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New Bit of a Language

M’athchomaroon! We’re eight episodes into season 5 of Game of Thrones, and if you watched last night’s episode, you saw, among other things, a giant named Wun Wun—who spoke! For those wondering, yes, his utterances were linguistic (or were close, anyway), and, yes, I did create a language for the giants, though that’s all you’ll hear of it this season. In this post, I’ll give you a little background on it, but not much (I will explain why, though).

For readers of the book series, one question probably comes to mind first: Is this the Old Tongue? The answer: Kind of. I think George R. R. Martin explains it best himself (and these are words we should keep in mind throughout this post):

The giants are not literate, and, truth be told, are not all that bright either. They do speak the Old Tongue, after a fashion, but not well.

Given these marching orders, I crafted a language for the giants that fit the bill—not the Old Tongue, but Mag Nuk: The Great Tongue.

We know very little about the Old Tongue, and I was not tasked with creating it, in its purest form, so I devised a kind of rubric for deriving Mag Nuk from the Old Tongue, if it existed. The result is a pidgin, in one sense of the word. In this case, though, it’s not a pidgin because it hasn’t been spoken for very long, or because it’s a mixture of other languages: It’s a pidgin because it’s not a full language, and is not entirely consistent at any point. It’s a system of communication used by a race of creatures that simply don’t have the mental capacity of an ordinary human being, so they really took a bat to the Old Tongue.

Because I haven’t actually created the Old Tongue and we don’t know if we’ll see it in future books (or to what extent), I want to release very little about the language. I want to have as much latitude in reshaping Mag Nuk, should it be necessary, and that’s easiest to do if I keep things in house. Frankly, I think it’d be great to actually create the Old Tongue and hear it on screen, but given where we are in the story, I simply have no idea if it would even make sense. Dave and Dan might, but they haven’t told me anything about it. We’ll have to wait for more books or more seasons of the show to come out to know.

Some of the things I did with the language, though, I’ll tell you here. For example, whatever systems the Old Tongue had (noun declension, pluralization, verb tense, etc.), all of them are gone in Mag Nuk. Furthermore, all polysyllabic words have been cut down to a single syllable. In addition, the phonology of the language has been simplified. To give you one example that we can be fairly sure of, we know that skagos is “rock” in the Old Tongue. The Mag Nuk version is skag.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the line from last night’s episode as written, and then afterwards we’ll talk about what was actually said (coarse language incoming):

  • Lokh doys bar thol kif rukh?
  • “The fuck you looking at?”

(Oh, and for pronunciation, vowels are o [ɔ]; a [æ], unless it’s before r, in which case it’s [ɑ]; i [ɪ]; u [ǝ]. Then for the few consonants that might be confused, kh [x]; r [ɹ]; th [θ].)

Okay! Each of these words has an etymology, and I will list them, if you promise to treat this information as provisional! It may need to be revised at some future date if more Old Tongue words are revealed that somehow make the etymologies impossible. I’ll fix it so that the spoken Mag Nuk line will work, but I make no promises for the etymologies. Below is a word-for-word gloss of the line, and below that an Old Tongue correspondence for each word:

  • Lokh doys bar thol kif rukh?
  • Who/what fuck/shit you sit look it/him?
  • Lokh doysen bar thol kifos rukh?

You can probably figure out what I was doing grammatically there. Doys was supposed to be a general curse word (could mean anything), and lokh a general question word. The order is SVO, given the lack of inflection, but that’s not necessarily the order of the Old Tongue. The precise meanings of each of the Old Tongue words I’ll leave for later, but I did intend for the pronouns at least to hold up. We’ll see, though!

Anyway, if you go back and watch the episode, though, it’s pretty obvious that what Wun Wun says is three syllables long. What I believe (or would like to say I believe) I heard is the following:

  • Lokh kif rukh?
  • Who/what look it/him?
  • Lokh kifos rukh?

If that’s the case, I have to say, I’m pretty pleased. I think it’s actually more simple—more giant-like—than what I originally had, which is in keeping with the spirit of how George R. R. Martin described the giants’ use of the Old Tongue. It’s even less language-y than my sentence, but there’s still some meaning you can recover from it. The important bits are there. Plus, the whole point of the thing is that it’s not consistent. This is inconsistent with what I’d written, but in a good way (i.e. the three most important bits are there). So, right on!

That’s the long and short of it. We’ll have to wait and see if the language is used in any form in the future. For now, though, I like what it added to this episode. I also liked Wun Wun’s “Tormund”. Be cool to see the giants totally whaling on things at some point in time in the future of the series if there’s some truly epic Lord of the Rings-style battle-to-end-all-battles (and though we don’t have all the books, I think it’s fair to speculate that there might be before it’s all over).

Thanks for reading! Also, though I’ve announced it elsewhere, I did want to mention here that my next book The Art of Language Invention will be coming out September 29th! It’s available for preorder right now, and you can preorder the book here.

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