Interview: David J. Peterson, Author Of 'The Art Of Language Invention' David J. Peterson has crafted languages for TV shows and films — even a whole language for a single giant, in Game of Thrones. For him, every language is a balance of the technical and the artistic.
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Meet The Man Who Invents Languages For A Living

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Meet The Man Who Invents Languages For A Living

Meet The Man Who Invents Languages For A Living

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It started with Elvish.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING")

CRAIG PARKER: (As Haldir) (Speaking Elvish).

ORLANDO BLOOM: (As Legolas) (Speaking Elvish).

RATH: Then Klingon.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) (Speaking Klingon).

RATH: Fictional languages - once shut away in the nerdiest corners of books and TV and film are now everywhere, and David J. Peterson has made a career of it. He's invented languages for HBO's hit show "Game Of Thrones."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Speaking Dothraki).

EMILIA CLARKE: (As Daenerys Targaryen) (Speaking High Valyrian).

RATH: The SyFy show "Defiance."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEFIANCE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (Fictional language spoken).

RATH: And the blockbuster movie "Thor: The Dark World."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THOR: THE DARK WORLD")

ADEWALE AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: (As Agrim) (Speaking Elvish).

RATH: David J. Peterson has a new book out called "The Art Of Language Invention." And he's got the credentials - a masters degree in linguistics, and he can speak eight languages. For him, it all started as a middle-schooler, watching "Return Of The Jedi," that scene where Princess Leia is disguised as a bounty hunter, negotiating with Jabba the Hutt.

DAVID J. PETERSON: The part that always struck me is this weird kind of language that Leia's speaking. She basically says several of the same things twice, and they mean different things each time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR WARS: RETURN OF THE JEDI")

CARRIE FISHER: (As Princess Leia) (Speaking fictional language).

PETERSON: So like the first time she's saying (speaking fictional language) and that means something, like, she's coming to sell the Wookiee. Then the next time, she just says (speaking fictional language).

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR WARS: RETURN OF THE JEDI")

ANTHONY DANIELS: (As C-3PO) The illustrious Jabba bids you welcome and will gladly pay you the reward of 25,000.

FISHER: (As Princess Leia) (Fictional language spoken).

DANIELS: (As C-3PO) Fifty-thousand - no less.

LARRY WARD: (As Jabba the Hutt) (Groans).

PETERSON: It's, like, exactly the same word as the last word from the previous one, but now it means that she's demanding 50,000, no less, after Jabba's offered her 25,000, which is a really bizarre way for a language to work. So it definitely struck me as bizarre. That was the first time I kind of noticed anything like that.

RATH: Let's run through some of your own invented languages. And if you could give us, like, a little sample of each. How about some Dothraki first from "Game Of Thrones?"

PETERSON: OK, Dothraki I can do. How about - (speaking Dothraki) which is I will ride to the mountain. It's a very boring sentence, but, you know, when you're trying to put stuff together that's what you get. That's kind of what Dothraki sounds like.

RATH: Give us some High Valyrian.

PETERSON: High Valyrian - here, I'll just give you one of the ones I always know off the top of my head, one of my favorite phrases from the show - (speaking high Valyrian) which is a dragon is not a slave.

RATH: (Laughter) Good one.

PETERSON: I created a language for the Giant for last season.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")

IAN WHYTE: (As Giant) (Speaking fictional language).

PETERSON: I didn't know beforehand that he was only going to have one line.

RATH: (Laughter).

PETERSON: I thought he was going to have a bunch of stuff. But whatever, I created a full language for the Giant, so there's one - three.

RATH: And from "Defiance," the show on Sy-Fy.

PETERSON: Yeah, I've created Castithan, Irathient, Indojisnen - and I apologize to the sound technician, - Kinuk'azz. You can't - you can't do anything about it. Those - those ejectives, they've got the clicky thing in there.

(LAUGHTER)

PETERSON: Sorry. So how about this for Castithan? Since I am going to be a new father in December...

RATH: Congratulations.

PETERSON: Thank you. It's - here is - (speaking Castithan) which is I have a kind father, hopefully - hopefully, that's what I become (laughter).

RATH: Now I want to play another clip. Your book actually opens with this anecdote from the first time you ever saw one of your languages spoken on the screen.

PETERSON: Oh, yeah.

RATH: It's from the first episode of "Game Of Thrones," where someone is welcoming a group of Dothraki horsemen in their native language.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Character) (Speaking Dothraki).

RATH: I expect your reaction to be, like, wow, that's my language on-screen. But you had a different reaction.

PETERSON: Yeah. So what happened was - what he says - the first two words he says are (speaking Dothraki) which is how you welcome one person, Khal Drogo, specifically. But when I was watching it, I totally misremembered how I had translated it. I thought that he was going to be welcoming the entire party. And so I thought that it should be plural, which has an entirely different sound with his (speaking Dothraki). There's really no way you can confuse the one for the other. So when I heard that, I was like, oh, man, that's not even close. What are they even doing, you know? Then I got back home and realized I don't know, OK, it was all right. It was all right.

RATH: Well, when you describe these moments in the book as well where, like, you have this great relationship with the writers, but sometimes they'll ask you to do things that would be not grammatical in the language. But...

PETERSON: Yeah.

RATH: ...Why does it matter? I mean, you're making it up.

PETERSON: Yeah, well, here's the thing, the entire reason for hiring a language creator is to make sure that, you know, all of the language stuff is correct. I'm a stickler. By and large - you know, I've worked on a lot of shows now and some movies - what I see on-screen I'm pretty pleased with, even when there's an error here and there, you know, often I can see the choice that was made. And weighing both options, I say all right, well, you made the right choice. It looks good on screen. It sounds good. You guys did a good job.

RATH: I get the sense - tell me if I'm wrong - that even if you didn't get paid to do it, you'd be inventing languages.

PETERSON: Well, I was doing it.

RATH: Right, so...

PETERSON: I mean, I started out inventing languages.

RATH: Why? What's the - what puts that desire in you?

PETERSON: Well, you know, ever since I was a little kid, I was always drawn to art. I always knew that was the best thing. And the cool thing about creating a language is that there's two different parts to it. There's a very kind of technical part to it, which is creating the grammar, making sure that it works and making sure that you've gotten all your bases covered. It's very much like programming or puzzle-making or problem-solving. But then there's a very artistic component, which is just a creation of the lexicon, deciding exactly how this language you're creating is going to encode the vastness of the world. You know, all languages can say everything. The way that they differ is how they say what they say, and that's what makes language so fascinating.

RATH: That's David J. Peterson. His new book is called "The Art Of Language Invention." It's out on Tuesday. David, (fictional language spoken). (Laughter).

PETERSON: (Fictional language spoken).

RATH: (Laughter).

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