Category Archives: Grammar

Discussions about Dothraki grammar.

Indefinite Relatives

Or something close to that, anyway. In honor of the Olympics (though not really in honor of the Olympics), I thought I’d go over a very small, very specific bit of Dothraki grammar.

But before I do that, after upgrading OS X Mountain Lion, the weirdest thing is happening in WordPress. Basically (and there’s really no other way to put it), certain punctuation marks are disappearing. They’re there, of course, and they show up in the published post, but I’m not allowed to see them, apparently. There’s no way to demonstrate other than showing you exactly what I mean, so here’s a screenshot of what I’m seeing:

You see! (Oh, how I’m glad you can’t see what that exclamation point was just reduced to on my screen…) True, the parens are mostly there, there are commas galore, and you can kind of make out the periods, but what of the apostrophes?! Where have they gone? WHERE ARE MY APOSTROPHES?! Man, when I get them back, I am so saying dracarys!

Anyway, we’ve already seen how to form a relative clause in Dothraki. That’s actually the tough part. Next comes identifying indefinite relative clauses. These are (by my definition, anyway) relative clauses where the target of relativization is unknown. In English (and in many languages), what happens is the indefinite relative is actually an embedded WH-question. Here are some examples:

  1. I don’t know where he slept.
  2. I saw who ate the sausage.
  3. We’re deciding when to come.

There are a number of sensible reasons for doing things thus (which is why the strategy is common), but Dothraki does things a little differently. Dothraki uses its series of distal demonstrative pronouns in place of WH-words and then forms a sentence very much like a relative clause. Let’s start with a simple example—the second sentence from above. First, here’s a standard relative clause:

  • Anha tih mahrazhes fin adakh ninde.
    “I saw the man that ate the sausage.”

The word mahrazh, “man”, is put in the accusative case, because it’s the object of tih, “saw”. Fin, “that/who”, is put into the nominative case because it acts as the subject of the embedded verb adakh, “ate”. So far so good.

Now for the indefinite relative. Since it’s not revealed who performed the action, we don’t have a noun to hang fin off of. Thus we insert the pronoun rekak. Here’s the sentence above translated into Dothraki:

  • Anha tih rekakes fin adakh ninde.
    “I saw who ate the sausage.”

This basically looks exactly like the first sentence, but now the pronoun rekak, “that one”, stands in place of mahrazh. Additionally, since the pronoun is used conventionally in these contexts, it can often be used without fin—and often in either the case it would take in the embedded clause or the matrix clause.

Now for the new part. There are other types of indefinite relatives that don’t act exactly like standard relative clauses. Consider our first sentence from above: I don’t know where he slept. In this one, the pronoun becomes rekke, and the sentence is translated thus:

  • Anha nesok rekke remek me.
    “I don’t know where he slept.”

Now there’s no need for fin at all (indeed, using it would be ungrammatical [or at least bizarre] at this stage) and rekke acts a lot more like “where” in the English translation. The same can be done with arrek (best translated as “when” in such sentences). For “how” and “why”, there are two constructions that can be used, but are nevertheless rare (usually the sentence is just reworded). Those terms are: kirekhdirgi “why” and kirekosi “how”.

And there you are! Now you should be able to tackle some tougher texts in Dothraki. For those who made it all the way to the end of this post, I shall reward you with a picture of my havzi vezhven:

My cat.

Click to enlarge.

Look at that little pink tongue! What a cat she is!

Comic-Con Again, Off Again

M’ath to all those attending Comic-Con in San Diego! Enjoy. Some of us ’round here still have work to do! (In fact, I spoke with Dan Weiss and David Benioff yesterday, and they’re not making it this year, either [season 3, and whatnot].) A quick note for those visiting from out of state, though: This weather is NOT normal. It straight up rained here in Orange County—poured! That may be humdrum if you’re from New York or Florida, but in Southern California?! I can’t remember the last time.

Anyway, if you’re wandering around the Gaslamp and happen to bump into anyone dressed as Khal Drogo or Daenerys and want to say “boy, howdy!”, here’s a quick and dirty Dothraki primer:

Dothraki English Audio
M’athchomaroon! Hello!
M’ath! Hi!
Hash yer dothrae chek? How are you?
Chek! Good!
Anha garvok! I’m hungry!
Anha fevek! I’m thirsty!
Hash rekak che Oil Oiton che Jonathon Freykis? Is that Will Wheaton or Jonathan Frakes?
Vojosor heme vos ahhimo anna. I’m not into furries.
Finne zhavorsa anni?! Where are my dragons?!
Anha afichak rek h’anhaan ma vorsoon ma qoyoon! I will take what is mine with fire and blood!
Fonas chek! Goodbye!

Listen to the audio for the pronunciation—or just be sure the vowels are pure and you pronounce the Q’s like K’s (they’re not, but that’s close enough). If you’d like more of an introduction, you can check out the other posts on this blog, or head over to YouTube where sunquan8094 has an entire series of Dothraki tutorials. San athchomari to all those that made the trip down! I plan on being there next year. Until then, fonas chek!

[Featured Photo: Me, my wife and my little sister down in San Diego in younger days. The relationship to the topic at hand is…tenuous.]

Demonstratives

In some of our IRC chats, Qvaak has asked me to go over demonstratives in Dothraki, so I’ll aim to do that today.

A demonstrative is a word like “this” that’s used in front of nouns or noun phrases. In English, we have these four common demonstratives:

  • Give me this book. (Nearby, Singular)
  • Give me that book. (Not Nearby, Singular)
  • Give me these books. (Nearby, Plural)
  • Give me those books. (Not Nearby, Plural)

Notice that the plural demonstratives above agree with the noun in plurality, but don’t actually mark plurality (i.e. you can’t say “Give me those book”). With that in mind, though, the English demonstratives encode two properties: number (singular vs. plural), and distance (nearby vs. not nearby).

In English, you may also use the demonstratives by themselves as demonstrative pronouns. They look just the same and can be used without nouns. The sentence above, then, would look like this:

  • Give me this. (Nearby, Singular)
  • Give me that. (Not Nearby, Singular)
  • Give me these. (Nearby, Plural)
  • Give me those. (Not Nearby, Plural)

Dothraki demonstratives, as modifiers, encode only one property: distance. Unlike English (but like many, many natural languages), Dothraki distinguishes three different distances: near to the speaker, near to the addressee, and near to neither. Demonstrative modifiers in Dothraki different from adjectival modifiers in that they precede the nouns they modify, rather than follow them. Using arakh instead of “book”, here are some sentences illustrating the distinctions made in Dothraki:

  • Azhas anhaan jin arakh. “Give me this arakh.” (Near Speaker)
  • Azhas anhaan haz arakh. “Give me that arakh.” (Near Addressee)
  • Azhas anhaan rek arakh. “Give me that arakh.” (Near Neither)

Note that the form of the demonstrative doesn’t change regardless of the plurality of the the noun, as shown below:

  • Anha tih rek hrakkares. “I saw that lion.”
  • Anha tih rek hrakkaris. “I saw those lions.”

If you want to use the demonstratives by themselves as stand-alone pronouns, however, the forms do change, unlike in English. Basically, in order to use a demonstrative as a pronoun, one needs to know the animacy of the intended referent. The demonstrative then declines as a noun would that matched in animacy. The animate form for each demonstrative pronoun adds -ak to the end of the demonstrative in the nominative, and the inanimate adds an -i. The animate forms decline like any consonant-final animate noun, and the inanimate form declines like the relative pronoun fini (its declension is shown here). Below are some examples:

  • Hazi zhokwae.That (thing) is big.”
  • Azhas rek anhaan. “Give that (thing) to me.”
  • Azhas mae hazakaan. “Give it to that (one).”
  • Jinak simon anni.This is my uncle.”

Notice also the difference here between a copular phrase and a noun phrase:

  • Jini havzi. “This is a cat.”
  • jin havzithis cat”

Regarding when to use which demonstrative, it’s fairly straightforward, given a specific circumstance. Let’s say we had two nameless interlocutors in a bizarre, Photoshop-esque landscape with multi-colored bones, as shown below:

Two dudes next to two bones with a third bone floating in space, apparently.

Let’s take our speaker as the dark red dude. If he wants to refer to the orange bone, he says jin tolorro. If he wants to refer to the green bone, he says haz tolorro. If he wants to refer to the blue bone, he says rek tolorro. Simple enough. Now let’s look at a different scenario:

Three people with three bones on a splotchy field.

In this scenario, if the speaker is still the red dude and the addressee is still the yellow dude, the same exact demonstratives are used as were used in the previous example (jin for orange; haz for green; rek for blue). If his addressee is the pinkish dude, though, you’d use haz for blue and rek for green. The choice will be determined by who’s being spoken to, not how close the thing is to the speaker, necessarily.

Now how about if the red dude is speaking to both of those other dudes at the same time. In that instance, you’d use haz for both and point or further specify with words if necessary. Since both addressees are being addressed at once, anything that’s near either of them will be considered close enough to warrant haz.

Now let’s throw in a further wrinkle:

Three dudes and four bones.

A new light blue bone has fallen from the sky! Let’s say that the red dude is addressing the yellow dude and the pink dude is just there. In this case, the red dude will refer to both blue bones with rek. The reason is that the green bone is still present. As it’s the closest to the addressee, it will get haz. This leaves rek to handle both of the bones that are further away, and the speaker will have to further specify if further specification is required.

Now how about this scenario:

Two guys, two real bones, and one imagined.

Now the red dude is thinking about the light blue bone from the last picture. In this case, the red dude refers to the light blue bone with rek. Presumably he could only do so if the light blue bone was known to both he and the yellow dude (otherwise he would need to introduce it into the discourse), but once it’s a part of the shared experience of speaker and addressee, it can be referred to with a demonstrative. As the addressee has a bone that’s near at hand (the green bone), it gets haz, leaving rek for the light blue bone.

Now how about this scenario:

Two men (one couchant), and two bones.

Yellow dude was out for his morning ride (around the green bone like every morning), when he sees that his friend red dude is lying on the ground in distress. He dismounts and walks past the green bone to get a closer look. Red dude, for whatever reason, has been incapacitated, and, as he gurgles out, the only thing that will save him is the orange bone that’s relatively near at hand. What the red dude does, then, is refers to the orange bone with haz, rather than jin, in order to imply to the yellow dude that the orange bone is not, in fact, nearby. Though it may be physically quite close, in this instance, it’s further than his body will take him, and so he uses haz to indicate that. If he were to refer to the green bone for any reason, then, he’d use rek, even though it’s quite close to the addressee.

This kind of gives you an idea how to choose between the three demonstratives of Dothraki. This same schema applies to non-physical elements, such as discourse topics. So, for example, if a speaker has an idea about something, he may refer to that idea with jin (as it’s a produce of the speaker’s imagination, the idea is, metaphorically speaking, near at hand). An idea that an addressee has come up with, then, can be referred to with haz. Something that’s to be introduced to the discourse (which is, perhaps, the product of neither speaker nor addressee) can be referred to with rek.

In addition, due to the nature of this spatial metaphor, a Dothraki can actually give opinions about another’s idea by using a different demonstrative. So, for example:

  • Hazi dirge davra!That’s a good idea!”
  • Reki dirge toki!That’s a stupid idea!”

Both ideas are the product of the same person, but by using reki in the second sentence, the speaker has attempted to place the idea even further out of the discourse space, making it seem bizarre (and, thereby, unacceptable). And, of course, a speaker can take that the other way, using jin to make it seem like they had something to do with the idea, even though someone else came up with it.

As this post is getting a bit long, I’m going to cut it off here, but it’s a start! Consider this an introduction to deixis in Dothraki. More will follow in future posts.

Ours Is the Fury

A week or so ago, Crown of Gold asked in a comment on a previous post how one would translate the words of House Baratheon into Dothraki. The words are: “Ours is the fury.” I might’ve responded to the comment directly, but the question is actually much more complicated than one might think.

Starting just with the English, “Ours is the fury” is an instantiation of what appears to be a rather bizarre (or at least crosslinguistically rare) construction. I think an English speaker has the sense that “Ours is the fury” means something fundamentally different from “The fury is ours”, but it’s hard to characterize that difference. As I see it, it’s not simply a difference in focus. It’s kind of like in the first one, the idea is that the fury is inherent in who we are—it’s part of what defines us (here, the “us” is House Baratheon, of course). In “The fury is ours”, it sounds like we just obtained it—or purchased it.

Personally, I always think of Captain Planet. When he said, “The power is yours!“, it always sounded to me like he was either giving us the power, or informing us that we now had the power (and perhaps always had it). Had he said, “Yours is the power!”, it would have been something quite different—more of a reminder that we have it within us to put an end to pollution and poaching and the like.

(By the way, I invite English speakers to comment on what they think the difference between these two might be. Do you get my sense, or something different? Or do they sound the same to you?)

Anyway, so before translating it into Dothraki, I needed to figure out what the heck it means in English. And since I was on IRC at the time, I asked ingsve and Qvaak what they thought. It turns out in Swedish and Finnish, there’s no equivalent for “Ours is the fury” (you’d translate it as “The fury is ours”). Part of that has to do with the fact that neither language actually has a distinct possessive pronominal form. English, on the other hand, has a full complement of them, as shown below:

  Possessive Adjective Possessive Pronoun
1st Person Singular my mine
2nd Person Singular your yours
3rd Person Singular (Fem.) her hers
3rd Person Singular (Mas.) his his
3rd Person Singular (Ina.) its its
1st Person Plural our ours
2nd Person Plural your yours
3rd Person Plural their theirs
WH-Word whose whose

Like Finnish and Swedish, Dothraki also makes no distinction between the possessive adjective and the possessive pronoun: All there are are the pronouns in the genitive (or the ablative, as the case may be [no pun intended (but enjoyed, nevertheless)]). Even so, there are situations in which a genitive pronoun will be interpreted as a possessive pronoun. Consider the two sentences below:

  • Hazi hrazef anni. “That’s my horse.”
  • Hazi anni. “That’s mine.”

However, you can’t turn that around:

  • #/? Anni hazi. “Mine is that.”

Okay, that sentence may be infelicitous for other reasons, but this one makes sense in English:

  • #/? Anni athhajar. “Mine is the strength.”

I can’t even characterize how bizarre that looks… I can’t say for certain that it’s ungrammatical, but it just doesn’t look or sound right. So one couldn’t translate “Ours is the fury” straight up into Dothraki (the way you can, more or less, in Spanish).

In order to try to approximate the flavor of the original, then, I had two ideas: (1) Fix it so that the word order could be preserved, or (2) try to translate the sense I get, regardless of word order and lexical items. So instead of giving “the” translation, Crown of Gold, I’ll give you two. Not sure which is best (interlinears given in lieu of translations, as we know what the translation is):

  1. Kishaan athostar. /1PL.ALL fury-NOM/
  2. Athostar dothrae mra kisha. /fury-NOM ride-3SG in 1PL.NOM/

I think each translation has its own merits. The first preserves the word order and simplicity of the original English, but it implies the same thing that “The fury is ours” implies, in my mind—that is, the fury is somewhere outside of us, and it’s coming to us.

The second should be somewhat familiar, as it parallels Daenerys’s quote from A Game of Thrones: Khalakka dothrae mr’anha, “A prince rides inside me”. She’s referring to her unborn child, of course, but I thought that it really accurately describes the sense I get from “Ours is the fury”. I think it works! Though I did just think of a possible alternate:

  1. Athostar dothrae kishi. /fury-NOM ride-3SG 1PL.GEN/

So literally, this would be something like “Fury rides with us”, or “Fury rides beside us” (reminiscent of that scene from Tombstone). I think that’s a pretty good approximation of “Ours is the fury” done Dothraki-style!

Sorry for the late response, Crown of Gold, but that one made me think quite a bit. It was a good one! Always nice to work through a new translation. Oh, and as for athostar, it derives ultimately from ostat, which means “to bite”. It’s an animalistic type of anger which I thought better suited the English word “fury” than any other term referring to anger. “Fury” itself is kind of an odd word as it exists in English. It doesn’t just mean “anger”: it implies violent action. That’s what I got from athostar (which has been around for a while), so I thought it’d work for this translation.

Thanks for the question, zhey Crown of Gold!

Update: Matt Pearson suggested an alternate for the first translation that uses the ablative, instead of the allative:

  1. Kishoon athostar. /1PL.ABL fury-NOM/

That’s another option to consider. I think it sounds even more aggressive than “Ours is the fury”—more like, “Mess with us, and taste our wrath!” What do you think?

Pronominals

Responding to a request that I think came from IRC, here’s a look at personal pronouns in Dothraki.

Since I’m a big fan of tables, let’s start out with a table, and then follow it up with explanation. In this table, we’ll have the pronouns going along the left, and the cases going along the top.

  Nominative Accusative Genitive Allative Ablative
1st Person Singular anha anna anni anhaan anhoon
2nd Person Singular yer yera yeri yeraan yeroon
3rd Person Singular me mae mae maan moon
1st Person Plural kisha kisha kishi kishaan kishoon
2nd Person Plural yeri yeri yeri yerea yeroa
3rd Person Plural mori mora mori morea moroa
2nd Person Formal shafka shafka shafki shafkea shafkoa

I talked about number agreement in a previous post, so pronoun choice should be pretty clear, aside from the second person pronouns. So let’s discuss those.

In Dothraki, there are three second person pronounss: yer, which is singular; yeri, which is plural; and shafka, which covers both. As one might guess from looking at the table above, yer and yeri are the “ordinary” second person pronouns (they fit right into the usual system of 1st, 2nd and 3rd person, singular and plural); shafka is the exceptional one. Shafka is also the youngest of the trio, having come from an older noun—specifically (using a kind of modified Dothraki romanization), *shapakǝ (the last letter there is a schwa. Also note that an asterisk indicates that a given word is a proto-form). How it came to be a pronoun in the modern language is a bit of a story.

The original word *shapakǝ meant “horse breaker”, or someone who can tame and master wild horses. It derived rather regularly from the verb *shapatǝ, which meant “to break a horse”. Due to the respect accorded those who were skilled horse-breakers, though, the word itself became a title—and with it came the respect and esteem of the other Dothraki. If it had continued on in this way, it would simply have become shafak. As it happens, that word doesn’t exist (today the most common word associated with the root is vishaferat, which means to break a horse, to domesticate a beast of burden, or to get one’s first kill with a new weapon [the verb shafat isn’t used]).

Instead, the title *shapakǝ began to be used in contexts outside of horse-breaking. This is something that’s liable to happen to pretty much any word, but which doesn’t have to happen. In Dothraki, it happened with *shapakǝ. And as it started to get passed around as a term of respect, it stepped in to fill a void in the pronominal system—specifically, it was used to encode a distinction between formal and informal address (something that had already started to take shape in the imperative).

As for the curious declension pattern it has today, initially the plural form of the noun was adopted as the standard form of the pronoun (something similar happened with the imperative, where the old plural imperative was taken as the formal imperative). The full pattern at the time, then, would’ve looked like this:

  Nominative Accusative Genitive Allative Ablative
2nd Person Formal *shapaki *shapakis *shapaki *shapakea *shapakua

Influenced by some of the other changes taking place in the pronoun system at the time (skipping over some steps here, including the collapse of the old partitive case), though, the accusative became *shapaka, making the paradigm look like the third person plural pronoun. As a result of a change to the first person pronouns, though (which resulted in *anǝk changing to *anka), a new form emerged: *shapka. This replaced the old accusative, and then took over the nominative, too, making the paradigm look a bit more like kisha, only with a kind of singular/plural split in the exponence on the pronominal forms.

And, of course, it was shortly after this that the old *p phoneme became f, giving us the pronouns we have today.

As for their use, the basic idea is if you don’t know what pronoun to use, use shafka. The worst that can happen if you use shafka is you might get laughed at; using yer when the situation doesn’t warrant it, however, could get you killed.

The best way I can think to describe the difference between yer and shafka is that yer is a private word; shafka a public one. Two Dothraki lajaki who would refer to each other with yer when out riding alone would refer to each other as shafka in the presence of outsiders. One should always refer to the khal as shafka (the lone exception would be his khaleesi, and even she would use shafka most often in public). The khal can use whatever he wants, and more often than not he’ll use yer. Those referred to as such are not allowed to return the greeting. Even so, the khal would likely use shafka in formal situations (e.g. in Episode 7, Drogo uses shafka with Jorah when presenting him with the gift of a horse).

In general, then, shafka is a sign of respect either towards the addressee, or towards the situation, if that makes sense. Yer is used between friends and family in informal situations, and with those who are younger—or with those whom one doesn’t respect, and whom one wants to insult (Mago does this with the Khaleesi in Episode 8. The mistake proves costly).

In addition to these general guidelines, shafka is also used in impersonal constructions, e.g.:

  • Shafka jif vo vitiheri shekhes. “One should not stare at the sun.”

Above, vitiherat is “to stare at/into” or “to examine” (also “to ponder”). Oh, and since it’s come up, shafka always triggers third person plural agreement in the verb.

Those, at least, are the personal pronouns of Dothraki. There are other pronouns, but I’ll have to save those for another day.

To Be or Not to Be?

Always a tough question for a conlanger. Not existence, of course, but the copula, and how to deal with it.

First, by way of introduction, the copula in English is our friend “to be”. It performs a few different functions, as in the sentences below:

  1. A dog is an animal. (Category Membership)
  2. That is Maria. (Equivalence)
  3. That door is green. (Predication)

Of course, in English, the verb “to be” does a lot of other stuff (e.g. passives), but it’s this basic X = Y relationship that we’re talking about. In English, “to be” does a lot of hard work for us, but other languages do things in different ways—and we don’t have to go too far down the linguistic tree to find differences. In Spanish (and a couple other [but not all] Romance languages), there’s not just one copula, like in English, but two, as shown below:

  1. La casa es sucia. “The house is dirty.”
  2. La casa está sucia. “The house is dirty.”

The sentences above translate the same way, but mean slightly different things. In (5), está is used to indicate that the house is dirty at the moment and could use some cleaning. In (4), on the other hand, es is used to indicate that that house is just a dirty, dirty house. Reminds me of when I used to walk to school past these two houses that my friends and I would call the Clean House and the Dirty House. The contrast was just too stark—and it never changed: the Dirty House was always dirty; the Clean House was always clean. In fact, can we get a shot of those houses, Google Street View?

A picture of two houses I used to walk by.

Click to enlarge.

Ki fin yeni?! Dirty House be clean now! How about that… Must be under new ownership. Trust me, though: the contrast was quite apparent, like…fifteen years ago.

Anyway, the contrast in Spanish is between more or less permanent states and temporary ones (or status vs. state). Other languages draw a distinction between identity constructions and locative constructions (a lot of creole languages do this), or stative predicates (things usually translated by “be + adjective” in English) or other standard copular constructions. That’s not the topic of discussion today. Today I wanted to talk about the form of the copula construction.

As I mentioned, both English and Spanish use verbs. Some languages do it without verbs, though. In Arabic, for example (and also Russian), standard copular expressions are done without any verb at all where one would otherwise expect a verb. Here are some examples from Arabic:

  1. Hiiya taktub. “She’s writing.” (Non-Copular Expression)
  2. Hiiya mutarjim. “She’s a translator.” (Copular Expression)

In (6), the verb taktub is fully conjugated in the third person feminine present tense; in (7), mutarjim simply translates as “translator”. All you need is the two nouns (or pronoun and noun) and that does the job. In the past tense, though…

  1. Hiiya kaanat mutarjiman. “She was a translator.”

…the copula (of the wazan k-w-n) reasserts itself to indicate that the expression is past tense (the object is also marked with the accusative). This also happens in Russian (another well-known zero copula language). Some languages, though, never have a copula in any tense, and simply use the same expression in all contexts.

Dothraki, as has been noted, is a zero copula language, as shown below:

  1. Hazi eshina. “That’s a fish.”

In fact, you can get away with using adjectives predicatively in this way, with a subtle difference in meaning:

  1. Hazi eyelie. “That’s spotted.”
  2. Hazi eyeli. “That’s a spotted one.”

This is kind of a status vs. state distinction, as in Spanish, except that the standard construction in (10) (using the stative verb) can be used for both a state and a status (i.e. for saying something is, at the moment, spotted [say it got splattered with mud], or for saying that something [say, a toad] is spotted all the time), and the latter can only be used with status statements.

Adjectives aside, the main place you see a zero copula expression is in equivalence statements (“He’s a warrior”, “That’s my horse”, “This is the arakh I’m going to cut your tongue out with”, etc.). Outside of the present tense, though, where one would see the reintroduction of a copula in, say, Russian, one sees a change in case in Dothraki. In fact, we can break it down rather simply as follows:

Tense Case Example Translation
Future Allative Me khalaan. He will be khal.
Present Nominative Me khal. He is khal.
Past Ablative Me khaloon. He was/used to be khal.

Seems like a nice neat system, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, this tripartite system derives from an older innovation from when Dothraki was a true zero copula language (and, well, it still is, I suppose, but it started to develop some copula-like constructions).

In the oldest form of the language, as I mentioned before, the word order of Dothraki was VSO. In order to augment the tenseless zero copula, the following expressions were developed:

  1. Ee me khalaan. “He will be khal.” (Lit. “Goes he to khal.”)
  2. Jada me khaloon. “He was/used to be khal.” (Lit. “Comes he from khal.”)

In the modern form of the language when the word order changed, the verbs were simply dropped, since they weren’t necessary to express the content. Even so, these verbs can be reintroduced (in their original verb-initial position) in the modern language if further clarity is demanded.

Today, the two separate systems overlap a little bit. The zero copula expression is still used in tenses other than the present when simple equivalence is desired. That is, if, for example, one was telling a narrative and the context is understood as past, the zero copula expression serves, as shown below (I apologize for the long block of text):

Ma anha dothra Qarthoon heshjim, ma anha arthas lajakasaraan. Mori lajish k’athvezhvenari, vosma anha drozh mora nakhaan. Irge vilajeri, fansa anni laz vos irvoso k’athnithmenari, majin anha fono chiories jimmoon, zhey Fenni. Me koalakeesi.

And all of that was just for the very last sentence. Here’s the translation:

And I rode southwest from Qarth, and I encountered a group of warriors. They fought bravely, but I slew them all. After the battle, my dapple couldn’t trot without pain, so I sought out a woman from the west named Fenni. She was a healer.

Even in English, in fact, you could translate that in the present tense, given the appropriate context (so not in a novel, but if your listener was immediately on hand, “She’s a healer” is fine [or if it’s in the near past and the woman in question is still alive]). In fact, if one were, instead, to say Me koalakeesisoon, it would mean, in that context, she used to be (but no longer is) a healer.

Apart from a context like this, using the ablative can mean “X was Y” without any comment about whether they still are or not, or “X used to be Y”. So a statement like this wouldn’t be a contradiction:

  1. Me koalakeesisoon, vosma me vos koalakeesi ajjin. “She was a healer, but she’s not a healer now.”

That’s about all there is to copulae in Dothraki. If you haven’t got anything else to do, feel free to enjoy this fine song about Hamlet.