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US linguist couple map fantasy languages for the screen

From Dothraki and Valyrian in “Game of Thrones” to the Chakobsa desert tongue in “Dune”, American couple David and Jessie Peterson have devised numerous imaginary languages — apparently the only two people in the world who earn a living concocting fantasy grammar and vocabulary for film characters.

Immortal lines from the “Game of Thrones” scripts such as: “You are my last hope, blood of my blood,” plunge viewers deeper into the series’ fantastical world when uttered in the original Dothraki: “Yer athzalar nakhoki anni, zhey qoy qoyi.” In Dune, the Fremen desert warriors roll the “r” in their Chakobsa tongue — the name comes from a real ancient hunter’s language that inspired author Frank Herbert in writing the original series of “Dune” books.

But Herbert and Game of Thrones novelist George R. R. Martin only included a few words of these fantasy languages in their pages — it was the Petersons who fully developed them for the screen. “Languages can be fun. Often I think languages are treated very seriously,” said David Peterson. “People can laugh if they make a mistake.”

From Klingon to Dothraki

The use of language creators in films dates at least to 1985 when Marc Okrand created Klingon for that alien species in Star Trek. It has since taken off in numerous fantasy series — but few people make a living from the work. A trained linguist, Peterson landed his first paid assignment to develop Dothraki by winning a competition in 2009.

Speaking at a masterclass during a television series festival in the French city of Lille, the Petersons described how they devise languages by discussing the characters’ environment, backgrounds and the objects they use. From there, “we extrapolate,” David Peterson said.

Tasked with inventing a language which sounded like fire for the Pixar cartoon “Elemental”, for example, Jessie Peterson formed words from a series of sounds like explosions and matches. Now she proudly recalls hearing children call out to their father in the language in the street.

Inventing grammar, vocabulary

With short turnaround times for filming — sometimes just a couple of months — the Petersons share the work. Creating a language means more than just making up words — the couple start by building grammar, including word genders and tenses. From there music lover David Peterson works on how the language sounds and Jessie Peterson develops the vocabulary.

They send actors recordings of the dialogue at a normal speed, slow speed and even syllable by syllable. The high-pressure process “usually involves a lot of swearing,” David Peterson said.

Language and humanity

The pair have also created alphabets for messages written on screen by using images and symbols to create letters. David Peterson compares the process to the invention of writing five millennia ago. Fans can study High Valyrian from “Game of Thrones” on learning app Duolingo — or in regular lessons, along with Dothraki.

The Petersons share their expertise on their Youtube channel “LangTime Studio” with some 600 episodes for fans of co-called “conlangs” — constructed languages. Could artificial intelligence get the work done faster? “It would be more work to train the AI to actually produce a small amount of things. You might as well use that time to create the language on your own,” David Peterson said. Jessie Peterson agreed: “The beauty of language is that it is inherently human and there is no reason I want to take humanity out of language.” — AFP

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