Game of Thrones is finally back for its eighth and final season, and with it comes a journey back into one of the show’s coolest non-dragon elements: Its use of language. David J. Peterson has spent years crafting the Dothraki and High Valyrian languages for Game of Thrones, and may or may not have been approached about continuing his work on one of HBO’s reported spinoffs.
To celebrate the expansion of Duolingo’s High Valyrian course, we chatted with Peterson about how he envisions Old Valyria, what it’s like using language to revive a long-lost world, and why George R.R. Martin can retcon anything Peterson does. Check out our video interview above, which includes some High Valyrian translations of popular phrases like “Live Long and Prosper” and io9's tagline “We Come From The Future.” I also transcribed it below.
And for more on Peterson’s work in Game of Thrones Season eight and the potential spinoffs, as well as first details on his language work for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, be sure to check out this io9 interview here.
io9: The thing that fascinates me about High Valyrian is that it is a language for the Valyrian Freehold, which as we know does not exist at the time of Game of Thrones. How did you imagine Old Valyria, and how did you see the world for the language you were building?
David Peterson: It was actually very, very difficult. And there was basically a lot of places, a lot of the areas that I left dark for future expansion. It wasn’t like with Dothraki where, even though there wasn’t much of either language, in the books we saw their culture a whole lot in the various chapters. You really got a sense of what the people were like. Obviously, you don’t get that with Old Valeria (note: George R.R. Martin has expanded Valyrian history with Fire and Blood, though Old Valyria is often portrayed as folklore).
You can kind of assume or interpret a little bit based on how people act in the Free Cities, but even so the Free Cities are different, and definitely in Slavers Bay. And so in that case, when it came to like a really strong cultural idioms, I kind of had to just leave it aside and wait, because I get the feeling that we’re going to learn a lot more. George RR Martin is eventually going to reveal this stuff to us, and then when he does you know I’ll be right there to expand the language again.
io9: Are there any words or phrases that you created in High Valyrian that were within the context of Old Valyria, that maybe even people speaking the language in modern Essos wouldn’t understand today?
Peterson: There were a number of times where I kind of went out on a limb and created a cultural idiom or something, and it’s based on what I think I understand about the people... For example, I gave [Valyrians] a very particular kinship structure. So like, the word for ‘father’ could also refer to your uncle, but only if it’s your father’s brother. And the word ‘mother’ can refer to your mother or your mother’s sister. And then there’s different words depending on if it’s the brother of your mother or brother of your father, same thing with uncles and aunts and cousins. The whole thing is very complex.
If George R.R. Martin ever comes out and says ‘That’s not the way it was,’ then I’m going to go back and change the language. I still see him as the ultimate authority for the culture and the people, and the canon of the entire world. The entire point of the language was really to fill out his vision. So, if any point in time like what I did didn’t match his vision I’m going to change it.
io9: Makes sense. That said, how does it feel being able to not only craft the language, but also to craft the world that the language takes place in?
Peterson: The very moment that you coin any word, you’re making thousands of cultural assumptions, any word. Just the moment you coin one, you’ve already assumed the people that speak this language have human physiology and a human vocal tract at the very least. And then, as to what the word means. It’s like you coin a word for “book.” Suddenly, your people have writing. They have a tradition of literature. They bind books. They have something like paper. You’ve just made all of those cultural assumptions immediately, just by coining one word. Anytime I create anything, that’s what I’m doing.
io9: You’ve mentioned before that there isn’t a word in Dothraki for “please.” Are there likewise any words or phrases that exist in our reality that in High Valyrian they would not know of, or even acknowledge as being a real thing?
Peterson: Well, certainly nothing for modern technology. That said though, that’s actually one of the areas that I find so frustratingly fascinating about the world. Because everybody has — and when I say everybody, I mean the fictional characters in A Song of Ice and Fire — they have the impression, and they talk about Valyria as if it was an incredibly advanced society. And they talk about things kind of in euphemisms, like with “glass candles.” Things like that. And I always wonder, like, how advanced was it?
How advanced did George R.R. Martin imagine this? Are we talking like medieval advanced, or like future tech [where they] were destroyed by a literal nuclear bomb and everything that we’re seeing is just, like, everybody reverted after that? I have absolutely no idea. I know one day we’ll find out, and I’m going to be very excited about it.
io9: If it were up to you, what would it be?
Peterson: I wouldn’t want it to be super future. What I’m imagining is that the Valyrians had not only control of dragons, but they had kind of like advanced magic—so that they could have maybe the precursor to a power grid. But a power grid that didn’t work necessarily on electricity, but off of something else. So they could have things like, you know, lights that come on their houses. Light switches, but maybe not necessarily by electricity. I’m imagining a really beautiful lit city at night. I had no idea how that would work though.
io9: High Valyrian is still being used on the show, but not as frequently as it was during those couple of seasons in the middle of the show. What inspired you to continue building the language, even if there are things that are not being used on the show?
Peterson: I mean the show is going to be over very, very soon, so it’s done. But that’s that’s really not the way I look at these. Even though I’m creating these languages just for these properties, I was a language critic for 10 years before this. They’re still basically my languages and I love them dearly and I’ll keep working on them until I die, or somebody wrestles them from my cold dead hands. I’m never going to stop working.