Monthly Archives: December 2011

Merry Goatmas!

On IRC, ingsve, Qvaak and I were discussing Christmas traditions around the world, and somehow the tradition of the Yule Goat came up. I found the idea of a goat at Christmas charming (especially one that brought gifts; not one burned in effigy), and so I have borrowed the idea over. Not into Dothraki, mind (we’ll have to see if George R. R. Martin ever elaborates on what, if any, winter traditions the Dothraki have), but over to the Dothraki blog.

And so, once again, Merry Goatmas to you all! Let us see what Dorvi Aheshki has brought for you! (Though I will note that I think the featured image might be a dorvof [an ibex].)

Over at the Dothraki Wiki, our own Daenerys has been putting together a huge page on semantic word groupings. It’s quite an effort! Unfortunately, many of the cells are blank, because vocabulary in Dothraki hasn’t come to light in any systematic way. In order to help fill it in, I thought I’d give you the Swadesh list in Dothraki.

The Swadesh list is a great big list of 207 words (though there are shorter versions of 100 and 35 words) that a field linguist uses for elicitation. The original intent of the list was to demonstrate how closely related two languages are. The list of words is supposed to comprise words that are not likely to be borrowed from another language—words that the language should have from time immemorial. If there are clear historical connections between the words on the Swadesh list elicited from two different languages, then there’s a good chance that the two languages are related. For example, here’s a partial list (using English as a base line) with Spanish, French, Italian, Russian (romanized) and Hawaiian:

English Spanish French Italian Russian Hawaiian
45 fish pez poisson pesce ryba i‘a
65 bone hueso os osso kost’ iwi
74 eye ojo œil occhio glaz maka
75 nose nariz nez naso nos ihu
78 tongue lengua langue lingua yazyk alelo
163 wind viento vent vento vyetyer makani

Just based on this small sample, one can tell that Spanish, French and Italian are pretty closely related; English is more distantly related to these three; Russian is even more distantly related; and Hawaiian isn’t related at all. And even though I chose these samples on purpose, that’s pretty close to reality!

Nowadays, the Swadesh list enjoys other uses—particular amongst field linguists who are starting the process of elicitation—and so I thought it might be neat to come up with the 207 word Swadesh list in Dothraki. I ended up not doing anything with it, though, so I thought I might as well make it available here.

Note that you will have seen some of these words before, and that the meanings of the English terms are often ambiguous, so if you have questions, feel free to ask them here.

Otherwise, may Winter Goat wag his shaggy, goatish beard for you and shower you in his goatish fur! Perhaps next year we can put up some pictures of Winter Goat taken by those who read the blog (I know I shall certainly be on the hunt for goats to take pictures of, since I don’t seem to have any goat pictures myself). We shall see…!

2011 Conlang Card Exchange

For the past three years, a number of conlangers have participated in the Conlang/Concultural Card Exchange. I participated the first year with Kamakawi, but missed the deadline the next year, so I wanted to be sure to participate this year (though I still almost missed the deadline). For this year’s exchange, I decided to use Dothraki, and I thought this would be as good a place as any to post the translation info for my card.

First, here’s what the front of the postcard looks like:

A picture of a donkey.

Click to enlarge.

And here’s a shot of the back of the postcard:

The back of my Conlang/Cultural Card Exchange card (2011).

Click to enlarge.

(Note: That’s the LCS’s address, not mine. Don’t send mail there unless it’s accompanied by a $35 membership check made out to “LCS” [by the way, with the holidays around the corner, why not give the gift of LCS membership! Okay, plug over].)

Now, when I made these up with Costco, they gave me a character count, and I swear I came under that character count! But, as you can see, the text got cut off—literally. In fact, there was one more line after what you see there (I’d signed it Devvo ki Drogosi. Oh well). So you don’t have to go squinting, here is the entire text (plus the missing line):

Aheshke ray jad, majin anha vazhak yeraan azh, hajinaan m’anha chomak yeraan sekke. Jin vezh hrazef avervenanaz drogikhoon anni. Yer laz tihi mae mra jerve she hatif. Me drozhak! Tihas vorsaes tihoa ma charas tem fogoon! Ma me lana ven chaf! K’athjilari: Vo cheyi ven mae vekho vosecchi. Ma me yeri! Vezhof gora ha yeraan. Me nem nesa.

Fonas chek!

Devvo ki Drogosi

Now, I don’t want the card recipients to jump through too many hoops, so here’s an interlinear (though this won’t be pretty. Does CSS do small caps yet…?):

/winter already come.PST and 1SG.NOM FUT-give-1SG 2SG.ALL gift.ACC because COMP-1SG.NOM respect-1SG 2SG.ALL very. this stallion horse SUP-wild-SUP herd-ABL 1SG.GEN. 2SG.NOM can see-2SG 3SG.ACC in cage at front. 3SG.NOM killer! see-IMP fire-ACC eye-ABL.PL and hear-IMP thunder.ACC hoof-ABL! and 3SG.NOM run-3SG like wind! truly: NEG bay-GEN like 3SG.GEN exist-3SG.NEG NEG.EMPH. and 3SG.NOM 2SG.GEN! horse.god charge-3SG for 2SG.ALL. 3SG.NOM PASS know-3SG./

/hunt-IMP well!/

/Dave by Drogo-GEN/

Or better yet: Have they made a WordPress plugin for interlinears yet? Any conlangers out there who are big into WordPress and coding? (Think that’s what we need to get this done…)

Anyway, there you have it! Translation shouldn’t be tough (remember that the ablative expresses inalienable possession and that it’s only optionally expressed). Feel free to post your translation in the comments, and I’ll tell you how you did.

Also, I ordered 10 cards, since I thought that’d be a good round number, but I have three leftover. I thought I’d have a contest and give away the remaining three, but that would involve you giving me your address, so I thought I’d better make it voluntary. So! If you would like a card, and if you’re comfortable giving me a mailing address you have access to, e-mail me at “dave” at-sign “” and let me know. I’ll send them out to the first three people that e-mail me with addresses, and I’ll personalize them somehow in what little space there is left on the card.

Fonas chek, zhey lajaki!

Update: All the cards have been claimed. Perhaps there will be more next year, or for some other holiday (do the Dothraki celebrate Flag Day…?). Who knows? These, though, are being sent out to stud. But let me tell you: If there is a next time, ain’t nothing getting cut off—I’ll make sure of that!


Responding to a request that I think came from IRC, here’s a look at personal pronouns in Dothraki.

Since I’m a big fan of tables, let’s start out with a table, and then follow it up with explanation. In this table, we’ll have the pronouns going along the left, and the cases going along the top.

  Nominative Accusative Genitive Allative Ablative
1st Person Singular anha anna anni anhaan anhoon
2nd Person Singular yer yera yeri yeraan yeroon
3rd Person Singular me mae mae maan moon
1st Person Plural kisha kisha kishi kishaan kishoon
2nd Person Plural yeri yeri yeri yerea yeroa
3rd Person Plural mori mora mori morea moroa
2nd Person Formal shafka shafka shafki shafkea shafkoa

I talked about number agreement in a previous post, so pronoun choice should be pretty clear, aside from the second person pronouns. So let’s discuss those.

In Dothraki, there are three second person pronounss: yer, which is singular; yeri, which is plural; and shafka, which covers both. As one might guess from looking at the table above, yer and yeri are the “ordinary” second person pronouns (they fit right into the usual system of 1st, 2nd and 3rd person, singular and plural); shafka is the exceptional one. Shafka is also the youngest of the trio, having come from an older noun—specifically (using a kind of modified Dothraki romanization), *shapakǝ (the last letter there is a schwa. Also note that an asterisk indicates that a given word is a proto-form). How it came to be a pronoun in the modern language is a bit of a story.

The original word *shapakǝ meant “horse breaker”, or someone who can tame and master wild horses. It derived rather regularly from the verb *shapatǝ, which meant “to break a horse”. Due to the respect accorded those who were skilled horse-breakers, though, the word itself became a title—and with it came the respect and esteem of the other Dothraki. If it had continued on in this way, it would simply have become shafak. As it happens, that word doesn’t exist (today the most common word associated with the root is vishaferat, which means to break a horse, to domesticate a beast of burden, or to get one’s first kill with a new weapon [the verb shafat isn't used]).

Instead, the title *shapakǝ began to be used in contexts outside of horse-breaking. This is something that’s liable to happen to pretty much any word, but which doesn’t have to happen. In Dothraki, it happened with *shapakǝ. And as it started to get passed around as a term of respect, it stepped in to fill a void in the pronominal system—specifically, it was used to encode a distinction between formal and informal address (something that had already started to take shape in the imperative).

As for the curious declension pattern it has today, initially the plural form of the noun was adopted as the standard form of the pronoun (something similar happened with the imperative, where the old plural imperative was taken as the formal imperative). The full pattern at the time, then, would’ve looked like this:

  Nominative Accusative Genitive Allative Ablative
2nd Person Formal *shapaki *shapakis *shapaki *shapakea *shapakua

Influenced by some of the other changes taking place in the pronoun system at the time (skipping over some steps here, including the collapse of the old partitive case), though, the accusative became *shapaka, making the paradigm look like the third person plural pronoun. As a result of a change to the first person pronouns, though (which resulted in *anǝk changing to *anka), a new form emerged: *shapka. This replaced the old accusative, and then took over the nominative, too, making the paradigm look a bit more like kisha, only with a kind of singular/plural split in the exponence on the pronominal forms.

And, of course, it was shortly after this that the old *p phoneme became f, giving us the pronouns we have today.

As for their use, the basic idea is if you don’t know what pronoun to use, use shafka. The worst that can happen if you use shafka is you might get laughed at; using yer when the situation doesn’t warrant it, however, could get you killed.

The best way I can think to describe the difference between yer and shafka is that yer is a private word; shafka a public one. Two Dothraki lajaki who would refer to each other with yer when out riding alone would refer to each other as shafka in the presence of outsiders. One should always refer to the khal as shafka (the lone exception would be his khaleesi, and even she would use shafka most often in public). The khal can use whatever he wants, and more often than not he’ll use yer. Those referred to as such are not allowed to return the greeting. Even so, the khal would likely use shafka in formal situations (e.g. in Episode 7, Drogo uses shafka with Jorah when presenting him with the gift of a horse).

In general, then, shafka is a sign of respect either towards the addressee, or towards the situation, if that makes sense. Yer is used between friends and family in informal situations, and with those who are younger—or with those whom one doesn’t respect, and whom one wants to insult (Mago does this with the Khaleesi in Episode 8. The mistake proves costly).

In addition to these general guidelines, shafka is also used in impersonal constructions, e.g.:

  • Shafka jif vo vitiheri shekhes. “One should not stare at the sun.”

Above, vitiherat is “to stare at/into” or “to examine” (also “to ponder”). Oh, and since it’s come up, shafka always triggers third person plural agreement in the verb.

Those, at least, are the personal pronouns of Dothraki. There are other pronouns, but I’ll have to save those for another day.

To Be or Not to Be?

Always a tough question for a conlanger. Not existence, of course, but the copula, and how to deal with it.

First, by way of introduction, the copula in English is our friend “to be”. It performs a few different functions, as in the sentences below:

  1. A dog is an animal. (Category Membership)
  2. That is Maria. (Equivalence)
  3. That door is green. (Predication)

Of course, in English, the verb “to be” does a lot of other stuff (e.g. passives), but it’s this basic X = Y relationship that we’re talking about. In English, “to be” does a lot of hard work for us, but other languages do things in different ways—and we don’t have to go too far down the linguistic tree to find differences. In Spanish (and a couple other [but not all] Romance languages), there’s not just one copula, like in English, but two, as shown below:

  1. La casa es sucia. “The house is dirty.”
  2. La casa está sucia. “The house is dirty.”

The sentences above translate the same way, but mean slightly different things. In (5), está is used to indicate that the house is dirty at the moment and could use some cleaning. In (4), on the other hand, es is used to indicate that that house is just a dirty, dirty house. Reminds me of when I used to walk to school past these two houses that my friends and I would call the Clean House and the Dirty House. The contrast was just too stark—and it never changed: the Dirty House was always dirty; the Clean House was always clean. In fact, can we get a shot of those houses, Google Street View?

A picture of two houses I used to walk by.

Click to enlarge.

Ki fin yeni?! Dirty House be clean now! How about that… Must be under new ownership. Trust me, though: the contrast was quite apparent, like…fifteen years ago.

Anyway, the contrast in Spanish is between more or less permanent states and temporary ones (or status vs. state). Other languages draw a distinction between identity constructions and locative constructions (a lot of creole languages do this), or stative predicates (things usually translated by “be + adjective” in English) or other standard copular constructions. That’s not the topic of discussion today. Today I wanted to talk about the form of the copula construction.

As I mentioned, both English and Spanish use verbs. Some languages do it without verbs, though. In Arabic, for example (and also Russian), standard copular expressions are done without any verb at all where one would otherwise expect a verb. Here are some examples from Arabic:

  1. Hiiya taktub. “She’s writing.” (Non-Copular Expression)
  2. Hiiya mutarjim. “She’s a translator.” (Copular Expression)

In (6), the verb taktub is fully conjugated in the third person feminine present tense; in (7), mutarjim simply translates as “translator”. All you need is the two nouns (or pronoun and noun) and that does the job. In the past tense, though…

  1. Hiiya kaanat mutarjiman. “She was a translator.”

…the copula (of the wazan k-w-n) reasserts itself to indicate that the expression is past tense (the object is also marked with the accusative). This also happens in Russian (another well-known zero copula language). Some languages, though, never have a copula in any tense, and simply use the same expression in all contexts.

Dothraki, as has been noted, is a zero copula language, as shown below:

  1. Hazi eshina. “That’s a fish.”

In fact, you can get away with using adjectives predicatively in this way, with a subtle difference in meaning:

  1. Hazi eyelie. “That’s spotted.”
  2. Hazi eyeli. “That’s a spotted one.”

This is kind of a status vs. state distinction, as in Spanish, except that the standard construction in (10) (using the stative verb) can be used for both a state and a status (i.e. for saying something is, at the moment, spotted [say it got splattered with mud], or for saying that something [say, a toad] is spotted all the time), and the latter can only be used with status statements.

Adjectives aside, the main place you see a zero copula expression is in equivalence statements (“He’s a warrior”, “That’s my horse”, “This is the arakh I’m going to cut your tongue out with”, etc.). Outside of the present tense, though, where one would see the reintroduction of a copula in, say, Russian, one sees a change in case in Dothraki. In fact, we can break it down rather simply as follows:

Tense Case Example Translation
Future Allative Me khalaan. He will be khal.
Present Nominative Me khal. He is khal.
Past Ablative Me khaloon. He was/used to be khal.

Seems like a nice neat system, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, this tripartite system derives from an older innovation from when Dothraki was a true zero copula language (and, well, it still is, I suppose, but it started to develop some copula-like constructions).

In the oldest form of the language, as I mentioned before, the word order of Dothraki was VSO. In order to augment the tenseless zero copula, the following expressions were developed:

  1. Ee me khalaan. “He will be khal.” (Lit. “Goes he to khal.”)
  2. Jada me khaloon. “He was/used to be khal.” (Lit. “Comes he from khal.”)

In the modern form of the language when the word order changed, the verbs were simply dropped, since they weren’t necessary to express the content. Even so, these verbs can be reintroduced (in their original verb-initial position) in the modern language if further clarity is demanded.

Today, the two separate systems overlap a little bit. The zero copula expression is still used in tenses other than the present when simple equivalence is desired. That is, if, for example, one was telling a narrative and the context is understood as past, the zero copula expression serves, as shown below (I apologize for the long block of text):

Ma anha dothra Qarthoon heshjim, ma anha arthas lajakasaraan. Mori lajish k’athvezhvenari, vosma anha drozh mora nakhaan. Irge vilajeri, fansa anni laz vos irvoso k’athnithmenari, majin anha fono chiories jimmoon, zhey Fenni. Me koalakeesi.

And all of that was just for the very last sentence. Here’s the translation:

And I rode southwest from Qarth, and I encountered a group of warriors. They fought bravely, but I slew them all. After the battle, my dapple couldn’t trot without pain, so I sought out a woman from the west named Fenni. She was a healer.

Even in English, in fact, you could translate that in the present tense, given the appropriate context (so not in a novel, but if your listener was immediately on hand, “She’s a healer” is fine [or if it's in the near past and the woman in question is still alive]). In fact, if one were, instead, to say Me koalakeesisoon, it would mean, in that context, she used to be (but no longer is) a healer.

Apart from a context like this, using the ablative can mean “X was Y” without any comment about whether they still are or not, or “X used to be Y”. So a statement like this wouldn’t be a contradiction:

  1. Me koalakeesisoon, vosma me vos koalakeesi ajjin. “She was a healer, but she’s not a healer now.”

That’s about all there is to copulae in Dothraki. If you haven’t got anything else to do, feel free to enjoy this fine song about Hamlet.

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