Only one person can claim title as Syfy's "alien language and culture consultant." His name is David Peterson, and at 33, he's not only that but he's a linguist who has created multiple fictional languages, including two used on HBO's award-winning Game of Thrones series, and others for Syfy's Defiance and Dominion, the CW's The 100, and the 2013 feature film Thor: The Dark World.
Earlier this month, the Living Language company, known for 65 years of training people how to speak everything from Spanish to Japanese, released a book and CD package with a companion app for Dothraki, one of Peterson's GoT languages. And next year, Penguin will publish Peterson's book, The Art of Language Invention, which Peterson says teaches people how to create a sound system, a writing system and grammar, and how to evolve a language over many years.
He's on a bit of a roll. And he's thrilled.
"This was the highest goal, to be able to put together, and work in, one's own language," he says. "It's just really wild. I mean, I know that this is happening because of the success of Game of Thrones, but you know, I just hope that the work can help to raise the profile of language creation in general. Maybe one day we'll get to a point where people can just put out books in their conlang [constructed language] simply because they're good."
Peterson will speak at Colorado College on Monday, Nov. 10. In anticipation, we chatted with him over the phone from his home in Orange County, California, about his job, GoT author George R.R. Martin, and, well, creating swear words.
Indy: About two years ago, Forbes magazine labeled you as the guy with the "coolest job ever." How did that feel?
Peterson: Yeah, that was pretty cool. ... I was interviewed on the set of Defiance for that. And that was definitely the professional height of my career at that point.
I think what's interesting to me, is that, it feels like you're not just ... creating a language, but you're really building out an entire culture. Is that accurate?
Yeah, and the reason is that basically, our culture is kind of encoded in our language. Everything that we do in our daily lives is something that we discuss in language, and so ultimately everything around us, all of our customs and habits, are described with language. And so it ends up being kind of a record of where we've been, what we've done and what was important to us over the centuries. So when you're creating a language, you're in fact, creating that record as well.
I watched a video — I think you were talking about developing swear words, and how in Dothraki you had to really construct what would be offensive.
You know, all languages have certain things that are always, that always seem to recur with swear words, usually related to bodily waste, and to sexual intercourse. ... But then after that, it ends up being kind of different, language after language.
In a lot of European languages that are predominately Christian in our history, a lot of swear words relate to either the devil or God, or hell or heaven, or something like that. Which of course wouldn't be really appropriate for Dothraki because for them, it was really related to their style of life. It's more like, for them, a comparison of whether you fit in or whether you don't, and how well you fit in.
What was it like working with Martin's original, the words that he already had [for Dothraki], and then growing it from there?
It was actually not as difficult as I thought it was going to be. Because ... there were 56 words — words and names — and all of them cohered phonologically. They all sounded like they came from the same system, which was wonderful, and not what I anticipated.
And the very few bits that showcased some kind of grammar, so places where there were phrases, also seemed to cohere very well — so like, the few parts where there were nouns and modifiers, the modifier was always following the noun, never preceding. ... I didn't expect for that level of sophistication in the work, so I was very pleased to find it.
I think [Martin has] said he wasn't expecting that either, right?
Yeah, he says that he doesn't care much about language, he just makes it up on the spot, but he did a really outstanding job.
What's the process like to work with a screenwriter?
It kind of depends on the writer and the project, but often, I'd say most of the time, they just write the entire script in English and tag what's to be translated, and I translate it. Every so often ... they'll actually contact me beforehand and say that they are thinking about doing X, Y or Z, and I can work with them a little bit and come up with some language material beforehand. And then also sometimes ... like on Game of Thrones, they'll just put in something for me and say, "Have David come up with something cool for this," and I just build it.
Do you ever watch the shows you've worked on and just shake your head because they're not actually saying what they should be saying?
Yeah, that always happens, but it's like, everything that I've ever worked on, or at least the television shows, it's been like between 90 and 95 percent correct for each episode. And the other thing to bear in mind is that sometimes when there are errors, it's not necessarily the fault of the actor. There are times when I've made a mistake and it's been passed through faithfully, and then I really just roll my eyes [and think], "Why don't I have a proofreader?"
I was wondering about that, too. You don't have a proofreader, do you?
No, I don't. ... So every now and then a mistake of mine gets through. ... And then sometimes, you know, every scene an actor does, they do 10, 20, 30 times, and they may get it right 29 times, and then on the one they get wrong, they may know it — I mean they always know it — but the editor may not know it and the director may not know it, and they may decide that's the best scene, that's the best take, so that's the one put in.
How many languages do you speak, or read?
I speak English and Spanish pretty well. Both of those were languages from my family. My family is from Mexico. But after that, I've studied a bunch of languages. The ones that I've studied in the classroom that I feel somewhat OK speaking [are Arabic, Russian and Esperanto]. And then American Sign Language, French, Middle Egyptian. Those I studied in class. And then on my own, studied things like Latin, Attic Greek, Modern Greek, Akkadian, Hindi, Japanese. Then I've studied a little bit of Hawaiian and Turkish. And German.
Do you think it is harder as an adult to learn to speak languages, as opposed to learning younger?
Yes, but perhaps not for the reason one usually hears.
I think that adults are perfectly capable of becoming fluent in a second language. ... The difference is that if you're a child, growing up and learning your first or second or third language ... you have absolutely nothing to do but sit there and have people talk to you. And people come up and talk to you all the time. ... They keep repeating themselves, and they speak slowly. And not only that, you don't even have to respond. ...
[At that age] you don't have to clothe yourself, you don't have to feed yourself. You don't have to pay for anything. Younger kids don't even have to wipe their bottoms. I mean, it's amazing. ... Imagine if you as an adult had that luxury. ... You could do it. Anybody could. It's just that we've got other things to do.