Monthly Archives: November 2012

Suggestion for Transcribing Dothraki in Cyrillic

Note: This post originally appeared (in a modified form) at my old blog. As I’m no longer using that blog anymore, I decided to port the post over here (though the original post still exists).

As a conlanger and orthography enthusiast, one of the things I like doing is figuring out how to write a language in a different script. In the past, I’ve created dozens of romanization systems for my conlangs (even alternate versions depending on whether Unicode is available), alternate orthographies for some of my languages using the scripts of other languages of mine, even alternate spelling systems for English. And all just for fun! This is the strange life I lead.

Recently I came across a couple sites that have been translating the English closed captioning for episodes of Game of Thrones that have aired so far into other languages. One of these sites is translating the English into Russian. From what I’ve seen, though, the Dothraki remains untransliterated (i.e. it remains written in Roman characters). Where’s the fun in that?

Here, then, is a suggestion for writing Dothraki using the Cyrillic alphabet. My Russian isn’t great, so take this with a grain of salt (and feel free to amend it or comment on it), but I think it works.

I should note that my primary experience with Cyrillic is in Russian, which I studied in college. I’m not very familiar with other Cyrillic systems (cyrillization systems? cyrillicization systems…?) used for the various languages of Eurasia, or how accessible a given character choice will be to the largest number of viewers. Since the original site I found was focusing on Russian, though, I’ve tended to go with what a Russian speaker would recognize over what a Mongolian, Serbian, Ukrainian, etc. speaker would recognize.

With those caveats out of the way, the table is presented below:

Romanization Cyrillic Comment (If Any)
a а
b б
ch ч I actually like this better than using a digraph (which is necessary in English without resorting to accents or alien assignments).
d д
e э I think this is the best solution to avoid the onglide of Russian “е”.
f ф
g г Always hard; never pronounced like English “h”.
h х See comment on “kh”. See alternative below.
i и
j дж Funny: English and Russian are opposites here (cf. “ch”). See alternative below.
k к
kh х I had two choices, really: Have “g” and “h” spelled with the same letter, or “h” and “kh”. I went with the latter, since “h” is closer to “kh” in sound, and pronouncing a word with “kh” with “h” (or vice versa) will be far less confusing than pronouncing a word with “g” with “h” (or vice versa). See alternative below.
l л
m м
n н
o о
p п
q к I have no clever idea for this sound. I figure “к” is closest, so might as well use it (since we already have one confusion built in with “h” and “kh”). See alternative below.
r р
s с
sh ш Sound is actually closer to “щ”, but “ш” is a simpler character.
t т
th ц Can I get away with this? The sounds are nothing alike, but the place of articulation is close! If not, it’d just have to be “т”, I guess (unless anyone still remembers “ѳ”).
v в
w ў In all positions.
y й In all positions.
z з
zh ж
Or just leave it out entirely; it’s not important.

And here are some common words:

  • khal ~ хaл
  • khaleesi ~ хaлээси
  • arakh ~ aрaх
  • vezhven ~ вэжвэн
  • athchomar ~ aцчомaр
  • jahak ~ джaхaк
  • yeroon ~ йэроон

Based on some comments made on the original LiveJournal post by Owen Blacker, I’ve got some ideas for possible revisions to the system above:

  • Apparently Serbian uses “ђ” for Dothraki j (or something very close to it), so that might be a nice alternative to the digraph (though I’m not sure if it comes standard on a Russian keyboard).
  • Searching for a possible alternative for Dothraki q led me to one interesting solution. Some languages use “қ” for q, but apparently some of the Iranian languages have replaced that with the digraph “къ”, which I think is perfect! The little “b” character (ъ) is the “hard sign” in Russian’s orthography. It has a very specific use there, but since it doesn’t in Dothraki—and since it would be immediately recognizable to Russian speakers—the usual “к” glyph would be augmented to “къ” for q, making it seem like q is the “hard” version of k—and that’s not too far off!
  • Cyrillic “һ” is a possibility for h (leaving “х” free to be kh), but I’m not sure how common it is. Another possibility presents itself, though. Since “г” is commonly used for [h] in Russian, it could become the new letter for h, and then “гъ” (or “hard г”) could become the way to write g. Kind of odd to think of writing g as a digraph, but it works!

Unfortunately, I’ve still found no satisfactory solution for th. It’s a tricky sound to handle in Cyrillic, because it used to exist in a lot of Slavic languages, but was eventually replaced by either [t] or [f]—with the character itself taking over to spell those new sounds. However, if we continue to spell it with “ц”, there’s an amusing little in joke. In Russian (and many other Slavic languages), this character is used for the affricate [ts]. In the episode where Irri is teaching Dany to speak Dothraki properly, Dany practices with the word athjahakar. When she gets it wrong, though, she pronounces it atsjakar. Thus, the Russian character to spell it—if pronounced as it would be in Russian—would lead one to mispronounce the beginning part of that word in the exact same way Dany mispronounces it. Ha!

Well, thanks for indulging me yet again. I hope your weekend has been spent in safety, and far away from the madness surrounding shopping centers around this time of year. Fonas chek!

Happy Thanksgiving

To those in America, Happy Thanksgiving! To those in Canada, Happy Thanksgiving about a month ago! To those elsewhere, happy day!

Something that may have been asked before but which I didn’t address was a Dothraki word for turkey. It seems to me that there would be no turkeys in Essos, if it was modeled after Eurasia (it seems like Westeros was modeled after North America, and Essos Eurasia, or something close to that), which would mean there would be no native word for turkey. If it were to be borrowed, it’d probably be borrowed from Westeros through one of the languages of the western coast of Essos. And since the Common Tongue is spoken in Westeros, it’d probably come out as “turkey” (or something based on it).

Thanks to Abe Simpson of The Simpsons, though, we do have a handy compound for turkey we can calque: a walking bird. A Dothraki calque for that would be zir ifay. In fact, we can put that together and get zirifay. That works pretty nicely.

So, to one and all, allow me to say: Asshekhi Zirifayi Vezhvena! Stay safe, and may the Cowboys lose (after Miles Austin gets two touchdowns. I need this win in fantasy)!


So it was revealed in the comments on my last post that I have apparently never gone over alienable vs. inalienable possession in Dothraki—or at least not directly. Let me take a moment to do so now.

First, a couple of definitions. Grammatical possession is probably something everyone is familiar with (e.g. in a phrase like “the man’s hat”, “the man” is the possessor and “hat” is the possessee, with the “‘s” there to indicate that “the man” is the possessor of what follows). Some languages make a finer grain distinction when it comes to possession than English does. For example, consider the actual relationships specified in the English examples below:

  • my pencil
  • my arm
  • my aunt
  • my bank account
  • my opinion
  • my country

All of these are expressed with the same construction, but is having a pencil in one’s hand really the same thing as having an aunt? One is an inanimate object that can be owned and wholly contained, while the other is a living individual with which one simply has a unique familial relationship. And what about a pencil vs. an opinion? Does one have an opinion in precisely the same way that one has a pencil? And while a bank account is more concrete than an opinion, in some ways, one can’t pick it up the same way one can a pencil.

A language like English treats these relationships the same, presuming that the words themselves will give one enough information about what the relationship is. Other languages, though, will focus on different aspects of these possessive relationships and encode them differently. Dothraki is one such language.

In Dothraki, the morphological expression of possession is dependent upon its alienability. Put simply, alienability is the ability for a possession to be separated from its possessor. For example, consider one’s nose. Unless one has met with a rather unfortunate set of circumstances (or, perhaps, found oneself in a story by Gogol), one’s nose is not easily removed from one’s face. This is a canonical example of inalienable possession (that is, one possesses one’s nose inalienably). A pencil, though, is easily removed from one’s possession, and is one of many examples of alienable possession.

In Dothraki, the genitive case is the default expression of alienable possession. It’s used for most types of garden variety possession, including interpersonal relationships, as shown below (with the possessor in the genitive following the possessee):

  • sajo anni “my mount”
  • okeo yeri “your friend”
  • arakh mae “his/her arakh”
  • okre khali “the khal’s tent”

Inalienable possession is expressed with the ablative, rather than the genitive, and the possessor is optional: it can be stated for emphasis or if the possessor isn’t obvious, but if it is, it’s typically left out. Some examples are given below:

  • qora (anhoon) “(my) arm/hand”
  • tihi (yeroon) “(your) eyes”
  • noreth (moon) “(his/her) hair”
  • jahak (khaloon) “(the khal’s) braid”

In English, you actually do see a bit of this alienability sometimes. Consider, for example, a sentence like, “I looked him in the eyes”. Whose eyes? Well, his eyes. It’s obvious from the context. You could actually say, “I looked him in his eyes”, but it’s not necessary. The same thing occurs with Dothraki, but in a wider context. For example, consider this sentence below:

  • Qora zisa.

That means simply “the arm hurts”. If one walks in holding one’s arm and utters that, though, it’s obvious from context that it’s the speaker’s arm that hurts, meaning that the “missing” possessor is anhoon. If one’s companion said that, it’d be obvious that the “missing” possessor is moon.

Moving beyond body parts, though, the inalienable possession construction is used with inherent parts of things. Here are some examples:

  • az arakhoon “the blade of the arakh”
  • lenta halahoon “the stem of the flower”
  • rayan krazaajoon “the summit of the mountain”
  • riv zhanoon “the tip of the spear”

Mastering the two types of expressions will also allow one to make subtle distinctions that may or may not prove useful, e.g.:

  • Qora anhoon mesa.
  • Qora anni mesa.

Both sentences above mean “My arm is swollen”. The second sentence, though, refers specifically to an alienably possessed arm. Thus the most obvious interpretation is that the speaker is wielding a severed arm as a weapon, and, having bludgeoned someone or something with it, the arm has now swollen, and perhaps doesn’t swing as well as it once did.

While the rules above will work for 99% of cases, some expressions are unpredictable. For example, chiva krazaaji, “the tip of the mountain”, has krazaaj in the genitive rather than the ablative, even though one would expect the ablative. In addition, bodily conditions (injuries, illness, etc.) are often expressed with the ablative, rather than the genitive. In general, though, it’s more common to see the genitive where one would expect the ablative, rather than vice versa.

Okay, now I can be absolutely sure that I discussed possession on the blog (unlike before, when I was absolutely certain and mostly wrong). Athdavrazar!

Oh, and here, for no real reason, is a link to my article entitled “Linguistics Manifesto” which appeared in Speculative Grammarian.

I Care!

Happy Wednesday! I thought I’d do a mini-post on a small question that’s come up a couple times and deserves a tiny bit of fleshing out (hashtag little).

More than a few people have asked how to say something along the lines of either “That’s important to me” or “I don’t care”. Our English verb “care” is a mystery to me. It’s so…squishy, if that’s a linguistic term. I’d fully expect it to have a quirky case subject in some language that’s prone to such things. It didn’t seem verb-worthy in Dothraki, so there is no equivalent verb for “to care”.

So how do you do it? Actually you do it with a prepositional phrase, much like the phrase mra qora which was used in the wine merchant scene of episode 107. The phrase is mra zhor, which means “in the heart”. Thus, if you say the following:

Sajo anni mra zhor.

It means either “I care about my mount”, or “I care for my mount”, or “My mount is important to me”. Though it’s an expression now, zhor is inalienably possessed (unless you’re eating it, I guess), so a possessor need not be specified if it’s clear from context. The default context is always the speaker (especially so when you have a possessor like anni right in there). If you want to specify an alternate context (or simply emphasize the one to who cares), all you need to do is add an inalienable possessor to the word zhor, as below:

Sajo anni mra zhor moon.

And that would be “My mount is important to him”, or “He cares about my mount”.

To say something like “I don’t care”, you just have to turn it around a little bit:

Hazi vo mra zhor.

That is literally “That isn’t in my heart” and would mean “I don’t care about that”. Conventionally, you could shorten it up and say Vo mra zhor, and you can intensify it by saying Vo mra zhor vosecchi. Also, though it’s not directly related, if you wanted to say “I don’t care anymore”, you’d say Vo mra zhor ajjinoon. Ajjinoon means “anymore” most of the time in negative contexts (or at least that’s how it’s translated into English. It has other uses in positive contexts).

That said, I hope your day is a good one. Why? Hajinaan meme mra zhor anhoon. Me nem nesa.

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