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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.

Qilōnario Geron

Duh-nuh, duh-nuh, duh-nuh, duh-nuh… THE BEAR AND THE MAIDEN FAIR! Duh-nuh, duh-nuh, duh-nuh, duh-nuh…

All right, I know I work on the show, and it’s outstanding, and I love everybody, and everything is just super 100% awesome, but…seriously, man, ki fin yeni with that outro music? That was one of the most discordant moments of television I’ve experienced in a long, long time. First a scene that must have absolutely shocked viewers unfamiliar with the books, and then cut to spring breeeeeeeeeaaaak! Definitely good for a laugh, though.

There were a lot of magnificent bits in 303. The chair scene was a wonderful bit of absurd theater (and I’ll take anything I can get with Tywin Lannister). If you didn’t see Hot Pie’s wonderful dire wolf confection, here you are:

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

The funeral in the beginning was genius (that would’ve been me shooting the arrows the first time, by the way. If I were any character in Game of Thrones, that is me all over). And despite what they think over at Winter Is Coming, I loved the scene with Pod, Bronn and Tyrion. Boy’s got game, son! If you can’t step to that, best step off, you feel me?

But I’d like to highlight one scene in particular that I thought was awesome: Stannis and Melisandre. Man! That shoulder’s so cold she got Stannis turning on the AC to warm up! Maybe it was just me, but I was mightily entertained by just how much she was obviously not into Stannis at all. Maybe Jorah has some company coming his way in the Friend Zone, because that was brutal. Reminded me of seventh grade. Very, very well played by Ms. van Houten!

Today we had some more Astapori Valyrian. It was a great scene and very well played—including by the new actor who played the fellow sitting next to Kraznys. (Does anyone know his name—both the character and the actor? He’s just referred to as “Master Slaver” in my sides.) EDIT: The character is Greizhen mo Ullhor, and he’s portrayed by Clifford Barry. (Great job, Mr. Barry!) I could not follow precisely how things got broken up. For example, when Kraznys is going over exactly how many Unsullied he’d give Dany for her Dothraki, etc., it was written up as one long speech. That speech, though, was broken up a bit and delivered in bits here and there, rather than a monologue, so I’m not sure if there’s anything that got cut. Here are a few of the lines from the exchange, though (the ones I remember got in). This is a line from Missandei:

  • Ebas pon sindigho uni.
  • “She wants to buy them all.”

Now for a word I had fun inventing: the word for dragon (and, no, it’s not related to drakarys. I already roll my eyes enough at the “drak” in that word). Continuing Missandei:

  • Ivetras sko o tebozlivas me zaldrize.
  • “She says she will give you a dragon.”

And I don’t remember what of Kraznyz’ reply stayed in… I’ll have to watch it again on HBO Go. I do remember he got to say this:

  • Ivetra zer ebi ji rovaja.
  • “Tell her we want the biggest one.”

Yes, I had fun with this language. Ji rovaja is “the biggest (one)”, and if you know my sense of phonaesthetics, a word like that is like David Bowie wearing something like this:

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Pure decadence. I shamelessly wallow in it.

It occurs to me that stress is not nearly as predictable in Astapori Valyrian… I should probably mark the non-predictable stresses, but that’d require some back-tracking. As a general note, though, commands are stressed word-finally (so ivetrá, for example).

Finally, this is Missandei’s last line:

  • Pindas sko ji yn tebila, va me rudhy. Pindas sko gomila kizi sir.
  • “She asks that you give me to her, as a present. She asks that you do this now.”

Above, for example, tebila and gomila are basically the same construction, but tebila has penultimate stress and gomila has antepenultimate stress. The latter is the odd one.

I’d like to close with a couple of comments. First, check out the transcription project undertaken by Mad Latinist over at his LiveJournal. I haven’t been able to do as much this season because of outside commitments (for example, I’m going to miss the Monday Dothraki chat again, but this should be the last one [well, until LCC5, for which I will probably miss the Dothraki chat yet again]). I feel like there’s going to be enough by the end of the season to put together a fair bit on both Valyrian variants, though—certainly enough to beef up a Wikipedia article, I think.

Second, there is something from the books I’d like to address directly, because I’m utterly baffled by the interpretation. The following excerpt comes from A Feast for Crows (note: this may be slightly spoilerly if you know the context; if you don’t, it should be fairly meaningless):

“What fools we were, who thought ourselves so wise! The error crept in from the translation. Dragons are neither male nor female, Barth saw the truth of that, but now one and now the other, as changeable as flame. The language misled us all for a thousand years. […] The dragons prove it.”

Many have taken this quote as evidence that High Valyrian is a language without grammatical gender (and for those who are as baffled by that interpretation as I was, I swear, it’s true! Go to the forums and ask around). This quote proves nothing of the kind.

First, what Maester Aemon is talking about here is not grammatical gender but biological gender. In our own world, there are animals that can actually change their gender from male to female, or vice versa (see, for example, the clownfish). Often this happens to aid reproduction. Presumably, dragons in the universe of Ice and Fire are the same—that is, dragons that are, at the moment, male or female, will switch to another gender if it’s required for some reason (this has yet to be revealed).

The part where language comes into this is that the prophecy referred to is originally delivered in High Valyrian, and it refers to a prince. The translation he’s talking about, though, is the translation to Common (i.e. English) which uses the word “prince”, which is male. The assumption, then, was that if that translation caused confusion, it’s because the High Valyrian word can refer to either gender, and, as a result, High Valyrian is genderless.

Not so. First, grammatical gender need not be tied to biological gender (and, indeed, High Valyrian’s genders are not). Second, think for a moment. English is a gender neutral language. We have gendered third person singular pronouns, but outside of that, English has no grammatical genders the way Spanish, French and Italian do. “Prince” is grammatically gender neutral. Semantically, though, it’s male, just as the words “man”, “bachelor”, “father” and “son” are. That these words exist says nothing about the grammatical gender system of English.

So, all this says about High Valyrian is that the word originally used in the prophecy that was translated as “prince” in Common (i.e. English) can refer to either gender (e.g. the way “scientist” can refer to either gender in English). Maester Aemon, here, is commenting on how the assumption, given the context, was that the one prophesied must be male, because this is something that is presumably common in Westeros society (kind of like it still is in ours. Take a random sampling of 100 people and see how many still first think of a man when they hear the word “scientist”)—but, crucially, that it need not be so. That is all this quote is evidence of; it says nothing whatever about the gender system of High Valyrian.

Okay, I should wrap this up. As one more final note, I like to keep it to Game of Thrones here, but if you have some time tonight (or tomorrow night, if you’re outside North America), see if you can tune into the series premiere of Defiance on Syfy at 9/8 Central. I’ve been working really hard for over a year on the series, and the finished product is something everyone involved is really proud of. I’d be delighted if folks would give it a chance, as I think it has a chance to be something really special.

Fonas chek!

Update: Forgot to mention: I’m doing an AMA over at Reddit tomorrow at 6 Eastern.

Say Your Right Words…

A couple posts back I noted that a poster at the Westeros forum had probably asked for Dothraki translations for each Westerosi house’s words, rather than just me pronouncing the names of each house in Dothraki-accented English. My bad there.

Anyway, I’ve already translated the words of House Targaryen (“Fire and blood”), but there are loads more. Rather than translating them, I thought it might be fun to see if the readers of this blog can translate them themselves. Consider this the first of (perhaps…?) many translation exercises to come.

So here’s what I’ll do. There are way too many mottos that have been revealed to deal with in one post, so I’ll just grab a few of them, and provide what extra vocabulary is necessary (for the rest, go check out the vocabulary list at the Dothraki Wiki).

First, the words (though one of these I know I’ve already translated somewhere):

  • House Stark: Winter is coming.
  • House Greyjoy: We do not sow.
  • House Tyrell: Growing strong.
  • House Mormont: Here we stand.
  • House Tully: Family, duty, honor.

Those should be fairly manageable once you have the vocabulary. Now here are a couple that might be more challenging:

  • House Lannister: Hear me roar!
  • House Arryn: As high as honor.

Now here’s the vocabulary you’ll need (at least the vocabulary that I don’t yet see over at the the Dothraki Wiki):

  • aheshke (ni.) winter
  • atthar (ni.) duty
  • chomokh (ni.) honor
  • hajolat (v.) to grow strong
  • kovarat (v.) to stand
  • rhojosor (na.) family
  • yath (adj.) high
  • zorat (v.) to roar

The notations (ni.) and (na.) above refer to inanimate and animate nouns, respectively (see the page on noun animacy at the wiki). The only place where noun animacy would be relevant is in assigning noun cases, but you won’t need any noun case other than the nominative for the nouns, so no worries there! You may need a case other than the nominative for the pronouns, though, so go here for the wiki page on pronouns.

Aside from that, these wiki pages may prove useful as well:

I was looking for a page discussing coordinating particles, but didn’t find one… Oddly enough, the relevant translation itself might provide a clue to their use.

Happy translating! I’ll post the first correct translations (along with the translator) up on the blog after everything’s been translated (which, now that I’m looking at it, I suspect won’t take very long…).

P.S.: Bonus points for whoever gets the title reference. The photo associated with this post on the main page is a clue (should you need it).

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…