Pronominals

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.

Posted on December 11, 2011, in Grammar and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Can’t wait to hear about those other pronouns :)

    Yer/yeri is much more limited, shafka much more used, than I thought.

    Even though Dothraki has a separate polite pronoun, not just extented use of second person plural like we have, I find the similarity to our languages interesting. I have thought it kind of rare oddity of western languages.

    You say shafka triggers third person plural agreement in the verb. As far as I can see the second and third person verb plurals never differ. huh?

    Just to keep my track record growing: the table has 3rd person plural listed as singular.

    • Even though Dothraki has a separate polite pronoun, not just extented use of second person plural like we have, I find the similarity to our languages interesting. I have thought it kind of rare oddity of western languages.

      I’m not sure which language it was (possibly Chichewa), but that had the most interesting polite form I’d heard of (well, I guess aside from a language like Japanese, which encodes it on the verb). The polite form of address was the third person plural pronoun, and on meeting someone new (in a formal context), one was forced to (kind of ritualistically) repeat everything that one’s interlocutor had said up to that point before one could add anything new to the discourse. Five or six sentences in, the string of repetitions got really, really long.

      You say shafka triggers third person plural agreement in the verb. As far as I can see the second and third person verb plurals never differ. huh?

      Indeed. That wasn’t always true, though.

      Just to keep my track record growing: the table has 3rd person plural listed as singular.

      Ha! So it goes. The typo is fixed.

  2. Thank you again, David for another very informative post. This is something I can put in a table and hang on the wall to memorize (I am finding memorizing these tables (which I am not very far along in doing) is very important to learning Dothraki well). In reading what you wrote above, and in looking at various terms available for greetings and respect, I am getting the impression that respect play a very important role in Dothraki culture, and may set up some sort of ‘pecking order’ in their society. That might be a good subject for a future blog post, and how it generally has affected the language.

  3. This blog is just AMAZING! I am completely captivated by this and your ability to create such a wonderful language. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us, it’s really incredibly kind from you :)
    I’ve been reading a lot of your posts regarding the possessive adjectives and pronouns because I’ve been trying to find a way of saying “moon of HIS life” and “HER sun and stars” but I’m still confused. How would you translate that? “Shekh ma shieraki mae” and “Jalan arthirari mae”? I would really appreciate your collaboration in this one. Thanks again!!

    • Your intuition is correct. So if jalan atthirari anni is “moon of my life”, then jalan atthirari mae is “moon of his life”. Likewise, if shekh ma shieraki anni is “my sun and stars”, then shekh ma shieraki mae is “her sun and stars”.

      Athchomar chomakaan, zhey Sandy! Welcome to the khalasar. :)

      • OMG! :3 I WOULD THANK YOU BUT THERE’S NOT A WORD TO SAY “THANKS” IN DOTHRAKI! So, I’ll use my mother language: ¡Muchísimas gracias Sr. Peterson! You are too kind… and you rock!!!!

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