The State of Valyrian

Since it’s come up in the comments and elsewhere, I thought I’d give a quick rundown of my read on the Valyrian in the world as it exists in A Song of Ice and Fire. It’ll be useful to refer to this map in the discussion to come, since I’m going to be talking mostly about Slaver’s Bay.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

High Valyrian was spoken in Valyria for centuries. The Ghiscari Empire was preeminent in the ancient history, and five times they tried to conquer Valyria. Each time they failed, as Valyria had dragons, which they used to repel the invasion. After the last attempt, the Valyrian army wiped the capital of the Ghiscari Empire, Old Ghis, off the face of the planet, and the empire fell, Ghiscari culture being displaced by Valyrian culture. At this time, the Valyrian Freehold took control of Slaver’s Bay, and three formerly small cities became large and rather important: Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen.

Looking at the map, it makes sense to me that the way Valyria interacted with these three cities was by boat. An army could march overland and get to Meereen, then Yunkai, then Astapor, but why bother? A trip by boat is much quicker. Consequently, Astapor is the closest of these three cities to Valyria. (Oh, and if you’re wondering why Daenerys, who, presumably, is coming from the north, goes to Astapor, Yunkai and then Meereen, as opposed to the other way around, it’s because she traveled all the way to Qarth first, and then traveled from there. Qarth is way east and south of Astapor.)

In these cities in Slaver’s Bay, everyone would have spoken Ghiscari, during the ancient wars. When Old Ghis fell, though, a Valyrian ruling class would have had to have been installed, and High Valyrian would have replaced Ghiscari by fiat, and also in practice. When this happens, it generally takes three generations for a language to be lost in a single family. In five or six generations, the Ghiscari language could have been stamped out, if that was a goal of the Valyrians (and it was, I think it’s safe to assume). The old language, though, would have survived in local vocabulary (why lose a word for something that the new language doesn’t even have a word for anyway?), and in the vocabulary of those who weren’t taught the new language explicitly. The result ends up being a Valyrian language grammatically, but with a lot of Ghiscari vocabulary.

Now, all this time, High Valyrian could have been maintained. With the presence of a home base in Valyria and a Valyrian upper class, there would always be motivation to maintain the original language. It seems likely that Valyrians would care about maintaining the language so they could communicate with every part of their vast Freehold. So even as new languages are emerging amongst the lower classes in Slaver’s Bay, High Valyrian would carry on.

The aggravating factor in this history is the mysterious Doom of Valyria, which we don’t know a whole lot about. The Doom was some sort of cataclysmic event that destroyed Valyria and left physical scars all over the region. Not even sailors were go near it now. It’s considered haunted and/or cursed. Linguistically, this is when the umbilical cord was severed for the various outposts of the Valyrian Freehold. I’ll leave the Free Cities out of this discussion for the time being and instead focus on two areas: Slaver’s Bay and Dragonstone.

Dragonstone was founded by the House Targaryen before the Doom of Valyria. It’s located in Blackwater Bay, and is a stone’s throw from King’s Landing (which didn’t have that name at the time). Initially it was established as an outpost to facilitate trade between the Valyrian Freehold and Westeros. Consequently, the Targaryens here would be upper class High Valyrian speakers. After the doom, Aegon I conquered Westeros, and the Targaryen dynasty was established. Naturally, they would have to learn the Common Tongue (it’d just make things simpler), but it doesn’t mean that they’d lose High Valyrian. Valyrian is the tie not only to the old Freehold, but to Essos and the old culture. It would easily have been retained over at least the first two generations. Thereafter, if it was important, it could be maintained through family use and careful instruction. It takes resources to do so, naturally, but they’re royalty; they’ve got resources. So to me it makes sense that High Valyrian is maintained by the Targaryens.

The evolution of the language is difficult to map realistically, since the time depth is greater than the real world analogues George R. R. Martin used. For example, at least 5,000 years are supposed to have passed between the old days of Valyria and the Doom. From 0 CE to today, Latin went from being an everyday spoken language to not existing. In fantasy, though, there’s a bit of wiggle room. I like to think that the rate of change in High Valyrian was accelerated by two factors: (1) contact with other languages; and (2) distance from Valyria.

In the case of Dragonstone, the Targaryens were far from Valyria, but also weren’t really mixing with Common Tongue speakers, per se. They kind of kept to themselves. So rather than change, the language is preserved, while the other varieties of Valyrian evolve past it. Low Valyrian never touched Dragonstone. When it comes to pronunciation, though, Common Tongue pronunciations did end up affecting the Targaryens. This is why older pronunciations of j and v aren’t maintained in the otherwise pristine form of High Valyrian spoken by the Targaryens.

Back to Slaver’s Bay. Although Yunkai is geographically closer to Meereen, I’ve always thought of it as being closer to Astapor culturally. Looking back, I’m not sure how precisely I came to this determination (I admit that). It felt, though, that Yunkish Valyrian and Astapori Valyrian would be closer to each other than either is to Meereenese Valyrian.

Each of the dialects (and I would characterize them as dialects of a kind of “Ghiscari Valyrian”) would be grammatically very similar. They have a common culture, and seem to exist in a kind of symbiotic way, with each city having something the others don’t. Since Meereen is the largest, it likely also has the largest lower class. This is where I saw the most distinct form of the language emerging. This is why it made sense to me that Meereen could support a Valyrian variant that’s quite different in sound from the other two. It’s the same language, but it’s developed its own distinct character.

With Daenerys, she grew up with High Valyrian from Viserys and from the loyalists that helped raised them. In Essos, she would’ve been exposed to a ton of different Valyrian dialects from the Free Cities. This would help her be able to pick up a new one. And, of course, if you look at Astapori Valyrian and compare it to High Valyrian, though there are sound changes, they’re not that drastic. I think it’s plausible that Dany could get the gist of it, even if she can’t speak it. Meereenese, though, is tougher. It’s hard to see a word and tie it to an Astapori Valyrian word, let alone a High Valyrian word.

Regarding comparisons, I likened Meereenese Valyrian to Scots English and Astapori Valyrian to Southern California English. They’re way different, but they’re the same language with some vocabulary items that differ. A couple of commenters have likened the two to Spanish and Portuguese. I simply don’t know if I’d go that far. If I see Portuguese written out, I can kind of get the gist of it, but hearing it? I get nothing. If I studied it a little bit and got used to the sound changes, I mean, maybe, but I’m not sure they’re close enough grammatically. In some ways, Portuguese and Spanish are too close, and in other ways, too far. The pronunciation of Portuguese and Spanish is closer than the pronunciation of Meereenese and Astapori, but the grammar is much further apart. This is why I really think of them as dialects not separate languages.

As for Yunkish, I don’t put it in the middle of the two dialects. Rather, it’s all but identical to Astapori. Truth be told, I haven’t had to do anything specific for Yunkish, but if I did, the variation would be minor.

If I’ve left anything out, leave me a note in the comments and I’ll add it to this explanation. It isn’t as thorough as it could be, but it’s a start. The Valyrian language family is really a fun linguistic experiment, so I wanted to at least give you an idea how I was approaching it. Thanks for reading!

Edit: Some thoughts on New Ghis. New Ghis is an island to the south of Slaver’s Bay:

Regarding New Ghis, where I would start is with the notion that the Ghiscari culture was wiped off the face of the Earth. If we accept that as a truth, we have to accept that they’re speaking some form of Valyrian in New Ghis. New Ghis is pretty far from Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen, so one would have to expect it to be quite different, but how is a question I haven’t dealt with yet. Presumably they can still converse with the cities on the mainland (this happens in Book 5), so it couldn’t have diverged too much. At this point, I think that’s all we can say about New Ghis.


  1. A really good thorough run-through.

    5000 years is indeed a crazy long time. If the common folk generation gap is somewhere around 20 years, that’s 250 generations. If a sizable language change can take less than five generations, the languages could have re-invented themselves tens and tens of times.

    The recent history of Martin’s world is surprisingly humanly time-scaled, but these older numbers go to epic. You could argue that they are in-world and there might be a good deal of typical ancient time vagueness. 5000 is too nice a number.

    Also, compared to most fantasy worlds, magic has only a minor explanation power on the languages, but I feel for Valyrians it could still be taken to account. They lived on more magical era and seem to have taken the magicality to their hearts. There could be magical resonances even in pronounciation having kept the Valyrian Freehold times Valyrian intact.

      1. Thanks for the laugh! It seems that the magic of GRRM’s world has also made the letter “y” suspiciously common in Westerosi names…

      2. Maybe [y] is the most magical vowel and thus suffers particulary hard from the Doom and the presumedly subsequent lessening of magic.

        1. Guys, [y] is the source of all magic. As its pronunciation weakens, so does magic in the world. Daenerys can still produce [y], and this is why she has control over her dragons (though that control is a bit unsteady—as is her command of [y]).

          1. That explains so much! Especially since Melisandre is the only one on show whom I remember to pronounce an [y] that registers as such in my ear (though she does it only rarely). Think of how powerful she could be if she were thorough!

  2. From 0 CE to today, Latin went from being an everyday spoken language to not existing

    I am not the sort of mad Latinist who gets offended at the idea that Latin is a “dead language” (though believe me I know some who do). Still, between the use of classical Latin as a liturgical and/or literary language, and the extant Romance language family (which we only don’t count as Latin because there’s more than one of them—no one would say Greek or English were non-existent because Attic and Anglo-Saxon are no longer spoken!) don’t you think “not existing” is a bit of a hyperbole?

    But yes, the time depth GRRM gives is a bit absurd. I think we have to go with Qvaak and say that these things happen in fantasy worlds, perhaps because of magic.

    As for Yunkish, I put don’t put it in the middle of the two dialects. Rather, it’s all but identical to Astapori. Truth be told, I haven’t had to do anything specific for Yunkish, but if I did, the variation would be minor.

    Yeah, as of last night I was looking at your family tree of the Valyrian languages, and thinking it should be updated to have MV split off first, then have YV and AV separate.

    And I STILL wonder what they speak in New Ghis. I wish GRRM would tell us (though I admit given all the other mysteries of his world that’s a strange thing to worry about). Since you’re giving your personal views of this situation, do you have any opinion on that question? I was thinking maybe a fourth branch of GV that split off even earlier?

    BTW, is down until tomorrow morning for server maintenance. Not that big a deal overall, but a bit annoying since I just solicited opinions there on how we should handle the branches of GV.

    1. Yeah in the Portuguese speaking community we frame it as “Latin became our language”, not “Latin ceased existing” (Portuguese being the “Last Flower of Latium” and all (*cof*)). I bet our comrades who speak Italian, Romanian, Sardinian etc. make similar claims.

      1. Preposterous claims. The only modern language that held on to its Ladindade is obviously Jovian. Id ix bein xide.

          1. Muo grae. And if Jovian should turn out too difficult for that purpose, there’s always its IAL offspring, Jovianto.

            1. Though Jovianto’s so-called “creators” claim it’s the first Jovian-based IAL, Jovio is a superior creation, and even Jovianto speakers agree it would be the best Jovian-based IAL! You should stop living in the past and support Jovio!

        1. I enjoy it that the Wikipedia article for Ill Bethisad has only five versions: Czech, Dutch, English, Polish, and… Latin. Vivant linguæ mortuæ!

    2. By “not existing” I mean “dead”, as in “not spoken by a living community”. And Attic Greek is dead. It seems silly to say that Attic Greek is still alive and well because Modern Greek is spoken.

      As with what Qvaak said, we simply have to accept the explanation as fact and go from there. It’s a part of the fiction, so it is. However I will say that George R. R. Martin’s narrator is not necessarily reliable. The narrator slips between third person omniscient and third person limited quite a bit. The narrator often says things we know to be false because the narrator is narrating the thoughts of another character. It wouldn’t strike me as unreasonable if it were revealed that the narrator was exaggerating certain bits of the history at certain times.

      Regarding New Ghis, where I would start is with the notion that the Ghiscari culture was wiped off the face of the Earth. If we accept that as a truth, we have to accept that they’re speaking some form of Valyrian in New Ghis. New Ghis is pretty far from Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen, so one would have to expect it to be quite different, but how is a question I haven’t dealt with yet. Presumably they can still converse with the cities on the mainland (this happens in Book 5), so it couldn’t have diverged too much. At this point, I think that’s all we can say about New Ghis.

      1. Well, if we’re talking Classical, literary Latin, that took much less than two thousand years (even if we grant leeway for the fact that strictly speaking “Classical, literary Latin” was probably never a spoken language in the first place). But my point isn’t in all these minor details, my point is really:

        Wouldn’t it be more meaningful and à propos (er, ad propositum, sorry ;) )to talk about how different the Modern Romance languages are from Classical Latin than to talk about the *existence* of Latin?

  3. It is important to note that Romance languages did not evolve from ‘classical latin’ but from vulgar latin. Romance languages share a lot of common features that were absent from classical latin, like the lack of noun declension, the use of articles, the SVO word order …
    I guess that a very similar process happened in the Valyrian Empire, since the same gramatical changes are observed in Astapori Valyrian. However, the Astapori vocabulary seems to be more conservative than Romance languages, wich usually lost a lot of latin terms like ‘equus’ (horse) ‘bellum’ (war) ‘felix’ (cat) etc

  4. I find it hard to understand David and Dan’s reasons for wanting Dany not to be able to understand MV. In the books, as far as I can recall, this was not an issue for her. It also makes the dialog more awkward, if she is going to be talking with Mereenese people to any large extent. Is Missandei going to be her interpreter? Will the Mereenese adjust to a more AV/HV like way of speaking? It seems to me like she will appear a lot more foreign to the people of Mereen if she can’t participate in conversation with them.

    I suppose we will see next week when she encounters a certain shepherd, and Hizdahr is going to make a more substantial appearance at some point. Meh. I guess the nobles will all magically speak Common as seems to be the norm.

  5. I’ve often wondered if the Targaryens continued to speak High Valyrian as a royal court language (think how Anglo-Norman French stuck around twelfth century England as the upper-class language). Thanks I didn’t know the rule that internal family use would wear off two generations after becoming bilingual in something else (moving to Westeros, learning Andalish/Common Tongue).

    But as you said it’s highly probable that they’d continue to educate their children in High Valyrian, if not as a birth language. I mean, it’s the Latin of both Essos and Westeros: I’ve pointed to how even Tyrion Lannister learned High Valyrian from his maester, as did many of the other nobleborn characters (Samwell has at least some proficiency in it, other younger characters didn’t learn that much yet). I mean, the Targaryens also continued other Valyrian customs like practicing cremation instead of burial. And if so many of their vassals were already learning High Valyrian, it stands to reason that many were at least proficient in it (Rhaegar was scholarly minded and probably would have studied High Valyrian; but would Aegon IV have bothered to learn it? Who knows).

    At any rate the real question is when the royal court stopped using High Valyrian – though I would imagine that even Aegon I used Common Tongue out of simple convenience, rather than trying to force an entire continent to speak a foreign language (unlike the Normans, there were very few Targaryen soldiers/vassals who actually “migrated” to the mainland).

  6. Sorry to hear that Star-Crossed got cancelled today; I don’t think they marketed it well enough.

    True story: the *entire reason* I was willing to give Defiance a try (and subsequently really liked it) after the debacle of the later BSG seasons, is because I heard “we hired the Game of Thrones linguist to work out the alien languages”…which made me think “maybe they actually put some thought into the worldbuilding and cultural backstories on this, instead of just cranking out more product” — yeah, another fun BSG fact: Ron Moore later admitted that he never worked out what Cylon society or culture was like at all, promised he would in Season 3, but then actually threw out the tentative “Cylon Culture Bible” he’d shown one or two cast members, because he just wasn’t satisfied. Really, I got a better feel for the Geth robots from Mass Effect than the Cylons. Ack.

    Part of me hopes that we’d see Braavosi Low Valyrian tomorrow in “The Laws of Gods and Men”.

  7. I don’t think you mean “Scotch English”, but Scots English. Unless you mean “English spoke after a bottle of whisky”.

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