Category Archives: Pronunciation

Mainly discussions about how Dothraki is pronounced.

Tīkuni Zōbrī, Udra Zōbriar

Tonight’s linguistic recap will be short, since there was no Valyrian or Dothraki in episode 302: “Dark Wings, Dark Words.” Of course, I’ve gotten used to this kind of treatment at the hands of Vanessa Taylor… Hee, hee, just kidding. She had some good stuff for me in 204. And the way things work is that stuff always gets moved around after it’s written. I did, in fact, do quite a bit of work for episode 302, but all of it was moved to 301. I wasn’t sure if anything else would get moved to 302, but it looks like it’s been saved for later on.

Some quick comments on 302: Cersei’s line was a crowd favorite (re: Margaery’s dress), and the scene with the Queen of Thorns was wonderful. That scene was a favorite of mine from the books, and I was looking forward to it this season. It did not disappoint. Neither did Brienne fighting with Jaime! That was fun. I could watch that all day. Plus, in that armor, Gwendoline Christie looks like a tank! Truly formidable.

Anyway, since there wasn’t much to discuss language-wise in this episode, I thought I’d go back and fill in a little bit. I’ve been much busier this year than I was last year, and recently, much sicker, so I haven’t been able to do as much as I did in the past. There’s been a lot of discussion about the Astapori Valyrian, though, so I did want to see if I could help out a bit.

Something I thought might help for a start would be just listing the phonology of High Valyrian. This is what it looks like (I’m going to go ahead and use the romanization rather than IPA here):

Manner Place
Labial Coronal Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Stops p, b t, d j, lj k, g q  
Fricatives v s, z (th) gh (kh) h
Approximants r, rh, l      
Nasals m n ñ n*  

I’ll try to explain the fuzzy bits as simply as possible. First, if you go to the nasal row, the n with an asterisk next to it simply says that an n will naturally assimilate in place to a following velar or uvular consonant, but that there isn’t a separate velar or uvular nasal. Basically, this means that n works like you would expect it to, and that High Valyrian also has ñ as a separate consonant (and that’s a ñ just like in Spanish, which sounds a little like the “ni” in “onion”).

Next, you’ll see two digraphs in parentheses. These are sounds that aren’t native to High Valyrian, but which have been borrowed in (with greater or lesser success, depending on the speaker). Thus, Dothraki arakh gets borrowed in as arakh, but might get pronounced like arak or arah or maybe even aragh, depending on the speaker. From episode 301, if you hear anything that sounds like either kh or gh, it’s supposed to be gh (Dan’s accent is light on the voiced sounds. I noticed several z’s that sounded like s, a few g’s that sounded like k, and his gh often sounds like kh to my ear).

You’ll also see that three sounds don’t fit in one column and/or row: gh, v and j. These sounds vary in their production. So gh may be strongly velar for some speakers, or strongly uvular for others; the distinction isn’t phonemic. The other two sounds go between approximants and fricatives depending on the speaker and the environment. So v, for example, may sometimes sound like w, and j may sound like a Dothraki j, a Dothraki y or a Dothraki zh, depending on the speaker. In Astapori Valyrian, the j is pretty much always zh. (Oh, and as a side note, the digraph lj is used for the palatal lateral [ʎ]. It’s pretty much always a lateral, but I couldn’t manage the table otherwise.)

At the stage we’re at in the show and the books, though, High Valyrian isn’t spoken as a native language anymore: it’s always a learned second language. As a result, the pronunciation has changed from its purest form. It’s not necessarily important to know how precisely j was pronounced, but that the sound was j (the phoneme) in High Valyrian, if you follow.

Anyway, the vowels are a bit simpler:

Vowel Height Backness
Front Central Back
High ī, i ȳ, y   ū, u
Mid ē, e   ō, o
Low   ā, a

The first thing to note is that vowels with a macron over them (ī, ȳ, ū, ē, ō and ā) are long. Long vowels are held for twice as long as short vowels, and are quite common crosslinguistically (Arabic has them, Japanese, Hungarian, etc.). Words will be distinguished simply by their vowel length in High Valyrian. The vowel spelled y (and ȳ) is pronounced just like i, but with rounded lips (it’s the u in French tu). This sound may not be pronounced in modern High Valyrian (i.e. High Valyrian spoken by non-native speakers), and didn’t survive in all of the descendent languages. So, for example, the y in Daenerys is probably just pronounced like i (the way we pronounce it), even if in High Valyrian it would’ve been pronounced differently.

In looking at the Astapori Valyrian from 301, note that all long vowels have been lost—and most diphthongs (for example, an Unsullied is a Dovaogēdy in High Valyrian; in Astapori Valyrian, it’s Dovoghedhy). Oh, and since I brought it up, Astapori Valyrian dh is pronounced like the “th” in “this” or “the”. The sound doesn’t exist in High Valyrian.

I’m not sure how much this will help in decoding the Valyrian in 301, but hopefully it will help a little. Since most of it isn’t subtitled, I honestly can’t be sure what made it in and what didn’t (when it’s not subtitled, they feel much more free to cut words or sentences if it’s running long). I already heard from Dan that part of at least one of his sentences was cut, but I don’t know what episode he was talking about. Anyway, to work with something I know came through, here’s the last two lines from 301. First, Missandei:

  • Pindas skoverdi Dovoghedhi lis lerraski.
  • “She asks how many Unsullied are for sale.”

The word order should be much more familiar in Astapori Valyrian, as it’s lost the cases of High Valyrian, for the most part. It tends to stick to SVO word order. After that is Kraznys’ line:

  • Ivetra ji live Vesterozia kisa eva vaneqo.
  • “Tell the Westerosi whore she has until tomorrow.”

It was a tough choice, by the way, to go with the name “Westeros” in-universe. I mean, it’s pretty Englishy… I thought of coming up with my own term, but then I relented and decided to just keep it as is: the continent in the west is Westeros, and the continent in the east is Easteros—I mean Essos. Besides, it allowed me to change the w to v, which I thought was fun.

Hopefully this will help you decode what bits remain a bit more easily. Also, though High Valyrian has four genders, Astapori Valyrian just has the two, and in the singular, there are two definite articles: ji and vi.

Anyway, unless things got moved around majorly, there should be a good chunk of Astapori Valyrian next week. Stay tuned!

Geros ilas!

Qute Responses

Last time I listed some sentences sample sentences featuring the Dothraki Q, and asked for recordings from readers of the Dothraki blog. Here are the results!

1. Qoy qoyi

This is the translation of the famous Dothraki phrase “blood of my blood”. The full phrase would actually be Qoy qoyi anhoon, but the anhoon is left off, as it’s understood (and this happens more often than not with inalienable possession). We got four responders: Hrakkar, ingsve and Qvaak from the Dothraki forums, and George Corley, one of the hosts of the Conlangery Podcast. Here they are (note: some are quite quiet):





Nice job! Most everyone got the [q] down. It’s a toss-up as to which comes closest, but I think it’s Qvaak. Nice job, all!

2. Hake mae “Haqe”

Next, the most ridiculous sentence of the bunch because I wasn’t clever enough to think up a realistic sentence with the words for “name” and “tired” in them (“What’s the name of that tired man?” Dang! Where were you last week?!). Anyway, it means “His name is ‘Tired'” (just totally bizarre; doesn’t look like a Dothraki name at all), and here’s the audio:





Nice job all, but this time, I give the horse heart to George (his A vowels were a little closer than Qvaak’s)!

(I suddenly just imagined a Dothraki award ceremony far, far in the future, where bronzed horse hearts are given out as awards. This should happen.)

3. Kisha dothraki yomme qeshah

In this sentence (which means “We ride across the sand”), I just wanted to get the word qeshah in there, because it’s one of my favorites. Truth be told, I really like the English word “sand” for sand, but qeshah is a close second. Here’s how it came out:





The Q’s sound pretty good, but the stress tripped some people up. Hrakkar got the stress of qeshah right and ingsve got all the stresses right, but George and Qvaak stressed it on the first syllable. Also, unless it didn’t get picked up by the mics, no one gave voice to the final H. That one ain’t there for a decoration, like it is in English! Amongst those who submitted, though, I’d say ingsve’s second reading comes the closest. Nice job!

4. Qafak qov kaffe qif qiya fini kaf faqqies fakaya

Finally, this tongue twister was put together with Qvaak in mind. He’s kind of famous for coming up with these really, really weird Dothraki sentences just to see if they work (check out his user page over at the wiki), so I decided to come up with one that was equally weird. Since I was trying to make use as much as possible of K, Q and F, that didn’t turn out to be too difficult. This sentence means, “The trembling questioner crushed the bleeding boar that squished a kicking corn bunting.” (What else should trembling questioners do?) Here’s the audio:





And, as promised, here’s me doing the tongue twister the first time through without editing:

Ha! I did all right, but the thing that screwed me up towards the end was the stress on faqqies. I was focusing so much on getting the i following the qq right that I begun stressing the word initially, even though it should be stressed finally. I tried to rescue it mid-word, and that just screwed everything up.

Listening through, it looks like everyone else had roughly the same problem. None of us got the stress completely right. It should be (using acute accents to mark it):

  • Qafák qov káffe qif qíya fíni kaf faqqiés fákaya.

All in all, though, good tries! Of all five of us, I think Qvaak did the best job. The moral of the story: Hard tongue twisters are hard.

Thanks for the great recordings! Hope you had fun. And clearly I’m going to need to come up with some sort of graphic for the Horse Heart Award…

Qute Noises

Somewhere over at the forums a question came up about how exactly to pronounce Dothraki Q. It’s a favorite sound of mine, so I thought it’d be nice to dedicate a post to it.

I first encountered the sound which in IPA is transliterated as [q] in 1999, when I took my first Arabic class at Berkeley. I’d previously known the character (the letter qaaf, which looks like this: ق), but the descriptions I found were probably worse than useless (many tried to compare it to “qu” in English, which makes absolutely no sense). Since I knew it was a sound completely foreign to English and had nothing but terrible descriptions, I went into my first class assuming the sound was going to be incredibly difficult. As a result, I made it more difficult by (I now realize) geminating the sound in all positions (which was quite difficult in initial position).

The sound is actually as easy to produce as a [k]; it just makes the vowels around it harder to produce. It’s also harder to produce clusters like [qr] and [ql] because your tongue has to stretch further forward after the closure. But the stop itself is no big deal. Here’s how you do it.

The best place to start is to look at the consonant [k] (like in English “bike”). To form a [k], you take the back of your tongue and form a closure by placing it against the soft palate. Here’s what that area looks like on a human:

A sagittal section highlighting the velum in orange.

Click to enlarge.

To make a closure at the uvula, all you do is bunch up the back of your tongue and move it further backward along the soft palate. Here’s that area circled on the same image:

A sagittal section highlighting the uvula in teal.

Click to enlarge.

If you do it right, it should produce a kind of hollow sound that, to me, sounds like a drop of water. [Heh. It’s funny. I was just talking to Jeff Jones about how we often use vague descriptions to describe sounds. Guess I’m guilty of it too!]

Anyway, the best I can do is produce some audio of some Dothraki words and phrases using Q—and contrasting it with K, so you can hear the difference.

Here’s me pronouncing kafat, “to smash” and qafat, “to ask”:

Now to put it in medial position, here’s hake, “name” and haqe, “tired”:

And here it is as a geminate in the phrase coined by George R. R. Martin jaqqa rhan:

You’ll probably notice that the vowels following Q sound a little different from the vowels following K. This is quite common (though not obligatory) in natural languages that have [q] (or other uvular consonants). Here’s a table showing how a Dothraki vowel will sound when it follows K and how it’ll sound when it follows Q:

Vowel Phoneme Sound Following K Sound Following Q
A [a] [ɑ]
E [e] [ɛ]
I [i] [e]
O [o]* [ɔ]

* Actually the pronunciation of O even in ordinary situations varies a little bit. Sometimes it will come out as [u] after a velar consonant like K, G or KH.

Now that you know how it sounds and how to produce it theoretically, why not give it a shot? If you’ve got recording equipment, give these words/phrases a try, and e-mail the files to “dave” at “dothraki” dot “com”. If I get some sound files, I’ll put them up in a new blog post (unless you don’t want me to, in which case let me know!), and I’ll tell you how you did. It’s just for fun, so don’t feel pressured to get it perfect: Just give it a shot!

Here are some phrases to try:

  1. Qoy qoyi. “Blood of my blood.”
  2. Hake mae “Haqe”. “His name is ‘Tired’.”
  3. Kisha dothraki yomme qeshah. “We ride across the sand.”

And here’s a tongue twister for fun:

  1. Qafak qov kaffe qif qiya fini kaf faqqies fakaya. “The trembling questioner crushed the bleeding boar that squished a kicking corn bunting.”

What’s a corn bunting, you ask? Why, a bird, of course. Can I pronounce that sentence…? Well, if you give it a shot, I will too—and I’ll post the unedited, first-try recording here on the blog.

Good luck!

Accents in Dothraki

Today’s topic was suggested by ingsve over at the Dothraki fora, but it comes originally from Blizzard over at Blizzard writes (in the Requests thread of the Dothraki subforum):

How the Dothraki would pronounce the words of the westerosi houses? Or “Where is my horse?”

Well, the latter’s pretty simple: Finne sajo anni? But the former is today’s topic—specifically, Dothraki-accented English.

When I put together my initial proposal for Dothraki, I included materials for how an English speaker would pronounce Dothraki, and also materials for how a native Dothraki speaker would pronounce English (or Common). I’ll be drawing primarily from that document here.

All speakers are different, of course, and as I’ve mentioned at other times, it seems likely that the Dothraki spoken by different khalasars would differ from each other in more or less consistent ways, but with the Dothraki accent I had in mind, I came up with three different pronunciations for three different levels of fluency. I call these the Thick Dothraki Accent; the Middling Dothraki Accent; and the Non-Native Fluent Dothraki Accent.

Regarding word choice, there are a number of things that could be said about changes that are made by less-than-fluent English speakers with Dothraki as a native language (e.g. dropping articles, mixing up the gender of third person pronouns, etc.), but I don’t want this post to be too long, so I’ll focus on pronunciation. Here are some of the phonetic characteristics of Dothraki-accented English:

  • The English “r” ([ɹ] in my dialect) is one of the most difficult sounds for any non-English-speaker to pronounce. It seems likely that none but the most fluent speaker would ever master it, replacing it with the tapped or trilled Dothraki r.
  • A Dothraki speaker will inconsistently produce a distinction between English “f” and “p” and English “v” and “b”. They can hear the difference, of course, and produce it, but the pairs don’t distinguish meaning in Dothraki, so a Dothraki speaker is unlikely to treat the distinction as an important one.
  • Diphthongs are uncommon, at best, in Dothraki, so the common diphthongs of English will likely be broken into two vowel sequences (e.g. “lice” might come out as lais rather than lays).
  • No Dothraki word ends in g, p, b, q or w. English words that end in (well, the first three of) these sounds will have an epenthetic e attached to the end. Additionally, words that begin with “s” plus some consonant will have an epenthetic e attached to the front (much like Spanish).
  • The epenthetic e will also break up long word-internal clusters foreign to Dothraki. So a word like “kingsguard” would probably be pronounced kin-gess-guard.
  • The large vowel system of English will be radically simplified in Dothraki-accented English. For example, in English we’d distinguish between “who’d”, “hood”, “hoed” and “hawed” (if you’re from the East Coast). In Dothraki, they’d all probably come out the same—or, at least, would be produced inconsistently.
  • The alveolar obstruents “t”, “d”, “n” and “l” will be pronounced dentally, as they are in Dothraki. In addition, the voiced version of English “th” (i.e. the “th” in “that”, “this” and “thou”; not the unvoiced one in “thing”, “thin” and “think”) would be pronounced as a Dothraki d. [Note: A native English speaker would likely not hear the difference, as what is supposed to be a fricative in English is often produced as a dental stop—much like the Dothraki d.]
  • No words in Dothraki begin with a w. For English words that do, the sequence “w” + vowel will probably be rendered as a two vowel sequence beginning with o.
  • Finally, as Dothraki stress is regular (not lexical), unfamiliar words will likely be stressed with the Dothraki stress pattern (e.g. “backpack” would get stressed on the second syllable). For the many words of English that have penultimate stress, a coda consonant will likely be lengthened to produce a situation where Dothraki would also have penultimate stress (for example, the r in the name “Viserys”, which we stress on the second syllable, would likely be doubled in an attempt to reproduce the conditions for penultimate stress).

Okay! That’s a long list and might be a bit opaque, so the best thing to do would be to actually hear the difference. To illustrate, I’ll read the following short passage from the prologue of A Game of Thrones:

His heart stopped in his chest. For a moment he dared not breathe. Moonlight shone down on the clearing, the ashes of the firepit, the snow-covered lean-to, the great rock, the little half-frozen stream. Everything was just as it had been a few hours ago.

For the purposes of comparison, here it is first in my ordinary reading voice:

Now here it is with a Thick Dothraki Accent:

Now with a Middling Dothraki Accent:

And finally, the Non-Native Fluent Dothraki Accent:

That should give you an idea about how one would pronounce English with a Dothraki accent. Now to the meat of Blizzard’s original question: How would you pronounce the words of the Westerosi houses? That’s kind of a tough one unravel. Is it just how are the houses themselves pronounced with a Dothraki accent? The houses and their words (i.e. their slogans or mottoes)? Or how would they all be translated into Dothraki? I wasn’t sure, so I just recorded a number of the house names themselves. If the words are wanted, I can do those later. Here are some of the most prominent houses:

House Stark:

House Baratheon:

House Targaryen:

House Lannister:

House Tully:

House Arryn:

House Tyrell:

House Martell:

House Tarly:

House Greyjoy:

House Royce:

Now that I’m thinking about it, it seems more likely that the original poster was asking about having the house mottoes translated into Dothraki… Oh well. At the very least, here’s House Targaryen’s motto: Vorsa ma Qoy, “Fire and Blood”. A pretty cool slogan, though I do like the motto of House Plumm: Come Try Me! Heh, heh…

Long (or Doubled) Consonants

It’s been a little bit, but I’m back with the first non-first post. Before getting to that, I should mention that I knew beforehand there was going to be some lag time with getting this blog off the ground. I told the folks I would be starting up a blog before I’d even settled on a site theme, and then I put out my first post knowing that I’d be completely unable to post anything else for at least a week. My apologies.

There are already a number of great questions/topics over at the Dothraki Forum, but I thought I’d start small and answer Tim’s question first, since it’s come up before. The question is:

How are doubled consonants pronounced differently than single consonants? How about situations where you have something like ssh vs sh?

First let me address the orthographic question. Since the Dothraki don’t have a writing system of their own, I came up with a romanization system to write the language. To make it easy on everyone, I decided to restrict myself to ASCII (aside from the texts I send to the actors, which have main stress marked with an acute accent). When one does that, one is forced to use either unorthodox characters or digraphs for sounds for which no single roman letter is used (in this case, in English). The relevant sounds in Dothraki are (romanized form followed by IPA):

  • th [θ]: like the “th” in English “math”
  • sh [ʃ]: like the “sh” in English “shout”
  • zh [ʒ]: like the “z” in English “azure”
  • ch [tʃ]: like the “tch” in English “watch”
  • kh [x]: like the “ch” in English “blech!”

If instead of these digraphs I’d chosen, for example, þ, š, ž, č and x, then romanizing a doubled consonant would be as trivial as romanizing any of the other doubled consonants. Due to some of the peculiarities of Dothraki phonology, though, I was able to represent the geminate versions of these digraphs simply by doubling the first consonant:

  • tth [θθ]
  • ssh [ʃʃ]
  • zzh [ʒʒ]
  • cch [ttʃ]
  • kkh [xx]

By “peculiarities”, I mean that the sequences that these second set of digraphs could also represent happen to be disallowed by Dothraki phonology. Specifically, homorganic oral stop+fricative clusters are disallowed. So, in the case of kkh, for example, it will always be [xx], and could never be [kx].

As for ssh and zzh, when two sibilants ([s], [z], [ʃ] or [ʒ]) occur next to one another, the former assimilates to the latter. So a potential cluster like /sz/ would become [zz], /zʃ/ would become [ʃʃ], etc. Thus, there could never be [sʃ], for example, meaning that ssh will always be pronounced [ʃʃ].

That turned out to be a longer explanation than I thought… Anyway, now to the main thrust of the question: how these are cats pronounced.

Doubled or geminate consonants are common throughout the world’s languages, but they happen not to be common in many Indo-European languages (among them: English, Spanish, French, German, Dutch…). Some of the many languages in which geminate (or doubled or long) consonants are distinctive are Japanese, Italian, Finnish, Hungarian, Russian, Arabic and Turkish. In these languages, you must be able to perceive and pronounce long consonants differently from short consonants, or you risk hearing or saying the wrong thing.

For a quick natural language example, let’s take a look at Arabic. In Arabic, the middle consonant of a number of verbal roots can be doubled to produce a kind of causative verb. The verb for “to write”, for example (in the masculine past tense), is kataba. By doubling the t, it becomes kattaba, which means “to dictate” (as in “to dictate a letter”). You can hear this pair of words below:

If the two don’t sound distinct enough, we actually do have “doubled” consonants in English, but they don’t distinguish single words from one another. For example: Imagine two women named “Ally” and “Sally”. Now put “Miss” in front of each one. The pair should sound something like this:

Notice how the [s] is longer in “Miss Sally”? Now just imagine that that length was able to distinguish words, and that’s what we have in Dothraki. Here are some sample pairs which are distinguished by the presence or absence of a geminate consonant. The pairs are: ata vs. atta; ara vs. arra; asa vs. assa; and ana vs. anna:

And now for a pair of Dothraki sentences where the only difference is a doubled consonant:

  1. Anha risse jeloon. “I cut into the lemon.”
  2. Anha risse jelloon. “I cut into the cheese.”

As for how to actually produce these differences, it kind of feels different for each type of consonant. For stops (tt, kk, qq, dd, gg, jj, cch), it kind of feels like you pronounce the first one, and then hold your breath for half a second: everything in your mouth is still for a beat, and then you release the consonant. For others (fricatives like ss and zz, or nasal sounds like nn, or even liquids like ll), you allow the sound to continue longer than you would ordinarily. To me, the latter are a bit easier than the former, but with a little practice, it’s not too hard to get the hang of both.

Thanks for the question, Tim! I hope this explanation serves.