested that the entire line could be in English, and they went with that, which I think makes sense. After all, if you don’t have a word for something in the language you’re speaking, it’s common to drop in the word you want from another language. And if Dany starts in English, she’s just as likely to finish in English rather than switch to Dothraki, if not more likely. And so the word for “friend” didn’t make it in.

There is a word for “friend”, though, and there’s a story behind it. I gave quite a bit to thought to just how the concept of friendship would translate to Dothraki culture. It seems like one wouldn’t have a friend the way one has one in our world. There’s one’s immediate family, of course, then there are the members of one’s khalasar, which is like an extended family. Whether related or not, another member of one’s khalasar is like a cousin or relative. The question, then, was whether there were relationships beyond this.

Then it occurred to me that there’s the perfect model for such a relationship: a khal’s bloodrider. Though the khal commands the entire khalasar, he has only three bloodriders, and they owe him a special debt above and beyond what’s expected of an ordinary rider. They’re also accorded more respect and are privy to the khal’s council. That model, then, can easily extend to every Dothraki. A dothraki has their khalasar and their immediate family, and they also have one or two of these others—ones who owe them a debt, who will have their back in battle, and who will take care of their family should they fall. I was satisfied with this definition for “friend”: I just needed a form for it.

At the time that I was coming up with vocabulary like this, it was early 2010 and I was translating material for the first season of Game of Thrones. It was kind of a tough time: My wife and I had just moved into our first condo; the press release about Game of Thrones and Dothraki hadn’t gone live yet, so I had to keep explaining to my family that I was busy, but I couldn’t say why; my car was stolen (I got it back [which is good, because we need that old thing])… About the only things that were good were my wife and my new cat.

See, I’d never had a cat before (I’d always been allergic). I had a dog growing up, but I’d always wanted a cat, and this cat (that we got in January of 2010 from Cats In Need) was our very own. My wife was working long hours, so every day I’d work on expanding Dothraki and translating dialogue with my cat by my side, and at night he’d curl up with me and we’d watch One Piece or Dark Shadows. He was my little friend and kept me company as Dothraki grew.

In retrospect, I should’ve spotted that something was wrong much earlier than I did. I wasn’t an experienced cat person, though, and both my wife and I were shutting out the warning signs. Little by little, though, our cat became less interested in eating. At first he just wasn’t eating as much as he had been. After a while, he wouldn’t eat by himself any longer. We were in and out of the vet’s office every other day, each time with something new to try, always thinking that the new solution would be the solution. But it never was. It was when he could barely walk that we finally skipped the vet and went to an emergency pet clinic. We turned him over to their care that night hopeful, but as it turned out, we would never see him again.

He was extremely young (about 7 months), and from what the emergency vet was able to figure out, he had a congenital liver problem. In the short time we’d had him, though, I’d grown to love him, and I was utterly devastated. When I was finally able to work out of my depression, I decided one way to honor him would be to work his name into Dothraki. Since I still hadn’t come up with a word for “friend”, though, I decided that Dothraki “friend” would get its root from my own dear little friend: My first cat Okeo.

And so the word for “friend” in Dothraki is okeo: an animate noun. As it happens, his name has its origins in a Kamakawi word which I coined just for him based on his old name when he was still at the shelter. His name was “Oreo”, but it was spelled in all caps, and my wife pointed out that on the tag it actually looked like “Okeo”. And so Okeo he became.

I still miss him all the time, but I am feeling better now. Dang. I just realized this might be kind of a downer to read (hopefully not as much of a downer as it was to write), so to make up for it, here’s a video of two adorable kittens meowing at each other. Enjoy!


  1. It’s kind of strange that Dothraki’s have many things in common with Mongolians like having many words for horses. As a fan of Game of Thrones and as a Mongolian I find them very interesting. And I really admire your work. Oh by the way may Okeo live forever in Dothraki :)

  2. Well I had a pretty “ki fin yeni?!”-moment when the dragons were stolen, but I think we seldom know all the factors that come into play when developing a tv series that force changes from the original material.

    I loved the new word and all its history, it really moved me. I think it’s wonderful how you make this kind of words into the language. I found it interesting that the Pirahãs also seem to not have a word for “thank you”. I mean, it is possible, after all our words for “thank you” are socially established and that’s why so many IE languages have different roots for that word. I can see “san athchomari” evolving into a “thank you” kind of usage if Dothraki life changed its form (as if they were unified or got influenced by some other culture or whatever).

    Great post!

    P.s.: Wow! Mongolian? I want to know more about the words for horse in Mongolian! David: Was Mongolian one of your inspirations?

    1. No, the Mongolian language didn’t influence Dothraki really at all. Mongolian culture did. I actually didn’t know much about Mongolian before Dothraki (aside from a vowel harmony exercise I did in graduate school), but have learned quite a bit sense from a friend of mine who’s in Mongolia as a part of the Peace Corps. He’s been posting some fascinating info about the Mongolian language on his blog, and I’ve been learning little bits of it ever since. :)

  3. So apparently /’maegea/ is a Volantene surname. Interesting. I’m sure that’s cognate to maegi and must therefore have a wisdom-related meaning. Very fitting for a healer.

    As for the dragons: Yeah, that took me by surprise. Is Doreah dead too? I remember her dying in the desert trek in the books (much to my chagrin).

    1. In replying, I want to let everyone that I don’t actually have any future knowledge about the Robb Stark storyline (never saw the scripts).

      So apparently /’maegea/ is a Volantene surname. Interesting. I’m sure that’s cognate to maegi and must therefore have a wisdom-related meaning. Very fitting for a healer.

      She says she’s Volantene; that doesn’t mean that she is, necessarily. (Or anyway that’s my guess, as a fan; we’ll see what happens.)

  4. So they made the name up themselves? Not half bad. Makes me hopeful they won’t mangle |valar morghulis| too much either.

    Speaking of which, Jaqen H’ghar was something like /’dʒakɛn ʀə’ga:/ — while I appreciate the unconventional /ʀ/, I find it weird that it should correspond to the |h| rather than the |gh|. But that could just be an incompetent Westerosi prison-clerk’s rendition of a perfectly sensible Lorathi name.

  5. Zhey David, I was very moved by your story about Okeo! I did not find it to be a downer at all, but it is always sad when you lose an animal friend like that. In fact, studies have shown that people often react more to the death of a animal friend than they do most human relatives. I think the reason for this is that they are still spiritually alive, and their pure spirits never really leave you. So next time you miss him, realize he is probably close by, watching!

    In any case, now we have two memorial cat-words on Dothraki, so we can say somethinng like Okeo, zhey havsi okeo!

    And mongolian? There’s a people and culture that has always fascinated me, but I have never bothered to learn much about. Maybe we will learn something from Bilegdemberel about the Mongolian language and culture. That name, BTW, reminds me of the kinds of names a friend of mine came up for, for nymphs in his Narnian fan fiction (and for whom I have been tasked with writing their backstory!)

  6. About the title of the post/episode..
    The English wording takes a great care to avoid a possible misinterpretation The gods that are both old and new, but how does the Dothraki wording fare? It seems if you really want to attribute a pair of opposite attributes to each attributee, you’d probably better to drop the and: The old new gods, so I wouldn’t expect the Dothraki wording to be really confusing, but as there is that subtle (and a bit exotic and still not too well understood) difference between ma X ma Y and X ma Y, I’m wondering, if it might matter here.

    Sidenote: The old gods of the northern people are vaguely understood nature spirits, and it is fairly possible that there still rise new Old Gods from time to time, while the gods of the other creeds, the old new gods of the faith of The Seven and new new gods like R’hlorr, don’t seem to be hiring. Funny, eh?

    1. Maybe the most literal translation would be something like vojjor ershe ma sashaki, “…the new ones”.

    2. You can always be absolutely clear:

      Vojjor ershe ma vojjor sashi.

      That’ll take care of it. The English is also ambiguous, but not in the same way (e.g. it could be “The Old Gods and the New Couches”). I was trying to emulate the…I guess “antiquatedness” of the English expression in Dothraki. It’s worth pointing out that the following…

      Vojjor m’ershe ma sashi.

      …is completely unambiguous. It means “The gods that are both old and new” (i.e. one set of gods). The one I used is ambiguous, and context would tell you that it doesn’t refer to the same set (how could they be both old and new?).

      1. This brings to mind a word in Swedish; nygammal which is a compound of ny (new) and gammal (old). It means something that is both old and new. Or something that resembles something old in style but is actually new or something that looks new in style but is actually old.

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