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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!

Chiftikh

That’s my nearest approximation of “quick hits”. A chiftikh is a word for a strike (with a blade) that we might describe as a “glancing blow” in English—a nick. Only a flesh wound.

A friend of mine—and one of the Old Guard conlangers—Barry Garcia has taken recently to conscripting (minus the conlanging), and this past week he wrote up a version of the numbers one through ten (and also one hundred) in Dothraki. Here’s what they look like:

Barry Garcia's Dothraki numerals 1-5.

That’s 1-5. Now for the rest:

Barry Garcia's Dothraki numerals 6-10 and 100.

The numeral glyphs above are from his own script, and the writing below is a transliterated form of the Dothraki words (i.e. at, akat, sen, etc.) The glyphs at the beginning and end are used to demarcate paragraphs or set off quotes. If I know my modern “literary” press publications right (Vintage, I’m looking at you), the English equivalent would be:

Since I introduced one at the beginning of this post, now might be as good a time as any to discuss sword fighting (or arakh fighting) terminology in Dothraki. While there are basic words like “to cut” and “to stab” in Dothraki, there are also a series of specific terms used for types of sword strikes one employs in a fight. They’re all derived in the same fashion from native animal terminology. Since we’ve already seen chiftikh, I’ll use that as my example.

A chiftikh is a weak or glancing blow with a sword—something that was intended to hit, but missed the mark (or, perhaps, was too weak to do much damage). It derives from the word chifti, which means “cricket”. To use it in a sentence, you use the verb ildat, “to strike”. The direct object, then, is the type of strike, rather than the one struck. To indicate the one who is struck, you include an allative object (optional), and if you wish to mention the weapon used, you can include an ablative object (also optional). Thus, if you wanted to say the equivalent of (I think this is the best way to word this in English), “I fetched him a glancing blow with my arakh”, you would say:

  • Anha ilde chiftikh maan arakhoon anni.

And there you have it. Below I’ll list the various ildo (i.e. “sword strikes”), along with the animal they’re associated with and their meaning:

Animal Term Ildo Meaning
chifti “cricket” chiftikh A weak hit or glancing blow.
gezri “snake” gezrikh A feint (a strike intended to throw the opponent off and disguise one’s true intent).
hlizif “bear” hlizifikh A wild but powerful strike (effective if it lands, but relatively inaccurate).
hrakkar “lion” hrakkarikh A quick, powerful and accurate strike.
kolver “eagle” kolverikh A straight sword thrust (middling and relatively uncommon).
ver “wolf” verikh A defensive strike intended to back an opponent off, but not necessarily to land.

As a framework, this isn’t intended to encompass swordsmanship (or arakhsmanship) in any way. These are just older terms that are intended to be employed in discussing a sword fight. They’re not meant to run the gamut of sword fighting terminology, or to dictate a particular style: they’re just there to make discussion move along a bit more easily.

And you may also notice that the word for “eagle” up there drew its inspiration from Stephen Colbert. I felt I needed a word for “eagle”, and in searching for a phonological form to fit it, I decided that Stephen Colbert embodied eagleness quite well. As his last name fit Dothraki’s syllable structure rather nicely, the word for “eagle” became kolber—or, at least, in the oldest form of the language. In modern Dothraki, it, of course, comes out as kolver, with the older b changing to v, but if the t can become silent on account of a historical sound change, I figure a change from a stop to a fricative shouldn’t be all that alarming.

I’m off to Chicago on Thursday! If I get any good pictures, I’ll be sure to post them here. Fonas chek!

A Dothraki Alphabet…?

It is known that the Dothraki are illiterate, in that the language has no written form. That need not stop us from imagining what a Dothraki script might look like, though—after all, fun is fun!

I received an e-mail recently from Carlos Carrion Torres from Brazil who, along with his daughter Patricia, created a Dothraki alphabet. We’ve already seen Qvaak’s stylized rendition of the Dothraki romanization system, but that was intended for our use outside the fictional universe the Dothraki inhabit. Carlos and Patricia did something a little different. They imagined how the Dothraki might get a writing system within the Universe of Ice and Fire. Here’s the backstory.

Jorah Mormont, who comes from Westeros, obviously spends a lot of time with the Dothraki, and so he attempts to create a script to encode the language. Coming from a place where an alphabet is used (true, Common is just English, but even if Common were a separate language, I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that they’d use an alphabetic writing system), Jorah would naturally think to create an alphabet, as opposed to some other type of writing system. One option when doing so is simply to take one’s own writing system and adapt it to fit the new language. As Carlos and Patricia have imagined it, though, Jorah decided to take the concept of an alphabet and create something new—something more suited to the Dothraki lifestyle. The result is pretty wild.

While it’d be tough to reproduce everything detailed in the document I received here on the page, you can download a detailed description of the entire system here, and you can read a full write-up of the system over at Omniglot. Though alphabetic, the script is better suited to Dothraki than the romanization, for example, because there are single characters assigned to each of the sounds I spell with digraphs (i.e. th, sh, zh, ch and kh). Plus, doubled vowels are spelled with a single character. The glyphs themselves are stylized to look (to my mind, at least) rather like sword slashes, and they’re based on the shapes of culturally-relevant objects. Here’s one example from the .pdf:

I’ve also got a sample phrase to show you. Below is the transliteration of Asshekhqoyi vezhvena! (punctuation included) into Carlos and Patricia’s script, which they call simply “Dothraki”:

Click to enlarge.

And while we’re on the subject of birthdays, check out this picture I got from a fan via e-mail. Apparently Carolyn is a big Game of Thrones fan, so they decide to wish her a Dothraki-style happy birthday on the cake:

A cake with "Asshekhqoyi vezhvena, zhey Carolyn!" written on it.

Click to enlarge.

Athdavrazar! That is tight! So, wherever you are, zhey Carolyn, asshekhqoyi vezhvena! Hope your birthday was not a dull affair. Hajas!

[Note: Just as a reminder, this writing system is not official. Officially, the Dothraki have no writing system, and won't unless George R. R. Martin decides they should have one at some point in time and it's created. I'm sharing this here as, essentially, fan art. And, of course, the existence of one unofficial system oughtn't preclude anyone from creating more unofficial systems—after all, creating writing systems is a lot of fun!]

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!

Dothraki Writing System…?

Periodically I’ll spotlight cool stuff being done by Dothraki community members here on the blog. Today I want to take a look at something really cool done by Dothraki.org member Qvaak.

Prior to the Fourth Language Creation Conference, attendees took part in the LCC4 Conlang Relay. To start the relay off, I provided a text in Dothraki about an incorrigible goat.

That was pretty much the end of the story, until recently, when I got a tweet about the existence of a possible orthography for Dothraki. The tweet linked to the following image:

LCC4 Relay Text in Dothraki Calligraphy.

Click to enlarge.

Check that out! That’s the text of my leg of the relay written in a modified romanization designed for Dothraki by Qvaak. Pretty cool! Here’s a summary of the changes that were made with commentary:

  • y > j: Probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to English speakers, but this is common enough in European languages (e.g. German, Dutch, Finnish, etc.).
  • ch > c: It seems that one of Qvaak‘s goals here was to remove all the digraphs, which is a good idea, generally, but something I didn’t want to do for (primarily) English-speaking actors. For example, if chomat was spelled comat, no English speaker would pronounce it correctly.
  • sh > ſ: Now we didn’t see any examples of a capital sh, so I’m not sure if Qvaak uses a different character for the upper case version, but this one (kind of like a barless “f”) is used for a lower case long “s” in some languages. If you want a whole character and not an “s” with a diacritic, this is a good choice. (Update: The actual character is ʃ, which is the same as the phonetic character, and also what you see in older English texts and elsewhere for lower case “s” in certain places.)
  • kh > x: When I create romanization systems for my own languages, I always use “x” for [x]. I couldn’t do it here, though, because “x”, to an English speaker, is [ks]. This is a good, uncontroversial change.
  • th > δ: Qvaak, you’ll have to forgive me if I got the wrong character, but that looks like a Greek lower case delta, as opposed to ð, which is a lower case eth. This change is rather controversial, in my opinion—and it’s always tough to choose a glyph when you need to represent [θ] in a romanization. In the history of English, we used þ, which looks an awful lot like p. The character used here looks an awful lot like d—which, at least, will get you closer to the correct sound, but may be confused by readers without a d to compare it to. Looks neat, though!
  • zh > ʒ: Love it. One of my favorite sounds, and one of my favorite Latin characters.
  • j > ʒ̇: I like the way this character looks a lot, but unless I’m missing something, it can’t be represented by a single Unicode character. What I had to do was use ʒ with a combining dot above (so if you see a strange box or something after the ʒ, it’s supposed to be a dot above it). Too bad, because I think the look of the character is just right. (Update: According to Qvaak, this character is actually ǯ [an ezh with a caron], which is used in the world’s languages; the caron just becomes a dot in the calligraphic form.)
  • > Ø: Of course, the apostrophes to indicate contractions are optional, anyway, so removing them helps to make the text look less cluttered. Good decision.
  • Geminate > Ligature: Some of the absolute coolest characters in this text are the geminate ligatures (geminate s is my favorite, with geminate g a close second). Very cool! Makes me wish I’d included more in the relay text so we could see what they look like. (No double vowel ligatures, though?)

Now, of course, this wouldn’t work for Dothraki in the Song of Ice and Fire universe, since: (a) we know the Dothraki have no written form for their language, and (b) it’d be too incredible a coincidence for an orthography to develop naturally using the exact same glyphs that are used in the roman alphabet in our world. But in our universe, I have to say, it looks pretty good!

So, perhaps the question we should ask now is: Where’s the font, Qvaak? ;)

Great job! Totally love it.

Update: Qvaak has provided us with another image of the characters in the font in a more typographic style. It’s shown below:

Qvaak's typographic version of his script.

Click to enlarge.

And here’s the calligraphic version of the script:

The calligraphic version of Qvaak's script.

Click to enlarge.

Also, for some feedback from Qvaak himself, check out his lengthy comment below.

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