Category Archives: Conlanging

Discussion about conlanging, specifically (not related, necessarily, to Dothraki).

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.

Run Like a Stallion

I’ve just recently come back from ConDor (which was wonderful), and ran into a wall of work. While I negotiate that, though, I’d like to do a couple of things here.

First, Dothraki regular Esploranto has started translating posts on this blog into Spanish! I can’t tell you how excited I am (and, by the way, if anyone else is interested in translating these posts, go for it!), but I’ve run into a technical issue—specifically, how to add these translations to the blog. It’d be odd to post them as new posts (since they’re translations of old posts), and odder still to post them directly after the posts they’re translations of (if I get more translations, there could be, e.g., a single day with like eight posts). What I think would be ideal is if I could add a button to each post that would automatically swap out the original content with the translation. Anyone have any idea how I might accomplish this?

If I can’t come up with a clever solution, what I may do is assign all these posts to some older year (say, a hundred years prior to the original post) and provide a link on each post to the other, plus a note on the translation telling readers when the original post was posted. It’s not an ideal solution, but it’ll allow me to host the content without cluttering up the original run of posts.

Oh, and as a note, I really wouldn’t like to maintain two blogs with the same content, if I can avoid it. I’ve been having enough trouble keeping all my WordPress blogs up to date; I’m loathe to start another.

Second, I got a comment a while back from Aniko asking for the Dothraki translation of the following phrase: Dare to live; it’s easy to die. Let me take some time to translate that.

Step 1 is taking care of the word I didn’t have: dare. Turns out, the English word “dare” goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European with its meaning mostly in tact (not many words do that). I would’ve been on solid footing to simply coin a new root for Dothraki meaning “dare”, but it didn’t feel right. Right now the word I’d use for “brave” or “courageous” is vezhven. The word has other uses, but it also covers those areas of English’s vocabulary. The idea behind “dare” is to invest one’s courage (whether wise or not) in some enterprise. Many languages have a word related to “brave” they use for “dare”. I wanted to include that tie with Dothraki, but could have done it in a number of ways.

While vezhvenat is a verb, it’s really stative in nature. “To dare” is more of an activity, and I didn’t like any of the options available to me to make vezhvenat more active. In browsing the vocabulary, I came across one item I’d use before to turn vash, “stampede”, into a verb: lanat ki vashi, “to stampede”. I really like this construction, and want to use it more. Thus was born: lanat ki vezhi, “to dare” (and also “to be brave”).

I’m not sure quite how to explain it, but ki is used here to mean “like” or “as” instead of ven, which we’d ordinarily expect. Ven seems more utilitarian, more concrete (it’s certainly a younger preposition), while ki makes the connection seem closer. I think one could actually say lanat ven vezh, to literally say something like Me lan ven vezh, “He ran like a stallion”, but lanat ki vezhi means “to dare”.

Having settled that, this is how I would translate the phrase:

  • Lanas ki vezhi thirataan; me disie, jin drivolat.

Obviously do what you will with the punctuation. That said, there are different options here, so let me walk you through them one by one:

  • The first verb (lanas) is in the informal imperative. If you’d like it to read more formally, you can change lanas to lani.
  • The first clause is “Dare to live”. You can change it up, though, and say Lanas ki vezhi athiraraan, which is saying the same thing in a slightly different way (maybe something like “Dare to go towards life”?). Either construction is acceptable.
  • There are a number of ways to say this last bit. One way is to say Athdrivozar disie, which is literally “Death is easy”. (Note: In the original, you can switch out drivolat for athdrivozar if you like the original construction but prefer the verbal noun.)
  • Another way to say that same thing is to use the infinitive: Drivolat disie. That would be like saying “To die is easy”.
  • And, of course, there are two slightly different words for death at play here. Drivat (and its verbal noun form athdrivar) means “to be dead”. This is a stative verb and describes the state of being dead. Drivolat (and its verbal noun form athdrivozar) means “to die”. So which verb or verbal noun you use depends on what you want to say: Is being dead easy, or is dying easy? Now that I look at it, it’s probably the former, not the latter, in which case you’d want to switch to drivat/athdrivar.

That, though, should give you an idea of what the issues are, and should help you decide what direction you want to go in. Either way, when your tattoo is done, take a picture and send it my way! I’ll put it up here on the blog.

Fonas chek!

Suggestion for Transcribing Dothraki in Cyrillic

Note: This post originally appeared (in a modified form) at my old blog. As I’m no longer using that blog anymore, I decided to port the post over here (though the original post still exists).

As a conlanger and orthography enthusiast, one of the things I like doing is figuring out how to write a language in a different script. In the past, I’ve created dozens of romanization systems for my conlangs (even alternate versions depending on whether Unicode is available), alternate orthographies for some of my languages using the scripts of other languages of mine, even alternate spelling systems for English. And all just for fun! This is the strange life I lead.

Recently I came across a couple sites that have been translating the English closed captioning for episodes of Game of Thrones that have aired so far into other languages. One of these sites is translating the English into Russian. From what I’ve seen, though, the Dothraki remains untransliterated (i.e. it remains written in Roman characters). Where’s the fun in that?

Here, then, is a suggestion for writing Dothraki using the Cyrillic alphabet. My Russian isn’t great, so take this with a grain of salt (and feel free to amend it or comment on it), but I think it works.

I should note that my primary experience with Cyrillic is in Russian, which I studied in college. I’m not very familiar with other Cyrillic systems (cyrillization systems? cyrillicization systems…?) used for the various languages of Eurasia, or how accessible a given character choice will be to the largest number of viewers. Since the original site I found was focusing on Russian, though, I’ve tended to go with what a Russian speaker would recognize over what a Mongolian, Serbian, Ukrainian, etc. speaker would recognize.

With those caveats out of the way, the table is presented below:

Romanization Cyrillic Comment (If Any)
a а
b б
ch ч I actually like this better than using a digraph (which is necessary in English without resorting to accents or alien assignments).
d д

e э I think this is the best solution to avoid the onglide of Russian “е”.
f ф
g г Always hard; never pronounced like English “h”.
h х See comment on “kh”. See alternative below.
i и
j дж Funny: English and Russian are opposites here (cf. “ch”). See alternative below.
k к
kh х I had two choices, really: Have “g” and “h” spelled with the same letter, or “h” and “kh”. I went with the latter, since “h” is closer to “kh” in sound, and pronouncing a word with “kh” with “h” (or vice versa) will be far less confusing than pronouncing a word with “g” with “h” (or vice versa). See alternative below.
l л
m м
n н
o о
p п
q к I have no clever idea for this sound. I figure “к” is closest, so might as well use it (since we already have one confusion built in with “h” and “kh”). See alternative below.
r р
s с
sh ш Sound is actually closer to “щ”, but “ш” is a simpler character.
t т
th ц Can I get away with this? The sounds are nothing alike, but the place of articulation is close! If not, it’d just have to be “т”, I guess (unless anyone still remembers “ѳ”).
v в
w ў In all positions.
y й In all positions.
z з
zh ж
Or just leave it out entirely; it’s not important.

And here are some common words:

  • khal ~ хaл
  • khaleesi ~ хaлээси
  • arakh ~ aрaх
  • vezhven ~ вэжвэн
  • athchomar ~ aцчомaр
  • jahak ~ джaхaк
  • yeroon ~ йэроон

Based on some comments made on the original LiveJournal post by Owen Blacker, I’ve got some ideas for possible revisions to the system above:

  • Apparently Serbian uses “ђ” for Dothraki j (or something very close to it), so that might be a nice alternative to the digraph (though I’m not sure if it comes standard on a Russian keyboard).
  • Searching for a possible alternative for Dothraki q led me to one interesting solution. Some languages use “қ” for q, but apparently some of the Iranian languages have replaced that with the digraph “къ”, which I think is perfect! The little “b” character (ъ) is the “hard sign” in Russian’s orthography. It has a very specific use there, but since it doesn’t in Dothraki—and since it would be immediately recognizable to Russian speakers—the usual “к” glyph would be augmented to “къ” for q, making it seem like q is the “hard” version of k—and that’s not too far off!
  • Cyrillic “һ” is a possibility for h (leaving “х” free to be kh), but I’m not sure how common it is. Another possibility presents itself, though. Since “г” is commonly used for [h] in Russian, it could become the new letter for h, and then “гъ” (or “hard г”) could become the way to write g. Kind of odd to think of writing g as a digraph, but it works!

Unfortunately, I’ve still found no satisfactory solution for th. It’s a tricky sound to handle in Cyrillic, because it used to exist in a lot of Slavic languages, but was eventually replaced by either [t] or [f]—with the character itself taking over to spell those new sounds. However, if we continue to spell it with “ц”, there’s an amusing little in joke. In Russian (and many other Slavic languages), this character is used for the affricate [ts]. In the episode where Irri is teaching Dany to speak Dothraki properly, Dany practices with the word athjahakar. When she gets it wrong, though, she pronounces it atsjakar. Thus, the Russian character to spell it—if pronounced as it would be in Russian—would lead one to mispronounce the beginning part of that word in the exact same way Dany mispronounces it. Ha!

Well, thanks for indulging me yet again. I hope your weekend has been spent in safety, and far away from the madness surrounding shopping centers around this time of year. Fonas chek!

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!

Dothraki in Arabic

Taking a break from grammar, I thought I’d write up a little guide about how to write Dothraki using the Arabic script. It’s actually mostly written up, so all I have to do is transfer it over to the blog (heh, heh…).

Of course, one might wonder: Why would I already have a guide for transcribing Dothraki using the Arabic script? For that, we have to go way back to the days before the Game of Thrones pilot was filmed. Back then, I think the general feeling was that the show would be picked up for at least one season (it wasn’t official, of course, but we all kind of had a gut feeling), and at the time (back when Daenerys was being played by Tamzin Merchant), the Dothraki scenes were all being shot in Morocco—and I, at least, thought they would continue to be shot in Morocco.

In Hollywood, though, radical sweeping changes can happen overnight, and soon Tamzin Merchant was replaced by Emilia Clarke, and Morocco itself was replaced by Malta, and the rest is history. During the Morocco days, though, the word was that many Dothraki extras would likely be Moroccan, meaning they might know French, and would likely know Arabic, but might not know English. Since the Dothraki romanization was designed with English speakers in mind, I decided it would make sense to devise a French-inspired romanization system, as well as one utilizing the Arabic script. I detailed both of these systems in the original materials I sent to Dave and Dan. I’ll probably write up the French romanization system I came up with later, but for now, let’s take a look at the Arabic system.

First, some important facts about Arabic writing. The system is, technically (as it’s used today), an alphabet, but it began its existence as an abjad. An abjad is a writing system that treats vowels as incidental, encoding only the consonants. Thus, in an Arabic word like kataba, “he wrote”, you generally write the equivalent of ktb, with the vowels being assumed. As it is now, there are certain vowels that must be written (long vowels), and there’s a secondary set of diacritics that can be used to optionally write all vowels, so it really looks more like an alphabet, but it’s abjadic history is evident to any who use the script.

Unlike most Western scripts, the Arabic script is written from right to left (which is a nightmare if you want to drop a word of Arabic into a predominantly English text, let me tell you), and most of the characters connect to one another (as with cursive writing in English). It’s also, in my opinion, gorgeous. I fell in love with the Arabic script the first time I saw it, and am glad to have had the opportunity to learn the language and use the script (also is useful to be able to read it).

Anyway, for those who love great big tables, you’re in for a treat! Here’s the full system for rendering Dothraki in Arabic (note: for diacritic vowels, I’m using Arabic د [d] as the bearer below; romanized forms with an asterisk are non-standard. I’ve also enlarged the font size of the Arabic a little bit so the characters are easier to see):

Arabic Transcription of Dothraki
Romanized Form IPA Transcription Arabic Transcription
A, a [a] دَ ,ۃ ,ا
B, b* [b] ب
Ch, ch [tʃ] چ
D, d [d] د
E, e [e] دَ ,ۃ ,ا
F, f [f] ف
G, g [g] ݣ
H, h [h] ح
I, i [i] ي
J, j [dʒ] ج
K, k [k] ك
Kh, kh [x] خ
L, l [l] ل
M, m [m] م
N, n [n] ن
O, o [o] و
P, p* [p] پ
Q, q [q] ق
R, r [ɾ] ر
S, s [s] س
Sh, sh [ʃ] ش
T, t [t] ت
Th, th [θ] ث
V, v [v]
W, w [w] و
Y, y [j] ي
Z, z [z] ز
Zh, zh [ʒ] ژ

Many of the choices above are (as anyone who reads Arabic will probably immediately recognize) not uncontroversial. It is nice, though, that Arabic has dedicated letters for q and th, which are often difficult for native, real world orthographies to represent. A summary of the reasoning behind some of the decisions made above is below:

  • I’ve completed conflated a and e. It’s difficult to distinguish between the two in the Arabic script, frankly. Apart from introducing a new letter (or, perhaps, using the diphthong يْ), though, there isn’t much to be done. I’d be open to suggestions. (Note: I’d originally used a kasra diacritic for e, but decided against it, as it seemed unnatural.)
  • As in Arabic, there’s no distinction between y and i. One choice I made was to mirror that with w and o (in Arabic, w and u). The character و is often used for o in borrowings (e.g. دبلوم “diploma”), so I figure all it would take is a note that و is always pronounced [o] when used as a vowel, and Arabic speakers would get it right.
  • It was quite tempting to render zh as ج, but most speakers actually have something closer to j for that, so I resorted to using a non-standard character ژ, which I hoped would be recognizable.
  • Arabic speakers will notice that I used ح rather than ه for h, even though the latter is closer to the Dothraki h in most places. The reason is (thinking back to the actual Moroccan extras, remember), I was hoping they’d actually use the Arabic sound ح which I thought would be too difficult for English-speaking actors. I’d always imagined that sound in particular when creating and working with Dothraki.
  • The character گ is the one I see most often for g (probably because it’s used in Farsi), but my brother-in-law, who’s been to Morocco, said they use ݣ, so I went with that.
  • Of course, as with Arabic, gemination is indicated with a shadda above the consonant in question. It looks like a little w (دّ).

Now with that out of the way, let’s see it in action! Here’s a Dothraki sentence in the romanization, then in the Arabic script, then translated:

  • Hash yer vineseri dothrakh ataki kishi, zhey shekh ma shieraki anni?
  • حاش يَر ڤينَسَري دوثراخ آتَكي كيشي، ژَي شَخ ما شيَّرَكي انّي؟
  • “Do you remember our first ride, my sun and stars?”

Ha! That was so much fun. I realize I may be the only one who appreciates this, but despite the vowel clusters of Dothraki, I always imagined it written in the Arabic script. Even though it’s a pain in the choyo to write it out using Unicode, it’s fun to see it on the screen.

Thanks for indulging me!

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( write” katabta “you(m.) wrote” katabtum “you( wrote”
taktubiin “you(f.) write” taktubna “you( write” katabti “you(f.) wrote” katabtunna “you( 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. and 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!