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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.

Numbers, Numbers Everywhere

So let’s all take a drink! Per a request initially made by ingsve over at the Dothraki forum, today’s post will be about numbers in Dothraki. In addition, though, since I think it might be interesting, I’m going to expand on the topic to talk about number, in general, in Dothraki.

One of the questions one has to answer when creating a language is just how that language will treat numbers and number—that is, grammatical number or plurality. Many languages deal with number in many different ways. Some languages (Arabic, for example) have a dedicated dual number. In the case of Arabic, this means that in addition to having a plural suffix, nouns can take a suffix which means “exactly two” (and, in fact, the plural suffix is used not to mean “more than one” but “more than two”). Here are a couple examples:

Singular Dual Plural
sadiiq “friend” sadiiqaan “(two) friends” ‘asdiqaa’ “(three or more) friends”
rajul “man” rajulaan “(two) men” rijaal “(three or more) men”
waalida “mother” waalidataan “(two) mothers” waalidaat “(three or more) mothers”

There are also languages with trial numbers (forms for one of something, two of something, three of something, and four or more of something), and a paucal, and different things like that—and, if you believe the stories, even languages that don’t seem to have any number system at all.

In Dothraki, as I’ve stated before, I wanted to realize the language as it might be imagined to exist in the universe of A Song of Ice & Fire. So even though a conlanger doesn’t need an excuse to, say, create a number system that relies on a base other than ten, I felt like I needed a pretty good reason to do anything other than what an English-speaking audience would expect.

In the books, numbers are pretty much exclusively base-10 (including references to the size of khalasars [twenty thousand, forty thousand, fifty thousand], and other groups). In addition, since the Dothraki—and those groups that border the Dothraki Sea—all trade, I think it’s not unreasonable to assume that by the time of the action of the books, everyone will have converted to the same base (this is generally what’s happened in our world, even in places where various societies retain their own monetary system). So while it might have been interesting to make Dothraki base-8 or base-12, I stuck with base-10.

As for nominal expression, I decided to stick with singular and plural (rather than dual or something else) for a rather practical reason: I wasn’t sure if I’d know for certain whether or not something referred to in a script was dual or plural. One can never be sure, after all, and if I needed to translate the phrase, “Get those horses”, I’d need to know if there were two horses or three or more to translate it properly—and even if I got the information at the outset, who knows but the director might decide at the last minute, “No, there aren’t enough horses. Add two more.” Languages that have duals usually are pretty strict in using them, so it’d be odd if a line referring to two of something used the plural, and extremely bizarre if a line referring to three or more of something used the dual.

Along those same lines, I decided one thing I’d do to distinguish animate nouns from inanimate is that inanimate nouns would make no number distinction at all—at least not on the nouns themselves. In effect, inanimate nouns are treated like mass nouns (part of the reason they’re called vekhikh hranna, “grass nouns”). Even so, number may be marked on verbs and adjectives. Here are some examples:

  • nerro chak “silent foal” or “silent foals”
  • nerro chaki “silent foals”
  • Nerro chaka. “The foal is silent.” or “The foals are silent.”
  • Nerro chaki. “The foals are silent.

With the third sentence there, the plural interpretation is much easier if, for example, there were a pen full of foals (in fact, there the singular version of the verb is preferred). The idea behind the lack of number for inanimate nouns is that many of them are, in fact, mass nouns. Those that aren’t are usually inanimate for other reasons (e.g. because they sound like another word that’s inanimate, or because in the older form of the language they ended in a consonant, or their meaning has changed over time, etc.). And one way Dothraki speakers have individuated certain inanimate nouns throughout the history of the language has been to make them animate (so you often see pairs of words that are identical save for their class membership).

I think that just about settles the issue of “number”. Now for “numbers”.

A while back, the numbers 1 through 10 were released over at the Making Of blog (you can see that in .pdf form here). Here they are again (so you don’t have to go searching):

Number Dothraki Number Dothraki
1 at 6 zhinda
2 akat 7 fekh
3 sen 8 ori
4 tor 9 qazat
5 mek 10 thi

Beyond the numbers 1 through 10, the number system is fairly combinatorial. To form the teens, you add the digit to the front of thi, as shown below:

Number Dothraki Number Dothraki
11 atthi 16 zhindatthi
12 akatthi 17 fekhthi
13 senthi 18 oritthi
14 torthi 19 qazatthi
15 mekthi 20 chakat

You’ll notice that there are two irregularities in there: the numbers for 16 and 18. The original numbers were, certainly, zhindathi and orithi, but since every other number in the teens is stressed on the penultimate syllable, the th was geminated so that the stress patterns of 16 and 18 would match the rest.

Also, the last item there is a bit different. There’s a unique lexeme for 10 (thi), but after that, the numbers in the tens form a pattern, with either ch- or chi- being prefixed to the numbers 2 through 9. Here they are below:

Number Dothraki Number Dothraki
10 thi 60 chizhinda
20 chakat 70 chifekh
30 chisen 80 chori
40 chitor 90 chiqazat
50 chimek 100 ken

You also see the Dothraki equivalent of 100 above. This leads to the next round of numbers: the hundreds:

Number Dothraki Number Dothraki
100 ken 600 zhindaken
200 akatken 700 fekhken
300 senken 800 oriken
400 torken 900 qazatken
500 mekken 1,000 dalen

A couple notes here. What I have written as akatken and qazatken sometimes comes out as akathken and qazathken. Though written as a single word, these are two word compounds (or at least started out as two word compounds), but, like the teens, they’re fusing. The late fuse means the words aren’t subject to the spirantization that affected Dothraki words in the past, but old habits die hard, meaning that you’ll often here akathken for akatken, etc. The pairs are in free variation. Somewhat less common (but nevertheless present) is senhen for senken.

Beyond 900, the numbers are, indeed, two word compounds, so 2,000 is akat dalen, 3,000 is sen dalen, etc. The largest unit is yor, which is one million, though it tends to be used more often as yorosor, which means…basically, some huge number (like a jillion in English). It seems doubtful that there would be a practical use for yor in Dothraki, unless they started dealing with the Bank of Braavos.

For in between numbers, the connector is ma. So, for example, 21 is chakat m’at, and 2,431 is akat dalen ma torken ma chisen m’at. The rest should be self-explanatory.

Two other comments about numbers. Or wait. Three other comments about numbers; my bad.

First, I made an executive decision early on that the Dothraki would have discovered the concept (but perhaps not yet taken full advantage) of zero. The word for zero is som, which comes from the word of the same form which means “absent” or “missing”.

Second, when applied to noun phrases, the noun may be realized in the singular or plural. The plurality is optional, since the number itself indicates plurality. A couple examples:

  • fekh khalasar “seven khalasars”
  • sen gevesi “three moles”

Finally, I couldn’t leave numbers without talking about ordinals. Ordinal numbers work quite differently in Dothraki. Forming an ordinal is simple enough: one adds the agentive suffix to a digit (or the last number in a sequence). Here are the ordinals for 1 through 10:

Number Dothraki Number Dothraki
1st atak 6th zhindak
2nd akatak 7th fekhak
3rd senak 8th orik
4th torak 9th qazatak
5th mekak 10th thik

Each of these are animate nouns (and, in case you’re curious, they’re used to stand in for either an animate or an inanimate noun), and mean something like, “the first one” or “the fifth one”, etc. When applied to a noun (e.g. to say “the fifth horse”), the ordinal number is placed in the genitive and put after the noun it modifies. Some examples are shown below:

  • hrazef mekaki “the fifth horse”
  • diaf qazataki “the ninth skull”
  • darif chitor ma senaki “the forty-third saddle”

There you have it! Anything and everything you might possibly have wanted to know about numbers in Dothraki. Seems kind of dry to me, since I’m not really much of a numbers guy (or a math guy [or a science guy]), but, hey, there it is! Now you can give a number to everything you see—in Dothraki!

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!