Since it’s come up in the comments and elsewhere, I thought I’d give a quick rundown of my read on the Valyrian in the world as it exists in A Song of Ice and Fire. It’ll be useful to refer to this map in the discussion to come, since I’m going to be talking mostly about Slaver’s Bay.
High Valyrian was spoken in Valyria for centuries. The Ghiscari Empire was preeminent in the ancient history, and five times they tried to conquer Valyria. Each time they failed, as Valyria had dragons, which they used to repel the invasion. After the last attempt, the Valyrian army wiped the capital of the Ghiscari Empire, Old Ghis, off the face of the planet, and the empire fell, Ghiscari culture being displaced by Valyrian culture. At this time, the Valyrian Freehold took control of Slaver’s Bay, and three formerly small cities became large and rather important: Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen.
Looking at the map, it makes sense to me that the way Valyria interacted with these three cities was by boat. An army could march overland and get to Meereen, then Yunkai, then Astapor, but why bother? A trip by boat is much quicker. Consequently, Astapor is the closest of these three cities to Valyria. (Oh, and if you’re wondering why Daenerys, who, presumably, is coming from the north, goes to Astapor, Yunkai and then Meereen, as opposed to the other way around, it’s because she traveled all the way to Qarth first, and then traveled from there. Qarth is way east and south of Astapor.)
In these cities in Slaver’s Bay, everyone would have spoken Ghiscari, during the ancient wars. When Old Ghis fell, though, a Valyrian ruling class would have had to have been installed, and High Valyrian would have replaced Ghiscari by fiat, and also in practice. When this happens, it generally takes three generations for a language to be lost in a single family. In five or six generations, the Ghiscari language could have been stamped out, if that was a goal of the Valyrians (and it was, I think it’s safe to assume). The old language, though, would have survived in local vocabulary (why lose a word for something that the new language doesn’t even have a word for anyway?), and in the vocabulary of those who weren’t taught the new language explicitly. The result ends up being a Valyrian language grammatically, but with a lot of Ghiscari vocabulary.
Now, all this time, High Valyrian could have been maintained. With the presence of a home base in Valyria and a Valyrian upper class, there would always be motivation to maintain the original language. It seems likely that Valyrians would care about maintaining the language so they could communicate with every part of their vast Freehold. So even as new languages are emerging amongst the lower classes in Slaver’s Bay, High Valyrian would carry on.
The aggravating factor in this history is the mysterious Doom of Valyria, which we don’t know a whole lot about. The Doom was some sort of cataclysmic event that destroyed Valyria and left physical scars all over the region. Not even sailors were go near it now. It’s considered haunted and/or cursed. Linguistically, this is when the umbilical cord was severed for the various outposts of the Valyrian Freehold. I’ll leave the Free Cities out of this discussion for the time being and instead focus on two areas: Slaver’s Bay and Dragonstone.
Dragonstone was founded by the House Targaryen before the Doom of Valyria. It’s located in Blackwater Bay, and is a stone’s throw from King’s Landing (which didn’t have that name at the time). Initially it was established as an outpost to facilitate trade between the Valyrian Freehold and Westeros. Consequently, the Targaryens here would be upper class High Valyrian speakers. After the doom, Aegon I conquered Westeros, and the Targaryen dynasty was established. Naturally, they would have to learn the Common Tongue (it’d just make things simpler), but it doesn’t mean that they’d lose High Valyrian. Valyrian is the tie not only to the old Freehold, but to Essos and the old culture. It would easily have been retained over at least the first two generations. Thereafter, if it was important, it could be maintained through family use and careful instruction. It takes resources to do so, naturally, but they’re royalty; they’ve got resources. So to me it makes sense that High Valyrian is maintained by the Targaryens.
The evolution of the language is difficult to map realistically, since the time depth is greater than the real world analogues George R. R. Martin used. For example, at least 5,000 years are supposed to have passed between the old days of Valyria and the Doom. From 0 CE to today, Latin went from being an everyday spoken language to not existing. In fantasy, though, there’s a bit of wiggle room. I like to think that the rate of change in High Valyrian was accelerated by two factors: (1) contact with other languages; and (2) distance from Valyria.
In the case of Dragonstone, the Targaryens were far from Valyria, but also weren’t really mixing with Common Tongue speakers, per se. They kind of kept to themselves. So rather than change, the language is preserved, while the other varieties of Valyrian evolve past it. Low Valyrian never touched Dragonstone. When it comes to pronunciation, though, Common Tongue pronunciations did end up affecting the Targaryens. This is why older pronunciations of j and v aren’t maintained in the otherwise pristine form of High Valyrian spoken by the Targaryens.
Back to Slaver’s Bay. Although Yunkai is geographically closer to Meereen, I’ve always thought of it as being closer to Astapor culturally. Looking back, I’m not sure how precisely I came to this determination (I admit that). It felt, though, that Yunkish Valyrian and Astapori Valyrian would be closer to each other than either is to Meereenese Valyrian.
Each of the dialects (and I would characterize them as dialects of a kind of “Ghiscari Valyrian”) would be grammatically very similar. They have a common culture, and seem to exist in a kind of symbiotic way, with each city having something the others don’t. Since Meereen is the largest, it likely also has the largest lower class. This is where I saw the most distinct form of the language emerging. This is why it made sense to me that Meereen could support a Valyrian variant that’s quite different in sound from the other two. It’s the same language, but it’s developed its own distinct character.
With Daenerys, she grew up with High Valyrian from Viserys and from the loyalists that helped raised them. In Essos, she would’ve been exposed to a ton of different Valyrian dialects from the Free Cities. This would help her be able to pick up a new one. And, of course, if you look at Astapori Valyrian and compare it to High Valyrian, though there are sound changes, they’re not that drastic. I think it’s plausible that Dany could get the gist of it, even if she can’t speak it. Meereenese, though, is tougher. It’s hard to see a word and tie it to an Astapori Valyrian word, let alone a High Valyrian word.
Regarding comparisons, I likened Meereenese Valyrian to Scots English and Astapori Valyrian to Southern California English. They’re way different, but they’re the same language with some vocabulary items that differ. A couple of commenters have likened the two to Spanish and Portuguese. I simply don’t know if I’d go that far. If I see Portuguese written out, I can kind of get the gist of it, but hearing it? I get nothing. If I studied it a little bit and got used to the sound changes, I mean, maybe, but I’m not sure they’re close enough grammatically. In some ways, Portuguese and Spanish are too close, and in other ways, too far. The pronunciation of Portuguese and Spanish is closer than the pronunciation of Meereenese and Astapori, but the grammar is much further apart. This is why I really think of them as dialects not separate languages.
As for Yunkish, I put don’t put it in the middle of the two dialects. Rather, it’s all but identical to Astapori. Truth be told, I haven’t had to do anything specific for Yunkish, but if I did, the variation would be minor.
If I’ve left anything out, leave me a note in the comments and I’ll add it to this explanation. It isn’t as thorough as it could be, but it’s a start. The Valyrian language family is really a fun linguistic experiment, so I wanted to at least give you an idea how I was approaching it. Thanks for reading!
Edit: Some thoughts on New Ghis. New Ghis is an island to the south of Slaver’s Bay:
Regarding New Ghis, where I would start is with the notion that the Ghiscari culture was wiped off the face of the Earth. If we accept that as a truth, we have to accept that they’re speaking some form of Valyrian in New Ghis. New Ghis is pretty far from Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen, so one would have to expect it to be quite different, but how is a question I haven’t dealt with yet. Presumably they can still converse with the cities on the mainland (this happens in Book 5), so it couldn’t have diverged too much. At this point, I think that’s all we can say about New Ghis.
Today’s post is going to be long and a little convoluted, for today I’m going to talk about relative clauses in High Valyrian. I promised this post to Mad Latinist a while ago, so there’s no avoiding it now: it has to happen. But worry not! If grammar isn’t your thing, I have below, in the grand tradition of relative clause posts to the Dothraki blog, a picture of my cat Keli against a dark background:
Now. To business.
Relative clauses are actually one of my favorite parts of creating a language. Unlike other clause structures, they tend to be very orderly, and so can be fun to put together. Basically, when it comes to me creating a language, a noun is to a verb as a relative clause is to a subordinate clause. I love me some relative clauses; subordinate clauses give me fits (so hard to get just right!).
High Valyrian relative clauses pose two types of problems for an English speaker trying to learn them. The first we can deal with quite simply before getting into the rest. In English, a relative clause is a sentence that follows a noun or pronoun that gives the listener more information about that noun or pronoun. Here are some examples:
- The goat who tolerates me.
- The octopus that I saw crying over a Twinkie.
- The jaguar I sold a camera.
- The penguin I rented Driving Miss Daisy with.
- The duck whose uncle I glazed at the Super Bowl.
The underlined clauses all modify the non-underlined nouns on the left. All of them have something in common, though: The clause follows the noun it modifies, and there’s a gap in the sentence that corresponds to the noun being modified (e.g. “I rented Driving Miss Daisy with” is not a full sentence. There’s a gap after “with” that the noun “the penguin” should occupy).
In High Valyrian, the order of this is completely backwards. So starting with the simplest relative clause (the type where the modified noun is a subject in the embedded sentence), here’s a comparison between High Valyrian and English:
- Ābre kustittas lua vala raqiros issa. “The man who encouraged the woman is a friend.”
- Subject: Ābre kustittas lua vala raqiros issa. “The man who encouraged the woman is a friend.”
- Direct Object: Ābra kustittas lua vala raqiros issa. “The man whom the woman encouraged is a friend.”
- Indirect Object: Ābra rūklon teptas lua vala raqiros issa. “The man whom the woman gave a flower is a friend.”
- Ābre kustittas lua vala raqiros issa. “The man who encouraged the woman is a friend.”
- Ābre kustittas lue vale ūndetan. “I saw the man who encouraged the woman.”
- Ābre kustittas luo valot rūklon teptan. “I gave a flower to the man who encouraged the woman.”
- Possessor: Ābra kepe rhēdes lua vala raqiros issa. “The man whose father the woman knows is a friend.”
- Location: Ābra morghūltas luon lenton pryjataks. “The house where the woman died was destroyed.”
- Comparand: Ābra kirinkta issa lua vala raqiros issa. “The man who the woman is happier than is a friend.”
- Adposition: Ābra dekurūptan lua vala raqiros issa. “The man the woman walked up to is a friend.”
- Possessor: Ābra zȳhe kepe rhēdes lua vala raqiros issa. “The man who the woman knows his father is a friend.”
- Location: Ābra konīr morghūltas luon lenton pryjataks. “The house where the woman died there was destroyed.”
- Comparand: Ābra zijosy kirinkte issa lua vala raqiros issa. “The man who the woman is happier than him is a friend.”
- Adposition: Ābra va zijot dekurūptan lua vala raqiros issa. “The man the woman walked up to him is a friend.”
- Specific: Ābra kustittas lȳ sȳz issa. “The one who encouraged the woman is good.”
- Generic: Ābra kustittas līr sȳrior issa. “That which encouraged the woman is good.”
- Specific: Kaste lī ipradinna. “I’ll eat one which is green.”
- Generic: Kastor līr ipradinna. “I’ll eat that which is green.”
- Specific: Valo luo vaoresan. “I prefer one which is a man(‘s).”
- Generic: Valo lurio vaoresan. “I prefer that which is a man(‘s).”
Word-for-word, the above sentence is, “Woman encouraged who man friend is”. This is basically backwards when compared to an English relative clause. That said, once you get used to it, it’s not too bad. Instead of thinking of the relative clause as a clause, try thinking of it as a great big adjective. So instead of thinking of it as “The who encouraged a woman man is a friend”, think “The woman encouraging man is a friend”. Grammatically those two clauses are distinct, but I found it helped me to wrap my head around it the first time I saw a relative clause like this.
Now we can move on to the complicated stuff.
Aside from word order, the biggest difference between High Valyrian and English relative clauses is that while English has a relative pronoun, High Valyrian has a relative adjective: lua. The difference is subtle, if you stick to simple relative clauses, but becomes quite noticeable when you move outward. Let’s start with the simple ones. We’ve already seen an example where the target of relativization is a subject in the embedded clause. Now let’s look at some others:
Notice that lua, the relative adjective, doesn’t change in any one of those sentences, while “who” becomes “whom” in the English translations. This is a direct result of the relativizer being an adjective. It agrees with the noun in case, gender and number. In all of those sentences, vala, the target of relativization (i.e. the noun being modified), is singular, lunar and nominative, because it’s the subject of the matrix clause “is a friend”. Watch what happens if we change the matrix clause (using just the subject example from above):
Suddenly the relativizer is changing form just like “who” does in English. This is because the relative adjective has one foot in the embedded clause, and one foot in the matrix clause. Grammatically, it behaves as if it’s in the matrix clause, but semantically it links the two (basically the opposite of English “who”). This doesn’t cause any problems with sentences like the first three, where it’s pretty clear who did what to whom. But here are some further examples to complicate matters:
So, if you’re following the grammar here, you may be wondering: How do these sentences mean what they mean? The most literal translation of the first sentence would probably be something like, “The man whom the woman knows the father is a friend”. That’s not quite grammatical in English, but you get the idea. And actually it will probably seem more grammatical when you put it into English because word order does so much for it. An even more literal translation of the second sentence might be “The a woman died house was destroyed”. There’s nothing in it to tell you why the relative clause and the modified noun are related, because the relative adjective doesn’t bear the case of the noun in the embedded clause.
Now here’s the crucial part: This was intentional. Certain languages allow constructions like this (Japanese is one, I’m pretty sure), and High Valyrian is one of them. Basically it gives you two clauses and the relative adjective lua says, “Figure it out”.
I decided to do relative clauses this way for two reasons. First, I always wanted to do it (I tried with Zhyler, I think, but it didn’t come out well). Second, I wanted to create a structure that was likely to be destroyed by daughter languages. Some of the Low Valyrian languages may keep this strategy, sure, but no one would bat an eye if they decided to do something more explicit. Thus it almost begs for the daughter languages to distinguish themselves. I did that in several places throughout High Valyrian, and did so on purpose.
A result of this is that relative clauses in High Valyrian are much freer than they are in English. You can say just about anything and have it describe the target of relativization. However, repair strategies do exist. Basically you can include a pronoun if it’s absolutely necessary. Most of the time it’s not, though, and the natural strategy is to leave it be. Nevertheless, here are the four sentences above with a redundant pronoun (bolded):
In High Valyrian, you can’t leave a preposition stranded, of course, so it’s reintroduced in the last sentence.
But this isn’t the end. Oh no. For while lua above is an adjective, it can also be a pronoun. There are two forms of the relative pronoun: lȳ and līr. The former is for specific entities (and people), and the latter for generic. They can be used by themselves, as shown below:
These are often used to say things like, “Whatever works”, or “Whoever can find it”, so another way to translate the above would be “Whoever encouraged the woman is good” and “Whatever encouraged the woman is good”, respectively.
The pronouns can be modified by an adjective, rendering the meaning “that which is x”, where x is an adjective. Here are two examples:
And finally, the relative pronouns can also take a nominal possessor in the genitive. The resultant meaning is either a possessive construction, or very similar to the adjective construction, but with a nominal adjectival interpretation:
The difference between the two should be clear from context.
Finally, as those who follow High Valyrian grammar closely will note, the relative adjective and pronouns are irregular. The full declension tables for all three are listed below. First, the relative adjective (a Class I adjective):
And here it is in the plural/paucal:
Notice that these lack full forms. That’s because the relative adjective will always and only appear directly before the noun it modifies. Consequently it has no need of a full form (though, of course, it’d just be the same as any Class I adjective). The same notes apply for t in parentheses as for other Class I adjectives: it appears when the following word begins with a vowel, but disappears otherwise. Also the plural/paucal forms of the solar have a z when the following sound is voiced; voiceless otherwise.
Now for the pronouns. First, the specific pronoun lȳ:
And now the generic pronoun līr:
And that’s the end of it. Now you should know how to do relative clauses in High Valyrian, plus a little bit extra. If you made it to the end of the post, I have a reward for you: Another picture of my fantastic cat. Here she is sleeping on my foot:
I’ve just recently come back from ConDor (which was wonderful), and ran into a wall of work. While I negotiate that, though, I’d like to do a couple of things here.
First, Dothraki regular Esploranto has started translating posts on this blog into Spanish! I can’t tell you how excited I am (and, by the way, if anyone else is interested in translating these posts, go for it!), but I’ve run into a technical issue—specifically, how to add these translations to the blog. It’d be odd to post them as new posts (since they’re translations of old posts), and odder still to post them directly after the posts they’re translations of (if I get more translations, there could be, e.g., a single day with like eight posts). What I think would be ideal is if I could add a button to each post that would automatically swap out the original content with the translation. Anyone have any idea how I might accomplish this?
If I can’t come up with a clever solution, what I may do is assign all these posts to some older year (say, a hundred years prior to the original post) and provide a link on each post to the other, plus a note on the translation telling readers when the original post was posted. It’s not an ideal solution, but it’ll allow me to host the content without cluttering up the original run of posts.
Oh, and as a note, I really wouldn’t like to maintain two blogs with the same content, if I can avoid it. I’ve been having enough trouble keeping all my WordPress blogs up to date; I’m loathe to start another.
Second, I got a comment a while back from Aniko asking for the Dothraki translation of the following phrase: Dare to live; it’s easy to die. Let me take some time to translate that.
Step 1 is taking care of the word I didn’t have: dare. Turns out, the English word “dare” goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European with its meaning mostly in tact (not many words do that). I would’ve been on solid footing to simply coin a new root for Dothraki meaning “dare”, but it didn’t feel right. Right now the word I’d use for “brave” or “courageous” is vezhven. The word has other uses, but it also covers those areas of English’s vocabulary. The idea behind “dare” is to invest one’s courage (whether wise or not) in some enterprise. Many languages have a word related to “brave” they use for “dare”. I wanted to include that tie with Dothraki, but could have done it in a number of ways.
While vezhvenat is a verb, it’s really stative in nature. “To dare” is more of an activity, and I didn’t like any of the options available to me to make vezhvenat more active. In browsing the vocabulary, I came across one item I’d use before to turn vash, “stampede”, into a verb: lanat ki vashi, “to stampede”. I really like this construction, and want to use it more. Thus was born: lanat ki vezhi, “to dare” (and also “to be brave”).
I’m not sure quite how to explain it, but ki is used here to mean “like” or “as” instead of ven, which we’d ordinarily expect. Ven seems more utilitarian, more concrete (it’s certainly a younger preposition), while ki makes the connection seem closer. I think one could actually say lanat ven vezh, to literally say something like Me lan ven vezh, “He ran like a stallion”, but lanat ki vezhi means “to dare”.
Having settled that, this is how I would translate the phrase:
- Lanas ki vezhi thirataan; me disie, jin drivolat.
Obviously do what you will with the punctuation. That said, there are different options here, so let me walk you through them one by one:
- The first verb (lanas) is in the informal imperative. If you’d like it to read more formally, you can change lanas to lani.
- The first clause is “Dare to live”. You can change it up, though, and say Lanas ki vezhi athiraraan, which is saying the same thing in a slightly different way (maybe something like “Dare to go towards life”?). Either construction is acceptable.
- There are a number of ways to say this last bit. One way is to say Athdrivozar disie, which is literally “Death is easy”. (Note: In the original, you can switch out drivolat for athdrivozar if you like the original construction but prefer the verbal noun.)
- Another way to say that same thing is to use the infinitive: Drivolat disie. That would be like saying “To die is easy”.
- And, of course, there are two slightly different words for death at play here. Drivat (and its verbal noun form athdrivar) means “to be dead”. This is a stative verb and describes the state of being dead. Drivolat (and its verbal noun form athdrivozar) means “to die”. So which verb or verbal noun you use depends on what you want to say: Is being dead easy, or is dying easy? Now that I look at it, it’s probably the former, not the latter, in which case you’d want to switch to drivat/athdrivar.
That, though, should give you an idea of what the issues are, and should help you decide what direction you want to go in. Either way, when your tattoo is done, take a picture and send it my way! I’ll put it up here on the blog.
Did you hear that? Why…it sounds like the gentle rustling of the hoary beard of Winter Goat! No, he’s not here yet, but the goating hour draws nigh! Indeed, it is December, which means the grand nearly year-old Goatmas tradition here at the Dothraki blog is near at hand! And what better way to ring in this glorious goatish season than to begin with a tale of giving.
Today’s story comes from the Netherlands, where Dothraki forum member Pej made a special request. Her sister-in-law recently had a baby, and as a present, she made her a hand-crafted dragon egg (see below. It’s outstanding!).
To accompany the dragon egg, she wanted to include a dedication in Dothraki, so she went to the forum for help. As the request required some vocabulary not yet revealed, I did my own translation, shown below.
This is my gift to you, dragonborn. Always as fierce as fire; always as strong as flames.
This egg might contain your destiny.
You recently became the mother of Julia, and she needs your guidance.
Keep this gift close to you. It brings warmth and comfort.
Jini azho anni yeraan, zhey zhavorsayol. Ayyey ven ivezh ven vorsa; ayyey ven haj ven vorsakh.
Jin gale’sh losha fasqoy yeri.
Yer ray mai haji Julia ajjin, majin me zigeree athvillaroon yeri.
Aqqisis jin azh yeraan. Me yanqoe ma athafazhizar ma athdisizar.
Here are some notes on the translation:
- As they’re proper names, I left “Catherine” and “Julia” as is. I think their most natural Dothraki versions would be Kathrin and Yolia. (Note that as Pej and her sister-in-law are from the Netherlands, the “j” in “Julia” is most likely pronounced like an English “y”, not like an English “j”.)
- Another way to do the third main sentence would be Jin gale losha fasqoy yeri ishish. This seemed more natural to me, but I went ahead and used the auxiliary version to preserve the English word order.
- I recast the beginning of the fourth main sentence so it probably most closely translates as, “You’ve now come to be the mother to Julia”. The folks on the forum had some clever ideas for rendering “become”, but this makes the most sense to me, given the context.
- Athvillaroon is specifically wisdom that comes from experience (as opposed to innate intelligence or talent).
- “Bring” in the last main sentence is colloquial in English. In Dothraki, the closest equivalent is to use the verb yanqolat, which means “to gather”. The form of the verb itself was inspired by Janko Gorenc from Slovenia, who’s spent the past who knows how many years collecting the numbers 1-10 in literally thousands of languages—including over 1,000 conlangs. Also, you may recognize the root of the word athdisizar, which I’ve used here for “comfort”.
- The word athfiezar is used for love between siblings or friends (not between a parent child; that’s a different root). The word that you may know, athzhilar, is used for the love between lovers exclusively. It’s a private word that isn’t used in public.
My best to Catherine and her baby Julia! That’s a pretty incredible gift, and I hope it indeed brings you warmth and comfort. Also, san athchomari to Pej! That’s quite a job you did! Very well done!
And for those who follow the Dothraki blog, the time has come. Where are those goat pictures? Let’s get some dorvi up in here!
Another week, and another blow to the Dothraki speakers of Essos. This week we lost a big one: Dany’s handmaiden, and the one with probably the most Dothraki lines in the show, Irri. Her death probably came as a shock to those who’ve read the books, because Irri lasts a whole lot longer than that in the books. Upon reflection, I think the effect of unexpected deaths like this on fans of the books is amusing. After all, the book series itself is known for killing off main characters—even the good guys. Fans of the books got to sit back and snicker as new fans of the show were shocked by Ned Stark’s death back in season 1. But now what, book fans?! Not only are your favorite characters not safe from George R. R. Martin—they’re not safe from Dave and Dan!
Seriously, though, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the wonderful work of Amrita Acharia. Not only did she do a great job in the role of Irri, her Dothraki was my favorite. She spoke fluidly and had a convincing accent. If anyone saw the episode of CNN’s The Next List on Dothraki, you will have seen some interview footage with Amrita Acharia, which I was grateful for (she didn’t have to take the time, but she did). Not only that, but she delivered a line she had memorized from season 1. Think about that. Season 2 was already done filming, and she was able to reproduce from memory a full Dothraki line from season 1 (the episode “A Golden Crown”, to be specific). Just outstanding. So to Amrita, thank you so much! You did a terrific job. I can’t wait to see you in something else.
Apart from that shocking discovery, there was also a shocking lack of Dothraki dialogue. Odd, since you’d think Talisa would speak Dothraki (I mean, since we’re making stuff up for her anyway, why not?). But, of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Dany’s story does kind of take a back seat in A Clash of Kings. Those who’ve read the book, though, know that some good stuff’s coming (I can’t wait).
About the rest of the episode, I do have some thoughts on Talisa (and on similar types of events), but it crucially depends on scenes that are coming, so I’ll have to hold off. Suffice it to say, though, I know the pressure the writers are responding to, and I think they’re doing as good a job as can be expected. George R. R. Martin has this habit of introducing events that have happened in the books, with explanations coming chapters and chapters later—and for the books, that’s cool. I don’t think it can translate directly to a television show, though. It will help to be able to work with a specific example (and I have two in mind) to illustrate just what I’m talking about, but the scenes in question haven’t aired yet, so I’m going to have to hold off until they have. But trust me. I’ve got a good explanation right up my sleeve…
Since there’s no Dothraki dialogue to discuss, I figure I may as well tell the story behind the Dothraki word for “friend” (something Daenerys has been asking for for a while now). It does exist, and it almost made it into the show, in fact. When the call came to translate dialogue that ended up in last week’s episode, I saw one of Dany’s lines in there was, “Thank you, my friend”. You may, in fact, remember this line from last week and that it was in English. That was no accident.
Not wanting to disappoint, I did, in fact, translate the line (in fact I gave a couple options for it), but I reminded Bryan et al. that we’d made kind of a big deal about Dothraki having no word for “thank you” in the premiere. I let them know that we could translate it as san athchomari (which, as those working with Dothraki know, isn’t really the same thing as “thank you”), but that if anything was subtitled as “thank you”, undoubtedly every fan in existence would point it out and be all like Ki fin yeni?! So I gave them options. I said they could go with that, or they could have her say “thank you” in English, and follow it up with “my friend” in Dothraki. I also suggested that the entire line could be in English, and they went with that, which I think makes sense. After all, if you don’t have a word for something in the language you’re speaking, it’s common to drop in the word you want from another language. And if Dany starts in English, she’s just as likely to finish in English rather than switch to Dothraki, if not more likely. And so the word for “friend” didn’t make it in.
There is a word for “friend”, though, and there’s a story behind it. I gave quite a bit to thought to just how the concept of friendship would translate to Dothraki culture. It seems like one wouldn’t have a friend the way one has one in our world. There’s one’s immediate family, of course, then there are the members of one’s khalasar, which is like an extended family. Whether related or not, another member of one’s khalasar is like a cousin or relative. The question, then, was whether there were relationships beyond this.
Then it occurred to me that there’s the perfect model for such a relationship: a khal’s bloodrider. Though the khal commands the entire khalasar, he has only three bloodriders, and they owe him a special debt above and beyond what’s expected of an ordinary rider. They’re also accorded more respect and are privy to the khal’s council. That model, then, can easily extend to every Dothraki. A dothraki has their khalasar and their immediate family, and they also have one or two of these others—ones who owe them a debt, who will have their back in battle, and who will take care of their family should they fall. I was satisfied with this definition for “friend”: I just needed a form for it.
At the time that I was coming up with vocabulary like this, it was early 2010 and I was translating material for the first season of Game of Thrones. It was kind of a tough time: My wife and I had just moved into our first condo; the press release about Game of Thrones and Dothraki hadn’t gone live yet, so I had to keep explaining to my family that I was busy, but I couldn’t say why; my car was stolen (I got it back [which is good, because we need that old thing])… About the only things that were good were my wife and my new cat.
See, I’d never had a cat before (I’d always been allergic). I had a dog growing up, but I’d always wanted a cat, and this cat (that we got in January of 2010 from Cats In Need) was our very own. My wife was working long hours, so every day I’d work on expanding Dothraki and translating dialogue with my cat by my side, and at night he’d curl up with me and we’d watch One Piece or Dark Shadows. He was my little friend and kept me company as Dothraki grew.
In retrospect, I should’ve spotted that something was wrong much earlier than I did. I wasn’t an experienced cat person, though, and both my wife and I were shutting out the warning signs. Little by little, though, our cat became less interested in eating. At first he just wasn’t eating as much as he had been. After a while, he wouldn’t eat by himself any longer. We were in and out of the vet’s office every other day, each time with something new to try, always thinking that the new solution would be the solution. But it never was. It was when he could barely walk that we finally skipped the vet and went to an emergency pet clinic. We turned him over to their care that night hopeful, but as it turned out, we would never see him again.
He was extremely young (about 7 months), and from what the emergency vet was able to figure out, he had a congenital liver problem. In the short time we’d had him, though, I’d grown to love him, and I was utterly devastated. When I was finally able to work out of my depression, I decided one way to honor him would be to work his name into Dothraki. Since I still hadn’t come up with a word for “friend”, though, I decided that Dothraki “friend” would get its root from my own dear little friend: My first cat Okeo.
And so the word for “friend” in Dothraki is okeo: an animate noun. As it happens, his name has its origins in a Kamakawi word which I coined just for him based on his old name when he was still at the shelter. His name was “Oreo”, but it was spelled in all caps, and my wife pointed out that on the tag it actually looked like “Okeo”. And so Okeo he became.
I still miss him all the time, but I am feeling better now. Dang. I just realized this might be kind of a downer to read (hopefully not as much of a downer as it was to write), so to make up for it, here’s a video of two adorable kittens meowing at each other. Enjoy!