Dothraki in Arabic

Taking a break from grammar, I thought I’d write up a little guide about how to write Dothraki using the Arabic script. It’s actually mostly written up, so all I have to do is transfer it over to the blog (heh, heh…).

Of course, one might wonder: Why would I already have a guide for transcribing Dothraki using the Arabic script? For that, we have to go way back to the days before the Game of Thrones pilot was filmed. Back then, I think the general feeling was that the show would be picked up for at least one season (it wasn’t official, of course, but we all kind of had a gut feeling), and at the time (back when Daenerys was being played by Tamzin Merchant), the Dothraki scenes were all being shot in Morocco—and I, at least, thought they would continue to be shot in Morocco.

In Hollywood, though, radical sweeping changes can happen overnight, and soon Tamzin Merchant was replaced by Emilia Clarke, and Morocco itself was replaced by Malta, and the rest is history. During the Morocco days, though, the word was that many Dothraki extras would likely be Moroccan, meaning they might know French, and would likely know Arabic, but might not know English. Since the Dothraki romanization was designed with English speakers in mind, I decided it would make sense to devise a French-inspired romanization system, as well as one utilizing the Arabic script. I detailed both of these systems in the original materials I sent to Dave and Dan. I’ll probably write up the French romanization system I came up with later, but for now, let’s take a look at the Arabic system.

First, some important facts about Arabic writing. The system is, technically (as it’s used today), an alphabet, but it began its existence as an abjad. An abjad is a writing system that treats vowels as incidental, encoding only the consonants. Thus, in an Arabic word like kataba, “he wrote”, you generally write the equivalent of ktb, with the vowels being assumed. As it is now, there are certain vowels that must be written (long vowels), and there’s a secondary set of diacritics that can be used to optionally write all vowels, so it really looks more like an alphabet, but it’s abjadic history is evident to any who use the script.

Unlike most Western scripts, the Arabic script is written from right to left (which is a nightmare if you want to drop a word of Arabic into a predominantly English text, let me tell you), and most of the characters connect to one another (as with cursive writing in English). It’s also, in my opinion, gorgeous. I fell in love with the Arabic script the first time I saw it, and am glad to have had the opportunity to learn the language and use the script (also is useful to be able to read it).

Anyway, for those who love great big tables, you’re in for a treat! Here’s the full system for rendering Dothraki in Arabic (note: for diacritic vowels, I’m using Arabic د [d] as the bearer below; romanized forms with an asterisk are non-standard. I’ve also enlarged the font size of the Arabic a little bit so the characters are easier to see):

Arabic Transcription of Dothraki
Romanized Form IPA Transcription Arabic Transcription
A, a [a] دَ ,ۃ ,ا
B, b* [b] ب
Ch, ch [tʃ] چ
D, d [d] د
E, e [e] دَ ,ۃ ,ا
F, f [f] ف
G, g [g] ݣ
H, h [h] ح
I, i [i] ي
J, j [dʒ] ج
K, k [k] ك
Kh, kh [x] خ
L, l [l] ل
M, m [m] م
N, n [n] ن
O, o [o] و
P, p* [p] پ
Q, q [q] ق
R, r [ɾ] ر
S, s [s] س
Sh, sh [ʃ] ش
T, t [t] ت
Th, th [θ] ث
V, v [v]
W, w [w] و
Y, y [j] ي
Z, z [z] ز
Zh, zh [ʒ] ژ

Many of the choices above are (as anyone who reads Arabic will probably immediately recognize) not uncontroversial. It is nice, though, that Arabic has dedicated letters for q and th, which are often difficult for native, real world orthographies to represent. A summary of the reasoning behind some of the decisions made above is below:

  • I’ve completed conflated a and e. It’s difficult to distinguish between the two in the Arabic script, frankly. Apart from introducing a new letter (or, perhaps, using the diphthong يْ), though, there isn’t much to be done. I’d be open to suggestions. (Note: I’d originally used a kasra diacritic for e, but decided against it, as it seemed unnatural.)
  • As in Arabic, there’s no distinction between y and i. One choice I made was to mirror that with w and o (in Arabic, w and u). The character و is often used for o in borrowings (e.g. دبلوم “diploma”), so I figure all it would take is a note that و is always pronounced [o] when used as a vowel, and Arabic speakers would get it right.
  • It was quite tempting to render zh as ج, but most speakers actually have something closer to j for that, so I resorted to using a non-standard character ژ, which I hoped would be recognizable.
  • Arabic speakers will notice that I used ح rather than ه for h, even though the latter is closer to the Dothraki h in most places. The reason is (thinking back to the actual Moroccan extras, remember), I was hoping they’d actually use the Arabic sound ح which I thought would be too difficult for English-speaking actors. I’d always imagined that sound in particular when creating and working with Dothraki.
  • The character گ is the one I see most often for g (probably because it’s used in Farsi), but my brother-in-law, who’s been to Morocco, said they use ݣ, so I went with that.
  • Of course, as with Arabic, gemination is indicated with a shadda above the consonant in question. It looks like a little w (دّ).

Now with that out of the way, let’s see it in action! Here’s a Dothraki sentence in the romanization, then in the Arabic script, then translated:

  • Hash yer vineseri dothrakh ataki kishi, zhey shekh ma shieraki anni?
  • حاش يَر ڤينَسَري دوثراخ آتَكي كيشي، ژَي شَخ ما شيَّرَكي انّي؟
  • “Do you remember our first ride, my sun and stars?”

Ha! That was so much fun. I realize I may be the only one who appreciates this, but despite the vowel clusters of Dothraki, I always imagined it written in the Arabic script. Even though it’s a pain in the choyo to write it out using Unicode, it’s fun to see it on the screen.

Thanks for indulging me!

Posted on March 7, 2012, in Conlanging and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. Athdavrazar, zhey David! This post is timely, as I was going to ask you off-list how difficult it is to make the jump from Dothraki to Arabic. Apparently, they do have more in common than I thought.

    In looking at some other resources concerning Arabic, I found that there are many different languages that are considered ‘arabic’. Which one or ones do you use the most?

    • Hey Hrakkar,

      I’m not quite sure what you mean… Structurally, Arabic and Dothraki have almost nothing in common. Both are robustly head-initial, but beyond that, they behave completely differently.

      As for different “Arabics”, there is one language called “Arabic” spoken across the Middle East and Northern Africa that has many “dialects”. Those “dialects”, though, are often distinct enough to be considered separate languages. They still tend to be referred to as “Arabic”, though.

      When one is learning Arabic, one generally learns Quranic Arabic, which isn’t spoken anymore, but which is still read. Once one has a basic understanding of that, one moves to Modern Standard Arabic (think of this as a formal register), and then to one of the “dialects”.

      When I was learning Arabic, we switched to Egyptian Arabic after a while, which I didn’t much like the sound of (all the gorgeous zh sounds become g). I didn’t progress much further than that, though, as my double major prevented me from fitting in more Arabic (which is really too bad. I should’ve stuck with it).

  2. Zhey David, I think you answered my question. The assumption I can draw from this is that Dothraki has some Arabic sounds, and a few other similarities you have pointed out in your blog, but little else. In any case, thank you for the enlightening answer!

  3. So if I learned (not that I will) to use voiceless pharyngeal fricative for h, that would be at least kinda super-right, even if maybe not exactly right?

    I seem to remember you also offered a cyrillic ortography somewhere. I think it had the same problem this has: there are some phonemes that aren’t distinquished, so there are homographs that should not be homophones. I think this makes these writing systems decidedly inferior to our standard latin ortography, which is a bit sad – I’d love to see ortographies to foreign scripts that would stand on equal grounds in comparison with the latin one.

    • To the first question, yes—in syllable-final position. Just a regular h elsewhere.

      To the second—yeah, that’s true, but if one really wanted, one could bend the systems to make all possible distinctions. Recall that Turkish used to be written with the Arabic script, for example, and it has 8 vowels to Arabic’s 3; obviously they had to do a little rule-bending. Part of the raison d’être of this system in particular was to get native Arabic speakers to produce it about correctly—in which case, I erred on the side of “recognizable to an Arabic speaker” as opposed to “distinguish everything”.

      I think we certainly could use the Arabic script to make, for example, the four vowel distinction (we’d just need something for “e”). When the old semitic script was converted to Greek, consonantal letters that didn’t exist in Greek were used for vowels that didn’t exist in Aramaic, etc. I see that in the Ottoman Turkish alphabet, the other “h” sound was used to represent “e”. That could work here, since I used the pharyngeal “h” for the Dothraki “h”. There are plenty of possibilities to make the system work perfectly; this was just how I did for this project specifically.

  4. Hello, I try to translate a text and I do not arrive has to find the meaning of the word ” ASIMESHANAZ “. I thought has ” the youngest ” or the least young “. Do you can help me? Thank you. Excuse my English, but I am French!

  5. Hello david, thank you for your answer, I suspect that a lot of people has you to contact!! In any case, I think of having found, with the help which you gave me, still thank you for this small private lesson.
    And, again, excuse my English!

  6. illdoitnextweek

    I just wanted to say thank you for posting this even though you probably won’t use it for work anymore. As a native English speaker who studied Arabic, I actually find it much easier to pronounce Dothraki by reading the Arabic script. One English spelling can result in so many different sounds while Arabic (MSA) spelling usually only has one sound (especially with your vowel markings, thank you!). Unfortunately I don’t know all of the IPA or that would be better.

    • Cool! I’m glad someone can appreciate it and perhaps use it. :)

    • Joanna Grimmer

      I agree. It’s much easier to read in Arabic if you’ve learned it. And I think, having listened to the Dothraki dialogue in GoT season 1, that introducing kasra to indicate a short ‘i’ would be appropriate. For example ‘shieraki’ which requires the speaker’s tongue to glide from the ‘i’ to the ‘e’ before the palatal ‘k’. In some cases you can hear this happening as a natural course of pronunciation where the ‘e’ is formed further back than the ‘i'; ‘e’ is more unnatural to pronounce after dental consonants and fricatives. The natural form in colloquialisation of the language would have this evolve (or not happen in the first place). After-all, historically, it is a spoken language more than a written one.

  7. I’ve spent, like, hours learning arabic script. Seems that is not a commitement big enough to learn to read and write fluently in varied styles in language(s) you have absolutely no familiarity with.. Still, understanding little leaves a lot of room for imagination.

    Hey, let’s roll with the “Ottoman style” “h for e” scheme! That seems an improvement. For other vowels, though, why not offer kasrah and dammah as diacritic alternatives for writing is and os? It’s a bit sad to have only one vowel diacritic at use. The way wikipedia diacritic article introduces them, the connection between alif and fathah seems very similar to ones with kasrah and ya or dammah and waw (even though all in all alif seems super complicated extra-special character). I see you have marked stresses by varying between alifs and fathahs (long and short as, isn’t it?) and that’s a real advantage for this ortography – to naturally and fluently mark stresses. With the other vowel diacritics, the advantage would me much stronger.

    With clever but not completely unorthodox use of diacritics, could the stress marking system be expanded to every occasion, to hs (which surely don’t have even remotely orthodox diactitic variant?), to leading vowels, to strings of vowels…? And while we’re at that, could the difference between vowel and consonant use of those w/o and j/i double-duty letters be made unambivalent by clever use of diacrititics like sukun? Dothraki syllabification rules aren’t that big help on distinquishing between vowels and consonants, after all.

    How do you think you’d deal with different situations with strings of vowels? I see you used shaddah doubling the i to approximate the ie sequence, which is hardly ideal, but would be a cool solution for two of the same vowel coming one after another. Would you dare to throw a shaddah on top of an alif?

    Also, you used alif maddah with ataki but not with anni (presumably because of the n at the coda); what’s the idea there, exactly?

    • Ultimately, you have to decide what the goal is. If the goal is to make it immediately recognizable (and close enough in pronunciation) for literate Arabic speakers, then using h for a vowel is out of the question. If you just want something unambiguous that uses the Arabic script, then you have other options.

      The reason I didn’t use kasra and damma is the actual pronunciation is too short. Theoretically it should work, but in practice I thought using full waw and yaa would ensure better pronunciation.

      And while we’re at that, could the difference between vowel and consonant use of those w/o and j/i double-duty letters be made unambivalent by clever use of diacrititics like sukun?

      Not really. With waw and yaa (and only those), a sukun is usually code for “this is a diphthong”. Thus a waw with a sukun over it is usually interpreted as [aw] (or [o] in some dialects), and a yaa with a sukun over it is usually interpreted as [aj] (or [e] in some dialects).

      I see you used shaddah doubling the i to approximate the ie sequence, which is hardly ideal, but would be a cool solution for two of the same vowel coming one after another.

      That’s not why I used that. A shadda over a glide consonant means it’s not only geminate, but consonantal (as opposed to vocalic). Using the shadda will make sure that that word isn’t pronounced like shiraki.

      Also, you used alif maddah with ataki but not with anni (presumably because of the n at the coda); what’s the idea there, exactly?

      Nah, I think by the time I got to the end I forgot I was doing the (almost) fully-voweled text. I’ll go back and change that.

    • Oh, you know what? I totally take that back—what I said about this:

      Also, you used alif maddah with ataki but not with anni (presumably because of the n at the coda); what’s the idea there, exactly?

      I used that madda because I knew it would ensure that the stress got put in the right place, and I wasn’t sure it would be otherwise. With anni, as written, there’s no possible way it could get stressed wrong, so I didn’t need the madda. That’s why I did that.

  8. David,

    As an Arab and a big fan of the show I had to stop and say two things. First, thanks for the brilliant world you brought us.

    Second, having read the article, table, and most comments here, I just wanted to let people who read this know that how well you actually know what you are talking about.

    When I started reading this article, the cynic in me was waiting for something laughably wrong in what you wrote. However, the more I read, the less I felt that way. Actually, by the end of the article I was really impressed and immensely refreshed. It is not common (at least for me) to meet foreigners (non-Arabs) who actually know the intricacies of Arabic. (Maybe I need to reconsider where I hang out.)

    What I like the most, personally, is that I will be using this article (with your permission) to explain to my friends here in the US many things that I couldn’t have before (at least not as concisely and eloquently as you had). I really like the simple way in which you explained what a shadda or tashkeel/tanween (secondary vowels).

    Shukran jazeelan ya Dawood.

    Mohsin

    P.S. I rarely contribute to forums and stuff like that but you provoked me. What prompted this commit is your statement at the end of the article that you “may be the only one who [would] appreciate[] this[.]” You are not. We are out there and we are loving it.

    P.P.S In Season 1, in some of the scenes, you can hear Arabic being spoken by the actors playing Dothrakis. I cannot recall the exact scenes right now, but I remember hearing that. It makes sense now. They probably were the parts you shot in Morocco.

    • Afwan, ya Mohsin. :) I’m glad to know it. Of course, feel free to share it around. I have to say, something I regret is not having been able to take more Arabic while I was in college. If I hadn’t committed to finishing my English major, I probably would have double-majored in Arabic and Linguistics. Alas… Maybe some day I’ll be able to pick it up again and learn it to fluency.

    • The comment that they spoke arabic in season 1 has come up here and there but I don’t think it’s true. There is certainly no arabic in the main dialogue.

      Perhaps there are some words that sound similar to arabic words. For example anha that means I is similar in arabic I think (ana)? Do you have any examples of where you believe there is arabic spoken?

      The Dothraki parts was shot in Malta. It was only during the pilot that they were in Morocco but those parts were reshot in Malta.

      • Hello ingsve,

        Thanks for the comment.

        I remember hearing it in the background. I can’t recall where exactly. A friend (from Saudi too) told me he heard Dothrakis speaking Arabic in the background.

        But I will have to watch Season 1 again (something I was planning to do anyway) and tell you. In any case, I am sure it was not in the dialogue. If anything, it was a random extra who said a couple of words. (Which isn’t dispositive as David said in his comment because those words might just be Dothraki that sounds like Arabic).

        I will get back to you on this in a few weeks.

  9. Great post!
    It’s so interesting to see Dothraki in Arabic. I do have a suggestion though, for the H you used the strong ح instead of the lighter ه which is the proper pronunciation of the letter H. Or was it on purpose?

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