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Book Announcement

I’m pleased to announce today that I have reached an agreement with Viking Penguin to write a book on how to invent a language called just that: How to Invent a Language. Needless to say, this is a dream come true. :) I’m working with editor Elda Rotor, and am basically going to put as much into this book as they’ll let me stuff in there (and if I can’t fit something in, hopefully it will serve as material for future work). There will be some material from the Game of Thrones and Defiance languages—as well as from languages by other conlangers—but the focus will be on the nuts and bolts of language design. No single book can make you an expert, but my hope is that after working through this one, you’ll know where to start if you want to create a language, what questions to ask, and where to research if you need more.

On my end, I’m being represented by Joanna Volpe from New Leaf Literary and Media, Inc., and for that I have to thank Leigh Bardugo, author of Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm of the Grisha Trilogy, plus the capper, Ruin and Rising, coming out June 3rd (my mother’s birthday!). Those who’ve been following this blog before it even existed will remember Leigh as having attended the first ever presentation on Dothraki back at WorldCon in 2011, and having a word coined in her honor. She now has two, of course (bardugon is the verb for “to write” in High Valyrian), but it means a lot to me that Leigh has remembered me over the years (lol it’s literally been years. That’s crazy), and was able to help me out here. Leigh is veiled in cascading swaths of fabulousness, but underneath it all, she’s a wonderful and kind person, and I’m happy to have her as a friend. (Of course, she’s wonderful and kind even if you don’t know her, so when it comes to Leigh, it’s really win-win.)

Of direct relevance to this blog is the fact that I’m going to be taking a serious step back—something regular readers may have already noticed, since this process started last year. I’ve got one more major High Valyrian post coming, but after that there may be next to nothing here for several months. I’ve got a big job ahead of me, and I’m going to need to take the time to do it, because I want to give this book my best work. I may come back and do my weekly Game of Thrones recaps depending on how my workflow goes, but I may not. It depends how the next couple months go. Either way, 2015 should be an exciting year—and should be a lot less busy for me—so I’ll definitely return to regular posting here in the future.

I want to say a big thank you to those who read this blog regularly, those who’ve been following me on Twitter and Tumblr and who’ve expressed interest in the Game of Thrones and Defiance languages, and those everywhere who in general have supported the TV and movie franchises that have used created languages. The fact of the matter is this book wouldn’t have become a reality if no one cared. There would be no languages for Defiance or other shows like Star-Crossed and Dominion if the fans weren’t interested in there being any—or worse, if they hated them. I know that a number of people wanted a book from me dedicated specifically to Dothraki, specifically to High Valyrian, specifically to Castithan, etc., and that this isn’t that. This is a first step, though. If this project goes well—if I do a good job and the book sells well—it may open the gates for further work—and not just by me, but by other conlangers. Hopefully this is the start of something big, not the conclusion of a movement.

Either way, I feel incredibly privileged to be in this position. Of course I wouldn’t be here without the Language Creation Society, and the Language Creation Society wouldn’t have been in the position it was without Arika Okrent—but, of course, Arika Okrent wouldn’t have sent Dave and Dan to the Language Creation Society if she hadn’t attended the Second Language Creation Conference, and there would be no Language Creation Conference if the conlang community (and specifically the Conlang Listserv) hadn’t come together to make it happen. This project is dedicated to the community that produced me. I hope I make them proud.

The Treasure of the Wastes

So back when I announced the annual Dothraki haiku contest, I thought it would be fun to see if anyone could do something with High Valyrian. Then this thing basically became all about High Valyrian. Yikes!

All right, so let’s deal with that first. Since Japanese originally used mora counting for its haiku, I thought it would be cool to do that for High Valyrian, since it also had long and short vowels. Clearly I did not think this through. High Valyrian words are way too big for a haiku. The form just doesn’t make sense. If anything, one should only pay attention to syllables. That might make haiku possible for High Valyrian; it just makes the practice a little less interesting. Haiku seem to work very well for Dothraki, but it’s just not going to work for High Valyrian.

In discussing this with my wife, she had an idea: What about limericks? Kind of sillier, but I think it could work, because three of the lines are usually quite longer. I think of the classic limerick as being 9-9-5-5-9 (syllable count) with an AABBA rhyme scheme. However true limericks often will have more syllables than that (or fewer, as the case may be), which I think would suit High Valyrian quite well.

So this is what I want to try. Those who were trying to do High Valyrian haiku, try a limerick. Give it an AABBA rhyme scheme and try to make the B lines shorter, but there will be no strict syllable counts. We all know what limericks sound like, so you should try to make it sound like that. Use the heavy syllables to your advantage. If you want, you can have long vowels count for more than one syllable, if it makes sense in your schema, but you’ll be in charge of coming up with that schema (the poem itself will, essentially, argue for a meter). Anyway, once you’ve tried it out, if you think it’s doable, I’ll announce a separate High Valyrian limerick contest at some point in time later on. You’ll have more time than the Dothraki haiku contest, since the form is longer and a bit more complicated. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Now, unfortunately because of new work that has come up, I’m not going to be able to review as many submissions as I wanted to. If you’re new here, go check out the comments on the announcement post, because there’s some great material there. For this post, first let’s look at Joel W’s Valyrian haiku:

ōrbar ñuqīr

The intended meaning is “Smoke and ash will come with the winds”. Very elegant! I like the use of the coordination strategy to stretch out the second line (i.e. lengthening the last vowel of ñuqir). Very well done! Technically it should be jelmȳssi, but that doesn’t change the mora count. Also the second line is one mora short if you discount codas. If you count the final r of ōrbar, though, it works, so I will count it. I like it! This is probably my favorite High Valyrian offering of the bunch.

This is another good one from Zhalio:

Gō ropatas
Valyria, yn vēzos

That is “Valyria fell before, but the sun continues to rise”. That’s the literal translation. Discounting final consonants, that does work. Nice job! In the comments, Mad Latinist suggested that it shold be ropetas? It should not: ropatas is correct. This is because the stem is ropa-, not rop-. Easy mistake to make, though.

Honorary mentions go out to Zhalio and Joel W who tried to translate the Pater Noster, despite lacking most of the necessary words! You can see Zhalio’s translation here, and Joel W’s translation here. I don’t have time to review them, but will look into coining some of that vocabulary.

And before leaving Valyrian, I definitely want to mention Mad Latinist’s opening to the Dæneryd, which sounds like an awesome subject for an epic poem. Mad Latinist wrote up this post on his LiveJournal discussing and presenting two lines he wrote in epic Graeco-Roman hexameter in High Valyrian. The form is, indeed, much better suited to High Valyrian than a haiku is, and the result is incredible. The lines are here:

Ābre se zaldrīzī bone ivāedan hen Essot jitte
ēlī Pento se Dothrakoti Embraro rȳ ondoso vējo…

He didn’t attempt a fluent English translation, but I will: “Dragons and that woman I sing, from Essos sent / First through Pentos, then the Dothraki sea, by the hand of fate…” Sounds awesome. Sounds like something that should be attempted after the series has completed (I promise High Valyrian will have enough words to handle it at that point). It’d require GRRM to sign off on it, but wouldn’t that be awesome? After all, all the old myths are told and retold; they’re not made up whole cloth. Daenerys would be an outstanding subject for an epic poem (or I’m assuming. I too don’t know how it ends). You can hear Mad Latinist’s friend pronounce it here (good reading!).

If there is one quibble I’d have, it’s with ivāedan. Since the oblique applicative is being used, it should be standing in for some sort of adpositional phrase which is appropriate to the oblique applicative. Unfortunately if you want to say something “about” something, the postposition you’d use is , which is technically a locative postposition, so it should probably be uvāedan (and the cases would have to change accordingly). But maybe you could get away with ivāedan.

Okay, enough Valyrian. On to the Dothraki!

Let’s start with Hrakkar’s:

Me zheanalat
Chaf hol she mae noreth
Me davra hrazef

The intended meaning is, “She is beautiful, wind blew on her hair, she is a good horse”. Of course, “she” is just a translation choice; it could be “he” or “she” in Dothraki. There are a couple of things that need fixing. First, zheanalat is the infinitive; it should be zheanae. Next, the possessor comes after the thing it possesses, so it would be noreth mae, but also since “hair” is inalienably possessed, it should be moon, or just not expressed. I might also have used vi instead of she for “through her hair”. So it would be Chaf hol vi norethaan, which would indeed be seven syllables. It’s debatable, though. She is supposed to serve as the locative preposition that “makes sense”, so it could work here. In the last line, it should be hrazef davra (noun-adjective word order), but otherwise this is pretty good! I like it!

Here’s The Majesty’s submission:

Athkisar notat
Lirof mra lekhofaan
Noreth nem jesa

I think the intended meaning is “Trying to turn a great piece of writing into a great language is hair being pulled”. I’ll give you an A for effort here, The Majesty, but this doesn’t really work. Neither kis nor notat can be used in that way. But you did get the message across! Yeah, I gave up on trying to translate the prologue for the first book after sentence one.

Next we have Zhalio’s entry:

Vezh ahajana
Vosma mra noreth anni
Ale ayena.

A good translation of this is “The stallion is stronger, but my hair has more bells in it”. A nice one! Two things are standing in the way of this one being great, though. The first is that “hair” is inalienably possessed, so it should be noreth anhoon. That’d put it one syllable over, but you could do vosm’mra (it is poetry, after all). Second, adjectives follow nouns, so it should be ayena ale. I could see how you’d get a determiner reading for this, though. If you were to put it in front, I would say it has to be ale ayeni—maybe alikh ayeni, “a surplus of bells”. The content is terrific, though, and I really like the use of mra here as “have”. Ordinarily it’s just mra qora which is kind of used as “to have”, but it makes sense to use it with noreth here. Great job!

Now we move to Qvaak. This year Qvaak did a cycle of poems switching between High Valyrian and Dothraki. It was a bold attempt! You can see the whole thing here. I’ll only discuss the two Dothraki haiku here.

First, it begins with this:

Mra qevir noreth
fenoe hatifaan;
azho qosari.

My translation is, “In the forest, hair clings to one’s face: a gift of the spiders.” My only complaint is with the punctuation: I would’ve used a colon rather than a semi-colon. Otherwise, this is good Dothraki! Excellent choice of adding the inchoative -o suffix to fenat (an invention of Qvaak’s; wholly appropriate). I might also have said azho qosaroon, given where it comes from. Otherwise, very good—and certainly a feeling we all know, if you’ve ever run into a spiderweb.

But, of course, no poem with spiders in it is going to win the Mawizzi Virzeth! No, that honor goes to this haiku:

Mas athasari

tolorro mahrazhoa

finis adakh me.

My translation is “The treasure of the wastes is the bones of men whom it has devoured.” Qvaak translated this as “desert”, but there actually is a Dothraki word for “desert”: zelatha (inanimate, Class A). I think it’s also the mark of a good poem when the translation doesn’t do the original justice, and I think that is the case with this poem. I like that on account of the relative clause the subject is forced to go last. Gives it kind of a stinger at the end. Also, if you wanted to switch to “desert”, it’d be an easy fix: Just change it to masar zelathi. I like it the way it is, though. Very nice!

Here’s my rendition of it:

And, yes, this means that, three years running, the Mawizzi Virzeth goes to the evidently unbeatable Qvaak.

You’re a machine, Qvaak! A soulful, artistic machine. Hajas, zhey Qvaak!

The Red Rabbit, 2014, awarded to Qvaak!

Thank you to all who submitted haikus this year, and thank you to all those who ventured into Valyrian territory. Let me know what you think about my idea and we’ll see about starting up another competition. A different option might be two do a hexametrical couplet like Mad Latinist did, but I thought this might be too difficult. Thoughts? I’m open to either. Mad Latinist’s was outstanding.

Asshekhqoyi Anni Save…Save

Well, it’s that time again. It’s been another year, and now I’m thirty-three. It’s been a heck of a year. I presented at TED and El Ser Creativo, did a really epic season of Game of Thrones that got totally shafted by the Golden Globes, the first season of Defiance, Thor: The Dark World, and picked up a couple new projects. What I didn’t do was get to 4,000 Dothraki words. :( Things have really slowed down on that front. Having a bunch of stuff to work on is outstanding, but it does mean that I’m not able to expand the languages as much as I’d like to, or give them as much attention as I’d like to. I haven’t forgotten about anything, I can assure you, it’s just going to take more time for me to get things settled.

Consequently, there’s not a lot of new material to work with for this year’s Dothraki haiku competition—which begins right now! I’ve thought a lot about expanding to include Valyrian, so here’s what I’ll say. I will allow Valyrian haiku, but they won’t compete directly with the Dothraki haiku. If there are a sufficient number of submissions, I’ll make Valyrian a permanent member of the haiku competition. For now, though, Valyrian is an expansion language, and Valyrian compositions will not be accepted for the coveted Mawizzi Virzeth.

Now, let’s see if I can come up with something of my own:

Vezh chak karlina
Ma frakhoki vash kashi
Eya kishoon.

Okay, that should be figure-out-able, but I won’t lie: it’s a little tricky.

This year’s challenge word is noreth, “hair”. Because I like it. Again, the challenge word is not required, but if you wanted something to give you a jump start (in case you can’t think of a theme ex nihilo), try using the challenge word. It’s got kind of a strange shape (and was likely inspired by the Moro word ndreth, which is the plural of ereth, which means “clothes”).

And here are the rules, reposted from last year:


For the purposes of this contest, a haiku is 17 syllables long, with the syllable counts for each line being 5, 7 and 5, in that order. If you need to fudge, we’ll set up a separate category for haiku that are 17 syllables, but maybe don’t hit the right line numbers.

Also (and this is important), since this is Dothraki, we are definitely going by syllable count, not mora count. Regarding syllable-counting, in Dothraki, a syllable is defined as a vowel plus one or more consonants on either side. A syllable cannot contain more than one vowel, which means that a word like kishaan is trisyllabic, not disyllabic.

If it helps, you may or may not contract the various prepositions that contract. So, for example, mr’anha (two syllables) is the usual way of saying “inside me”. For your haiku, if you wish, you can separate the two out, i.e. mra anha (three syllables). You can also drop purely epenthetic e vowels (so the past tense of “crush”, kaffe, can be rendered as kaff’). Feel free to play with word order and drop pronouns, as needed, bearing in mind that such language is figurative, and the reader will still need to be able to figure out who’s doing what to whom.

For Valyrian: Long vowels count as two mora, and a vowel with a coda counts as two mora, but a syllable will not have more than two mora. So a long vowel plus a coda consonant will still be two mora, for the purposes of the poem. Try doing this with mora, instead of syllables, and see how it goes. This will make it more like a real Japanese haiku. If you need a particular word in a particular number/case combination or a verb in a particular conjugation, please let me know and I’ll give it to you.

Addendum: Rising diphthongs count as two mora (i.e. ae and ao); falling diphthongs count as one (e.g. ia, ua, ue, etc.). Also, word order is certainly freer in poetry than it is in everyday speech, but the rules about adjectives still apply (i.e. you use the short forms if the adjective appears directly before the noun it modifies; otherwise they’d take their full forms). And, finally, word-final consonants are extrametrical. Thus if a word ends in -kor, that counts as one mora, not two.

Shieraki gori ha yerea! Fonas chek!

New Dothraki Script

Or, I suppose, a new English script, depending on how you look at it. Way back at the beginning of this year, long-time Dothraki lajak Qvaak put together a new script for writing Dothraki. Those who’ve followed the blog a while will remember Qvaak also put together another script for Dothraki that’s based heavily on the romanization system. That one was pretty cool, but this one is quite a bit different. Take a look.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Pretty wild, huh? The above is the text from one of Qvaak’s haikus, which says:

Krazaaj osti
m’oltoon sadevesha
os k’athhethkari.

The script itself is actually derived from the roman alphabet (as should be clear with some of those characters, at least), but letters have been enlarged and shrunk and arranged into glyphs (and then into word blocks) in clever ways. Essentially the way it works is the glyph is based around the vowel of the syllable in question (that’s the big boxy part). The initial consonant is put in the middle and the coda consonant is placed on the lower right. The extra lines are either giving you information about word groupings or punctuation, or they’re there for decoration (to get rid of the blank space).

To get a handle on the system, here are all the consonants:

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Here are some ligatures for syllable that start with a consonant and approximant:

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

And these are nasal ligatures:

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

And now if you’d like a complete introduction to the system, this is Qvaak explaining exactly how it works:

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Also, if you’re going to be in Southern California next week, I’m going to be doing a conlang workshop at WyrdCon. I’m also going to be on a panel with my colleagues from Syfy and Trion, Brian Alexander (writer for Defiance) and Trick Dempsey (creative lead for the Defiance game). Hope to see you there!

Today’s Blood

The time has come to call a close to this year’s Dothraki haiku competition. Nice job this year! Too good, in fact. It was really hard to choose a winner. I’d feel more conflicted if winning came with any sort of prize. Thank goodness it doesn’t!

I received eleven haiku, all intriguing. Since there were so many, I’m going to choose one from each author to discuss. First, from our newest Dothraki reader, Meghan, we have a haiku from which came the title for today’s post. Here it is:

Qahlan karlina.
Oqooqo oskikhi
Ez qoy asshekhi.

Which translates to:

The palomino gallops.
Yesterday’s heartbeat
Found today’s blood.

Very, very nice! Meghan basically just started working with Dothraki, like, a few weeks ago, and already she’s putting together long strings of text—and using one of my favorite words (qahlan) that rarely sees the light of day. Athdavrazar, zhey Meghan! The best haiku paint a picture, and this one paints a good one.

Next we have a haiku from Hrakkar:

Hrakkari hethke
Fonat ma adakhalat
Hrazef ivezhi.

And the intended translation is:

The lions are ready
To hunt and to eat
Wild horses.

This is close, but there are two issues (one my fault. Sorry!). Here the verb hethkat should be used, in which case it should be hethki not hethke. Next, though I gave everyone the adjective hethke, I never gave the verb, and never said how you’d say “ready to” or “ready for”. That’s my bad there. In fact, you say hethkat ki. So if you wanted to say “they’re ready to hunt and eat”, you’d say hethki k’athfonari ma k’athadakhari. Of course, the last three words would be way over seven syllables, so that wouldn’t work. I really like this idea, though. After all, the Dothraki Sea is a place where horses and lions roam. It stands to reason that the lions would hunt those horses the way lions in our world hunt zebras. That’d be pretty cool to witness.

Next we have a poem from ingsve:

Asto charoki
“Hethkas she oakah” ma
“Hethkas she khado”.

And my attempt at a translation is:

The scouts’ motto
“Be ready in your soul” and
“Be ready in your body”.

Very clever! It took me forever to figure out what was intended by the first line, and I eventually needed to seek out ingsve’s help. Turns out he was using an off-brand word for “scout”. I’ve got tihak for “scout” (in the literal sense: someone who serves as a lookout), and I’d probably use that for the “boyscout” version of “scout”. Using oakah for this version of “mind” is interesting (I translated it as “soul”, but the original calls for the English word “mind”). Nice work!

Next is a haiku from Zhalio, which is brilliant:

Vo sanneyos vort
Zhavvorsoon fin nem azh.
Astas “kirimvos”.

And this is the translation:

Don’t count the teeth
Of the dragon that was given (you).
Say “thank you”.

In High Valyrian. Ha! I gathered he’d try to work that in, and he did it well. This is a great version of the English phrase “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, and works perfectly. I was also quite pleased to see the correct usage of the negative imperative. And, adding to its worth, I think it sounds better in Dothraki than any translation I can muster in English, which is just awesome. You can hear Zhalio reading it aloud here (brother got some bass in that voice! Nice reading!).

Alas, there can be only one winner, and this year, as with last year, our winner is Qvaak. He did it again. Here’s his winning haiku:

Rhaesh ath hethka.
Oqoe ven vash memof


And my translation:

The dry land is ready.
A great noise reverberates like a stampede
From the sky.

Worthy of Eliot. An initial draft of this poem had a grammar error, and when he fixed it, it called for a radical reorganization of the syntax of the second line. The result harkens back to the old days of Dothraki, with the verb in initial position. Furthermore, by putting memof, the subject of the sentence, at the end, there’s a curious type of enjambment (if that’s even the right term in this case) which allows one to read memof asavvasoon as a single noun phrase. In fact, memof is the subject, and the phrase asavvasoon modifies the verb phrase. Semantically, though, the great noise (memof) actually is coming from the sky (asavvasoon), so it’s still semantically felicitous. Just awesome. There’s been a decent amount of material written in Dothraki, but this may be the best thing ever composed. And for that, Qvaak has earned this year’s Mawizzi Virzeth: The Red Rabbit!

The 2013 Red Rabbit Winner: Qvaak!

That’s two years in a row, zhey Qvaak! I think we’re going to need to start giving you a handicap of some kind…

Thanks so much to everyone who submitted haiku! It was a tough choice this year, and you did incredible work. I’m already looking forward to next year. I also think that (regarding the experiment) I’m going to keep the challenge word as optional only. If it were a requirement, we wouldn’t have seen some incredible haiku (e.g. Zhalio’s), and I wouldn’t want to inhibit that. So I’ll include a challenge word as a possibility to get folks jumpstarted, but it won’t be a requirement. Thanks again for the incredible work!

Asshekhqoyi Anni Save

It’s been a year, and I’m now 32 years old. Among other things, this means I’m halfway to 64. It certainly has been a heck of a year, and I feel physically sound, so I can’t complain.

Enough about me, though. It’s time for the annual Dothraki haiku competition! Last year, Qvaak took home the coveted Mawizzi Virzeth: a prize which comes with no money, no reward, and next to no recognition. Who will take home the prize this year!

But first, in keeping with the semi-tradition I semi-started last year, here’s a haiku of my own:

Kolver ovetha
Oleth rami hoshora
Khadokhi choshi.


All of those words should be either available in the dictionary or figure-out-able (if ramasar is a collection of plains, then ram would be…?). Post your translation in the comments, and we’ll see who can get it right first!

As for your haiku, I have an idea, but it is just an idea. For those who might have trouble coming up with a topic, I have a challenge/suggestion: In your haiku, use the word hethke, “tight” (adjective) or “ready, prepared” (adjective). If this works out well, I may start having a challenge word for all successive competitions, and only considering those with the challenge word for the prize. For this one, though, just try it out, and let me know if we should consider making this a permanent change. To repeat: The winning haiku for this year’s competition will not need to use the word hethke.

Otherwise, entries need to be in Dothraki, and I’ll call the competition when it looks like I’ve stopped receiving entries. Leave your entries in the comments, or e-mail them to me at “dave” at “dothraki” period “com”. Below are some instructions I wrote up for last year’s competition which I will repeat here verbatim. If you have questions, feel free to leave a comment!


For the purposes of this contest, a haiku is 17 syllables long, with the syllable counts for each line being 5, 7 and 5, in that order. If you need to fudge, we’ll set up a separate category for haiku that are 17 syllables, but maybe don’t hit the right line numbers.

Also (and this is important), since this is Dothraki, we are definitely going by syllable count, not mora count. Regarding syllable-counting, in Dothraki, a syllable is defined as a vowel plus one or more consonants on either side. A syllable cannot contain more than one vowel, which means that a word like kishaan is trisyllabic, not disyllabic.

If it helps, you may or may not contract the various prepositions that contract. So, for example, mr’anha (two syllables) is the usual way of saying “inside me”. For your haiku, if you wish, you can separate the two out, i.e. mra anha (three syllables). You can also drop purely epenthetic e vowels (so the past tense of “crush”, kaffe, can be rendered as kaff’). Feel free to play with word order and drop pronouns, as needed, bearing in mind that such language is figurative, and the reader will still need to be able to figure out who’s doing what to whom.

Shieraki gori ha yerea! Fonas chek!

Update: Added audio for my haiku.

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