A Rahel Rao
Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts
Symbiosis International (Deemed University)
Constructed languages or ‘conlangs’ are staples of the fantasy genre in literature. They contribute heavily to world building, unwittingly admitting language’s role in constructing reality by operating in this manner. Understanding the power structures language creates and upholds can then directly inform our understanding of conlangs and the sociolinguistic reasons behind conceptualising them the way ‘conlangers’ have. This paper is concerned with connecting ideas of orientalism with conlangs and their construction, using the Game of Thrones television series, with its two central conlangs – Dothraki and High Valyrian — both created for the television adaptation. This paper first lays out the theoretical framework to understand the power of language. It then connects this framework to Game of Thrones to understand how conlangs can reflect power structures. The goal, through close reading, is to examine the role language plays, not only in shaping our reality but also our biases and about studying how these biases reflect back into languages constructed by human beings.
Keywords: conlang, language, constructed language, Game of Thrones, orientalism
As Fanon (1986) says in his seminal work Black Skin, White Masks, “To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization” (p. 8) – a view widely accepted in contemporary sociolinguistics. Although Saussure (2011) highlighted the arbitrary nature of language, according to Fanon (1986), language continues being central to power structures. This is why, when Eagleton (2016) explores the concept of ideology, he emphasises the importance of rhetoric. It is through such rhetoric, he says, that people can successfully propagate “false ideas” (2016, p. 1). The inherent basis of rhetoric in language and language-use establishes language as one of the central cogs in power politics.
The core ideas and beliefs that humanity holds (such as liberty, equality, justice etc.) exist because of the existence of the language to speak about them and construct them as different and separate from each other. Similarly, when such focal points are problematised through orientalism, gender biases, postcolonialism etc., language becomes the medium through which we understand them. Therefore, Peterson (2010), speaking about creating Dothraki for the Game of Thrones (2011–2019) television show said, “most people probably don’t really know what Arabic actually sounds like, so to an untrained ear, [Dothraki] might sound like Arabic. To someone who knows Arabic, it doesn’t. I tend to think of the sound as a mix between Arabic (minus the distinctive pharyngeals) and Spanish, due to the dental consonants” (as cited in Wright, 2010). Thus, there is an immediate possibility for a closer reading of the language (as will be explored in later sections of the paper). Such a reading focuses on how Dothraki operates within its fictional world (Essos), while understanding how its construction and sounds contribute to our understanding of the Dothraki race as well as Essos, which is represented not only as a fictional world, but also as the eastern counterpart to Westeros – the show’s depiction of Medieval Europe.
Understanding the way connotations work, particularly within the framework of orientalism, requires an additional understanding of Saussurean semiotics (the study of signs) and the arbitrary nature of language. A sign refers to anything that communicates meaning. Understanding signs is crucial to comprehending why the world we live in is not natural. There is no such thing as a “natural” language since all languages were constructed by people at some point. Although it is impossible to trace the origins of language, we can understand that language in the way humans use it is very sophisticated and can convey completely abstract thoughts and concepts which are intangible and non-emotional.
Within the Saussurean framework, signs are a combination of the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the sound we make to indicate that we visualise the referent, which refers to the object in brute reality1. The signified is based on the combination of the signifier and the referent. It is the physical form of the object as something we can perceive with our physical faculties. The arbitrary relationship between the signifier and the referent allowed Saussure to put forth the notion that language is relational. Semiotics allows for the discarding of sound as the core feature of language. Sounds or phonemes, by themselves, are arbitrary. When combined with other sounds, they continue being arbitrary until a new combination of sounds emerges. When this happens, then one draws meaning through a process of negation2. Therefore, by comparing language to a game of chess, Saussure says that “the material make-up of the chess piece means nothing to the player”. The individual token “becomes a real, concrete element only when endowed with value and wedded to it [i.e., to the game] (1959:110)” (Free, 1990, p. 296). This idea of the relational nature of language may be mirrored in Foucault’s understanding of the relational nature of power. According to Foucault (1995), power permeates every facet of life, and every relationship has a power dynamic in it. Therefore, power remains entirely relational. This also means that the dominant person in one situation, i.e., the person holding the power can just as quickly become the submissive in another situation, i.e., the person being subjected to the exploitation of power. If we adhere to this understanding of power, then it stands to reason that language becomes crucial in power politics since power is articulated through language. Language, being fundamental to all human communication, ensures that it enters every interaction. By Foucault’s understanding, every such interaction also involves power dynamics. Therefore, power becomes inextricably tied to the discourse around language.
This paper explores the meaning of this relational understanding of both language and power within the postcolonial framework, how it ties into conlang theory, and to the fictional languages of Dothraki and High Valyrian, created by Peterson for HBO’s Game of Thrones (Benioff and Weiss, 2011-2019).
Language and the Post-Colonial Mind
Following decolonisation after the second world war, a large number of scholars explored what it meant to be post-colonial. One of the biggest influences on the post-colonial school was Orientalism (Said, 1979). Said’s argument is centrally placed in understanding how the “West” views the “East”. During colonialism, “civilising” the East was very important to establish western hegemony. Said explains the intricacies of this domination in his work, establishing his central argument about the agency of the Orient vis-a-vis the Occident. He mentions that having this dichotomy between Orient and Occident made it much easier for the West to establish itself as the central authority. The Orient restructures itself and understands itself through the Occident and, therefore, through an oriental lens3.
He also invokes Gramsci’s (1971) theory about hegemony and consent, primarily as a way to understand the submission of the Orient under the Occident. He argues that Gramsci’s understanding of cultural hegemony in establishing and centralising the Western perspective as superior to the East is why the East consents to the rule and orientalism persists. This is a similar argument as put forth by Althusser (2006) in his work Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Althusser, here, posits two main types of apparatuses: the Repressive Status Apparatus (RSA) and the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA). In the RSA, the state uses force directly to establish hegemony. Meanwhile, in the ISA, the state uses more coercive means to establish power. The ISA and RSA can be viewed as mirrors to Gramsci’s War of Position and War of Manoeuvre (1977, as cited in Maglaras, 2013). The War of Position refers to the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. This mirrors the ISA since such struggles create the possibility of removing class divisions. However, once this intellectual and cultural struggle is complete, the War of Manoeuvre begins to forcefully seize the means of production and state power, directly mirroring the RSA.
The idea of intellectual and cultural struggles is deeply rooted in the power of language as a means of structuring and constructing our world. As argued by 20th century modernist writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, language could encompass ways of understanding the world (Harvey, 1991) and it could be engineered to create new cultures and destroy old ones, an idea that changed after World War II. Modernist art movements, previously considered critical of the system and avant-garde, were now adhering to the system and its beliefs (Harvey, 1991). Art, in the form of literature, was also then used in structural ways such as the standardisation of education. Particularly propagated through the “large textbook producers”, standardising education happened through “the continuous use of the colonial language… disguised in the name of globalisation” (Shin & Kubota, 2008, p. 208). During the colonial period, language and national identity were deeply connected – the use of philology to determine the oldest language and, therefore, “greatest” civilisation being a prime example of this phenomenon. When the post-colonial mind continues articulating and constructing the world around it in the colonial language, links are created between language and Western hegemony (Phillipson, 2012). Within the context of globalisation, these links may then reconstruct the East’s understanding of itself vis-a-vis the West, therefore centring the West and marginalising the East, simultaneously informing biases about the superiority of one language over the other. This then brings into question fictional languages, constructed languages (or conlangs) and this paper’s case study. Before examining the case study, the notion of conlangs and the power they hold needs to be examined.
How and why are Constructed Languages Constructed?
While fictional languages are a subset of conlangs, the term also includes International Auxiliary Languages (IAL) like Esperanto. However, conlangs from fantasy and science fiction tend to be most popular and well-remembered. Of these, Klingon from Star Trek is one of the first languages that comes to mind when discussing conlangs. Elvish from Lord of the Rings is a close second. Language usage in fictional worlds has often been a major topic of discussion.
In Elgin’s Native Tongue trilogy (1984-1994), a series akin to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) in its vision of a dystopian future ruled by men – specifically male linguists – the severely oppressed women create a secret language for their communication. The chauvinist males believe women are incapable of constructing languages at par with existing languages and women take advantage of this belief. This allows for the successful formation of a resistance, based in a different language, Láadan. Elgin (1984) developed the language using linguistic structures and patterns, with an appendix at the end of Native Tongue detailing “A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan” (p. 302). This is one of several examples of conlangs.
Conlangs, as depicted by Elgin, need to be constructed consciously. There is usually a single inventor – such as Zamenhof with Esperanto – and the language has discernible morphological, semantic, grammatical, and phonological patterns. Conlangs go beyond making up words and stringing them together. They involve exploring plural affixes, understanding whether or not the language has a gender, deciding whether the articles will be separate, if the language contains particularising affixes etc. LeGuin’s language in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), for example, has no gender due to the nature of the aliens. However, the protagonist, unable to comprehend a world without gender, uses masculine pronouns throughout. Additionally, there are levels on which conlangs operate (Elgin, 1999). They may be solely meant for the text they are a part of (such as Elgin’s Láadan) or they may be languages that are supposed to be used in the world and operate like “natural” languages (Zamenhof’s Esperanto).
Finally, conlangs, like “natural” languages, specify civilisation. How complex a language is, directly corresponds to how advanced the civilisation is. Language, itself, is meant to signify civilisation, as put forth by Pullman in The Amber Spyglass (2000). The character of Mary in this instalment encounters what she believes to be creatures (later she learns they are called the mulefa) until she goes to their village. The first thing she notes here is that “they had language” (The Amber Spyglass, p. 129) as her basis for deciding that the mulefa were a people and not creatures. This key distinction between “a people” and “creatures” exemplifies the role of language in forming a civilisation. This is why, during the colonialism project, language and philology played such a large role in determining the oldest civilisation (oldest being equivalent to superior).
The earliest documented constructed language was Lingua Ignota, constructed by Hildegard von Bingen, a German nun (Okrent, 2009). As Okrent (2009) explains, invented languages were primarily created to make language less complex. This is why Esperanto has very regular grammatical structures, with all nouns ending in -o (namo i.e., name), all adjectives in -a (bela i.e., beautiful), and all verbs in -s (amas/amos/amis i.e., love/will love/loved4). Such patterns enable much easier learning of the language. This is the goal of Esperanto – a language that Zamenhof put forth as the language of peace. Peace, then brings up the next question: what about the existing languages that conlangs draw from? Láadan, for example, draws on English and Navajo while creating a vocabulary meant for female expression. Similarly, High Elven or Quenya – one of the Elvish languages in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – draws on Finnish, Latin, Greek, and Ancient Germanic languages. It is a well-known fact among Tolkien scholars and scholars of fantasy fiction that Tolkien’s study of the Medieval Period led him to construct a language which could be used within a Medieval-inspired setting like Middle Earth. Meanwhile, Elvish is contrasted with Black Speech – the language of Mordor, which has harsher consonant clusters uncommon to the European roots of Elvish. It is also noteworthy that the Shire is an idealistic conception of England and the West, while Mordor is located in the East (Winegar, 2005; Hardy, 2014). Such an understanding of orientalism within fantasy texts, with its basis in the conlang created for the text, brings up the question about the role of power structures in conlang creation.
Conlangs and Power
As Elgin (1999) explains in Laadan, the Constructed Language in Native Tongue:
I saw two major problems – for women – with English and its close linguistic relatives. (1) Those languages lacked vocabulary for many things that are extremely important to women, making it cumbersome and inconvenient to talk about them. (2) They lacked ways to express emotional information conveniently, so that – especially in English – much of that information had to be carried by body language and was almost entirely missing from written language.
With this, she establishes that her construction of Láadan was primarily an attempt to challenge what she viewed as the existing patriarchal language. Interestingly, she also ends the essay with a note about the popularity of Klingon as opposed to Láadan. This is noteworthy since Klingon does not challenge existing structures while Láadan does, although they both play a role in providing vocabulary and comprehensive grammatical structures with clear universes in mind for the conlangs’ applications. For example, while Klingon has a word for thrusters, Láadan has a word (doóledosh) for the “pain or loss which comes as a relief by virtue of ending the anticipation of its coming” (Native Tongue, 2019, p. 302). These are phrases Elgin considered intrinsic to the female experience leading to her creating a language with paragraph-long definitions of various emotions. Using a single word like doóledosh codifies the word as a linguistic device.
However, Klingon’s ability to appeal to people as a language rather than a feminist language or a “tagged” language could contribute to its continuing popularity. Elgin (1999) admits that Native Tongue was a thought experiment and she needed to construct a language to do the series justice. As a linguist, she did this and hoped that Láadan would gain some attention. She decided to give the language 10 years to see whether or not its popularity would increase. Showing no such signs, she published her thoughts on her language 10 years after its creation.
The power of conlangs is evident in Elgin’s essay. As Okrent (2009) also noted during her interview with Mark, a proficient Klingon user, this was a proper language with a well-defined grammatical structure that fascinated “geeks” and played into “nerd culture”. However, Klingon’s audience is the reason it gained the massive popularity it accomplished. Its male-centric vocabulary allowed Klingon to join the legions of languages that Elgin argues have no language for women.
Conlangs, therefore, are equally culpable in enforcing power structures. When conlangs draw from West-centric sources, they can operate like the Lovecraftian approach to the East. Lovecraft’s texts have been criticised for their racist content. He has been criticised for, and read as, buying into the white supremacy myth that reflects in his texts with the language non-white characters use (The Shadow Over Innsmouth [2018; originally published in 1936] may be read with this allegory, for example).
Similarly, when conlangs draw on languages, they are constructed specifically keeping in mind the status of the other language. To take Láadan as an example, the use of Navajo as one of the foundations for the language could be relating the Other-ness of the woman (the Other here being understood in the Saidian framework) to the Other-ness of the Native American Navajo Nation. Although Elgin (2002) has said that she used Navajo as a foundation due to her dissertation being on the Navajo case syntax, therefore giving her a foundation for Láadan, such a reading of why Navajo operates better in the context of Native Tongue than a language that forms the centre and not the margins is possible.
Through the outlined understanding of conlangs and their relationship with power, I have tried to illustrate the ways in which orientalism and other power structures operate linguistically. The initial section established language’s role in creating the world around us by connecting signs and signifiers (i.e., Saussurean semiotics). However, as evidenced in Elgin’s writing, there are also the questions of who has the power to assign meaning, and to what. This theoretical foundation is central to my study of the politics in the television series, Game of Thrones, through Dothraki and High Valyrian – languages constructed specifically for the series. When the popular fantasy series Game of Thrones premiered on HBO in 2011, it gained instant attention and acclaim for its gritty realness, often including heavily graphic scenes of violence and sexual assault. Based on George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996), the show adopts a Medieval Europe setting, with Westeros and Essos as its two main continents. Westeros is where the game for the Iron Throne plays out between various characters, including Daenerys Targaryen, the last of the Targaryen bloodline, whose father, Aerys II Targaryen was the Mad King. Robert Baratheon – the king at the start of the series – led a successful rebellion against Aerys II, consequently becoming the king in Westeros while Viserys and Daenerys are banished to Essos. This is where Daenerys’ journey begins. It is usually in her interactions that the biggest instance of orientalism emerges. While she herself is not a character perpetuating orientalism, both Martin’s original works and their writing, as well as the show’s depictions of the peoples in Essos are largely oriental stereotypes (Hassler-Forest, 2018). This also plays into the construction of Dothraki and High Valyrian as languages. Understanding the show’s politics is crucial to understanding its languages.
The Politics of the Throne
In 1651, Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes was published. This became his treatise on what would later be called the Social Contract Theory. According to Hobbes (1651, p. i. xiii. 9), man’s life in a society without a social contract was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. This famous quote became the basis for his argument that even a bad ruler was better than no ruler — Hobbes believed in monarchy and in providing absolute power.
He also believed that rational individuals within a civil society understood the state of nature as “nasty, brutish and short”, which spurred them to accept and legitimise the authority of the ruler. Power and authority in Game of Thrones works similarly. Whether through inheritance or rational-legal methods, rulers are often legitimised by the public. The possible exception to this, again, is the character of Daenerys. Taken away from Westeros as a child with her brother, Daenerys begins the series as a child-bride to Khal Drogo, the leader of the Dothraki people. In the books, she is established as a 13-year-old. However, the television series made her older in their depiction, although there is still a considerable age gap between her and the khal. As the khaleesi, she gains all legitimacy of her authority from her marriage to Drogo. Therefore, when he dies, she is forced to rely on other means to maintain her position of power.
The first of these other means comes in the form of her three dragons. She steps into Drogo’s funeral pyre at the end of the first season, only to emerge unburned, with three baby dragons. This miracle immediately earns her the respect of the Dothraki, many whom choose to remain with her, and under her authority, after witnessing this. Following this, Daenerys begins to understand the importance of titles, adopting “mother of dragons” and “the unburnt” into her official introduction. Unlike her male counterparts who introduce themselves as the sons of their fathers, she chooses to identify with “the blood of old Valyria”, invoking an ancient, magical race, and immediately establishing her connection to the Iron Throne with her proficiency in High Valyrian proving her Targaryen blood.
Daenerys’ Targaryen heritage matters because Game of Thrones takes place in the aftermath of the Baratheons and Lannisters overthrowing the Targaryen rule. Aegon Targaryen, dubbed as “The Mad King”, was dethroned, slayed, and replaced by Robert Baratheon, married to Cersei Lannister. Suspecting a plot against his life and bloodline, Robert asks Eddard (Ned) Stark, the Lord of Winterfell and benevolent patriarch of the Stark family, to serve as his Hand. In King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros, Ned discovers that Robert’s “legitimate” children are the result of an incestuous relationship between Cersei and Jaime Lannister. Before he can alert Robert, however, the king dies and Ned is imprisoned before Joffrey Baratheon beheads him. This starts the ensuing war, with Robb Stark, Ned’s eldest son, vowing to avenge his father. Soon, Robb too becomes a serious contender for the Iron Throne.
With this premise the series progresses, examining various political decisions and their repercussions. For the first six seasons, the show alternates between Westeros and Essos, showing the tensions rising in Westeros as King’s Landing grows increasingly politically unstable. By the end of the sixth season, Cersei Lannister takes the Iron Throne and Daenerys finally sets sail for Westeros. The seventh and eighth seasons are spent with Daenerys trying to reach King’s Landing, while various battles prevent her. Although the final season was nearly universally considered an underwhelming finale to the series, it ended very interestingly, changing the politics of Westeros, while keeping it largely the same. The last episode of Game of Thrones, which aired on May 19, 2019, introduced an aristocratic oligarchy as the ruling powers of Westeros. Daenerys is killed by Jon Snow (Ned Stark’s illegitimate son, who is later revealed to be part of the Targaryen bloodline too) after her siege of King’s Landing, leaving an authority vacuum in the capital. Rather than exploring the consequences of this, Tyrion Lannister, the last remaining Lannister sibling, proposes that Bran Stark, the only legitimate male Stark, become the next king of Westeros, while a group of lords from the various sparring families make decisions about Westeros together. This overarching plot and series structure provides a view of the political landscape of Westeros, with its various hierarchical structures at the capital and Houses of Lords being destabilized at different points.
The Authorial Position of G. R. R. Martin
In identifying the different kinds of authority in Game of Thrones, Fathallah (2017) classified them as traditional/patriarchal (Robert Baratheon/Tywin Lannister), rational-legal (Ned Stark), charismatic (Daenerys Targaryen), the commons (Margaery Tyrell, who comes to King’s Landing in hopes of marrying the king and becomes an instant favourite among the common people), and the authority of the text and Martin’s control over it. This exhaustive classification explained the way authority was presented in the primary texts, but also in subsequent works of fanfiction. This is important since Martin initially spoke out against fanfiction based on his texts in 2010. Although he has since admitted that it would not be possible for him to ban fanfiction, he maintains his authorial position over the world of Westeros. This is important since it is primarily through Martin’s eyes that we enter the world of A Song of Ice and Fire (1996). Although his chapters alternate between various characters and their perspectives, Martin’s own perspective and omniscient gaze permeate every page. His highly sexualised descriptions of female characters, in particular, are examples of this gaze, especially considering most of them would hardly be considered adults today. Although Benioff and Weiss, the showrunners of Game of Thrones do not share this opinion of the author’s word being supreme (Fathallah, 2017), they nevertheless worked on the show in close connection with Martin. The series, its characters, and the trajectory of the various narratives, therefore, incorporate Martin’s perspective too, with him even writing the script of various episodes in the series (1×08, 2×04, 2×09, and 7×03)5. With so much authority over the world and its inhabitants, Martin also then dictates the depictions of the Dothraki and Essos as a continent.
Westeros and Essos: The Pillars of Civilisation and Non-Civilisation
Calling Essos and its countries “uncivilised” would be a misnomer. While Martin clearly favours the organisation of Westeros’ hierarchies, Essos also has civilisation. However, the understanding of civilisation in Essos is highly exoticised. It is seen as Said’s (1979) ‘Eastern Other’ through the eyes of Daenerys, who witnesses the “savagery” of the races in Essos, most of which seem to heavily echo stereotypes that the West had about the East, especially during colonialism.
The vast desert landscapes and Moroccan architecture that Daenerys and her party encounter in Qarth are prime examples of this. According to Said (1979), a text can act as a way to gain insight into a historical world. He argues this in reference to the practice of philology – the study of language employed by colonists, primarily to deduce which language and, therefore, which civilisation is the oldest. If language is, in fact, a primary marker of civilisation, or at least civil society with a binding social contract, then none of the races in Essos are “uncivilised.”
Despite this, the first race we are introduced to are the Dothraki. Their system of khal and khaleesi mimics the traditional, patriarchal hierarchy introduced in Westeros. When Daenerys is married off to Khal Drogo and becomes the khaleesi, she must also learn Dothraki — the language of her new people. Her brother, Viserys, continues to scorn the nomadic tribe, considering them savages and only worthy as an army through which he will reclaim his rightful place on the Iron Throne. Therefore, he does not learn the language. After Viserys’ death, Daenerys spends a few seasons travelling Essos, gaining allies and political power, while establishing herself as a liberator of slaves and the common folk. One of her most famous acts is when she orders that all the Great Masters of Meereen, i.e., the ruling elite, be crucified after they crucified slave children as a warning to her (4×04). Interestingly, Benioff and Weiss, through Tyrion Lannister, used this as proof of Daenerys’ inner tyrant in the final season, saying:
When she murdered the slavers of Astapor, I'm sure no one but the slavers complained. After all, they were evil men. When she crucified hundreds of Meereenese nobles, who could argue? They were evil men. The Dothraki khals she burned alive? They would have done worse to her. Everywhere she goes, evil men die and we cheer her for it. And she grows more powerful and more sure that she is good and right. (8x06)
This is reminiscent of the famous poem by Niemöller (1984) about the Nazi regime — how people who did not speak out against it inadvertently supported the regime. This parallel is apt since the final episode of Game of Thrones is rife with Nazi imagery, particularly with Daenerys emerging as a tyrant atop a hill, with her troops standing in order before her. Benioff and Weiss use such imagery to highlight the horror of her rule. However, it is noteworthy that depicting her as a symbol of fascism and tyranny seems to go against the logic of the series.
The Game of Thrones world is one where murder and violence are everyday matters, used by men and women alike to stay in power. Daenerys, although violent, seems righteous due to who she is violent against. Her compassion for the people in the cities of Meereen or Astapor drives her towards political gain while she targets the slavers of Essos. Although her narrative is entrenched in what is popularly called the “White Saviour” trope — of a Caucasian character “liberating” a race of colour — the slavers seem deserving of such behaviour.
The audience is meant to relate and sympathise with Daenerys rather than the Othered Essos dwellers. Even when former slaves show their love for her, calling her mhysa (mother), the series places her in primary focus. Furthermore, the apparent barbarism of the Dothraki (as depicted at her wedding to Khal Drogo, where they openly spar against each other causing multiple deaths) is contrasted with her watching the carnage in horror. Meanwhile, Illyrio, the man helping Viserys arrange the matrimonial match for Daenerys, informs her that “a Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair” (1×01).
In the second episode of the series, the audience also learns that slavery has been illegal in Westeros for centuries, while it is not so in Essos. Benioff and Weiss use this again, as a distinguishing feature, playing to a Western culture that saw slavery outlawed. This furthers Westeros’ association with Europe, especially considering, as Hynes (2018) notes, “The autonomy of George R. R. Martin’s Westeros may be lessened if audiences realize that the southern half of the continent is Ireland turned upside-down” (p. 99). Therefore, the show also draws directly from not only Western medieval notions but also from actual cartography. This furthers the discussion on the way such depictions of Western versus Eastern cultures shape our reality. As Baudrillard (1994) notes, the lines between reality and the simulation of reality are blurred. Combined with Jameson’s (1998) argument about nostalgia, this holds true for depictions of Medieval Europe too. Jameson argues that in a postmodern society, there is heavy emphasis on nostalgia and the association between texts and emotions. When consumers consume texts, they can invoke nostalgia when the text reinforces their existing biases about a particular historical period. The rampant violence and sexual abuse within the Game of Thrones world, whether in Westeros or Essos, seem to signify more brutal times (as Hobbes would conceive them) when humanity lacked the order it has today. That said, if Westeros was a pre-modern Europe, Essos becomes even more backward, since Westeros still has laws about slavery.
This immediately influences audience conceptions of not only Medieval Europe but also the East. When Essos is presented as plains and desert landscapes, with pyramids and Moroccan architecture, it sets the stage for various assumptions about the races there. Especially when contrasted with Westeros’ decidedly western, more Medieval European aesthetic and culture, Essos and its races can be considered less civilised or “backward” compared to the forward-thinking Westeros. This aspect of Otherness is further emphasised through language.
The Languages of Essos: Understanding Dothraki and High Valyrian
When discussing the construction of Dothraki in his book The Art of Language Invention, Peterson (2015) describes the prompt he received from HBO and the showrunners about the sounds they wanted for Dothraki. In one word he establishes them as “harsh” (p. 19). Peterson then chronicles his difficulties with understanding which sounds may fit the “harsh” category and which ones are softer, less throaty sounds. Two examples he gives are the -ch sound in German (like in Bach) or the /r/ sound in French (like in rouge) as possible harsh sounds within European languages. The very presence of these languages within the European framework, Peterson argues, would prevent them from being considered “harsh” or “throaty” or “guttural” (p. 19). With this foundation, it is ironic that he chooses to touch upon and yet completely sidesteps the oriental connotations of such a language. As he says:
In addition to the history of cultural stereotyping, which certainly plays a role, it’s the comparison of entire sound systems that produces a phonaesthetic character in the mind of the listener: the sounds present, the way they’re combined, the intonational phrasing, and the rate of speech—plus a number of sociological factors. (p. 19)
It is interesting here that he manages to both acknowledge the oriental connotations (“cultural stereotyping”) and simultaneously avoid discussing it. Rather, he chooses to discuss Dothraki’s phonology in an almost entirely theoretical way that does not focus on the larger implications of choosing what he considers “non-English consonants” (p. 60) in the construction of Dothraki. Interestingly, Peterson takes English and its constructions as the base from which Dothraki differs. He mentions his attempt at maintaining uniformity across sound and consonant or vowel (even mentioning that he wanted to change the spelling of khaleesi to khalisi since /e/ and /i/ are different sounds in Dothraki), without noting the automatic ‘Other’-ness he aims for by locating English as the centre. This becomes blatantly problematic when we understand the specific brand of “gritty realism” that the television series aims to be portraying (Hassler-Forest, 2018, p. 311). Apart from the excessive sex and violence (as HBO staples that find their way into Game of Thrones), the television series also boasts realism, informing a lot of opinions about Medieval Europe and the socio-political constructions of the time.
Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (1996), and Game of Thrones are both heavily informed by and in turn, heavily inform our understanding of Medieval Europe. Introducing the politics of language not only makes this experience more immersive but also plays into this relationship between the text and the consumer. Perhaps best identified through Jameson’s (1998) nostalgia mode, Game of Thrones is very much a product of our time in its understanding of Medieval Europe. The place Medieval Europe and the rest of the world (during that era) hold within our simulacrum prevents us from drawing the line between reality and simulation (Baudrillard, 1994).
Hassler-Forest (2018) argues that Game of Thrones “embraces global capitalism’s precarious and unstable “world without an outside” to the fullest” (p. 311). Simultaneously, it also becomes a representation for high capitalism in its creation of a brand identity and its own simulation of Westeros and Essos that is intertwined with fan theory and reliant on fan interactions, in what Laugier (2018) calls “the annual rite of… procession of hypotheses, teasers, recaps, redundant commentaries, and delirium over spoilers” (p. 150). Therefore, Game of Thrones becomes “a brand culture that results from the strategic collaboration between producers and fans eager to participate in ways that also increase the franchise’s brand value” (Hassler-Forest, 2018, p. 312).
Language, then, becomes a huge contributor to fan experience, which brings Martin back into the argument while also leaving him at the margins. Martin’s view of his world informed the languages but he himself left a lot of creative space for language construction. This meant that when Peterson was later commissioned to develop High Valyrian, he had a lot of freedom with the sounds (albeit having more structures in place than he did during Dothraki’s construction, namely the phrases valar morghulis and valar dohaeris). What is interesting about High Valyrian is that it particularly belonged to Valyria, an empire across Essos, serving the purpose of an ancient language. As Peterson explains:
The history of Valyria was modelled somewhat after the history of the Roman Empire, and High Valyrian was intended to have the status of Latin, with its daughter languages intended to have the status of the Romance languages descended from Latin. I wanted to honour this intention with High Valyrian without simply copying Latin, so I decided to take some cues from it without actually using it as a model. (p. 129)
If Peterson received the same “harsh sounds” prompt that he did during Dothraki’s creation, he makes no indication here. Rather, he further establishes the Eurocentrism of Westeros and Essos by modelling High Valyrian after Latin. This is also reflected in the regularity of word usage. Looking at the index of common phrases for Dothraki and High Valyrian, there are immediate glaring differences, particularly present in 3 phrases – “I’m good”, “I’m hungry”, and “I love you”. – The phrases in Dothraki are–
I’m good – Anha dothrak chek.
I’m hungry – Anha garvok.
I love you – Anha zilak yera. (175)
The same phrases in High Valyrian are:
I’m good – Syri glaesan.
I’m hungry – Merbun.
I love you – Avi jorraelan. (176)
The phrases in High Valyrian resemble our “natural” languages in structure, while the Dothraki phrases resemble an IAL like Esperanto in their consistency. In the former case, we can draw parallels specifically with French – a Romance language that descended from Latin, where both ‘I’m good’ and ‘I love you’ translate to ‘Je vais bien’ and ‘Je t’aime’, respectively, while ‘I’m hungry’ translates to ‘J’ai faim.’ using the ‘I have’ marker typical of a lot of European languages (German, too, albeit not considered a romance language, uses ‘Ich habe Hunger’ [I have hunger], using the same marker for the phrase). Similarly, while the ‘I’ seems regular in the singular, first person marker of -an in ‘I’m good’ and ‘I love you’ in High Valyrian, it changes for ‘I’m hungry’ because of its parallels with European languages.
In contrast, Dothraki is much more regular, using anha for the first person, singular marker in every case. This is paralleled in Esperanto, where “I” is reflected in “Mi” – the first person, singular marker. Therefore, the three phrases in Esperanto are:
I’m good – Mi estas bona.
I’m hungry – Mi estas malsata.
I love you – Mi amas vin.
Therefore, the emphasis on the complexity of Latin as a language of high status and using that as the basis for High Valyrian has connotations of orientalism in its Eurocentric understanding of the language. When placed opposite Dothraki, a much more “simplistic” language, whose main job is to sound “harsh”, High Valyrian emerges as the more refined, inherently “better”, and more regal language of the two. This is further compounded with the image of Daenerys Targaryen (as representative of the Targaryen House) as a beautiful woman with pale skin, silver-gold hair, and violet eyes, representing the “blood of old Valyria” (Game of Thrones 35), and a history of conquering. Particularly considering Daenerys’ ancestors invaded and conquered the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, uniting them under Aegon I, Daenerys considers it her mission to re-establish herself using her three dragons in the method similar to her ancestors. Positioning High Valyrian as an ancient, refined tongue only adds to her claim, drawing parallels to the philological explorations undertaken during colonialism, when language determined the age of a civilisation.
Meanwhile, the Dothraki, fashioned after “Mongols and Huns,… Alans, Sioux, Cheyenne, and various other Amerindian tribes” according to Martin (2012), were presented as nomadic by nature, never having long-term settlements and roots the way Daenerys considers herself to have roots within both Westeros and the recognisable hierarchical monarchy that the reader associates with medieval fantasy. The identity of the Dothraki and their racial Otherness are automatic when they are seen entirely through Daenerys’ eyes, which also reflects Martin’s perspective. The “harsh” sounds in their language and its relative simplicity in comparison to High Valyrian just by being more consistent in its phonetic and morphological structure further orientalise the language and the people, making them seem more exotic and “uncivilised” as opposed to the civilised Daenerys, who attempts to civilise the Dothraki by bringing them to Westeros with her.
The irony within such a reading lies in the fact that Daenerys may be the only character with such a moral compass. Her strong belief in abolishing slavery and her constant need to protect the common person sets her apart from the powers in Westeros that are not concerned with the common person in the same way. Therefore, Daenerys is presented as more an exception to the Westeros way of life rather than the norm. The culture of sex, violence, and sexual violence within Westeros is in equal measure to the Dothraki’s culture. The only difference is that Westeros continues being positioned as the desirable, higher culture, with the “better, more civilised” language and community, while the Dothraki are presented as simple and less civilised.
This raises larger questions about the nature of representation and who is placed at the centre of the narrative. Martin’s more complex understanding of his characters, and the subsequent depictions in Game of Thrones, bring up several further routes of study, such as — can High Valyrian and Dothraki be presented in binary opposition or is this a reductionist understanding of their roles within the story? What are the consequences of understanding these languages in the manner attempted within this paper? Considering that both languages sound equally fantastical to a layperson without an understanding of the finer grammatical elements, does understanding oriental connotations within conlangs and their construction matter?
As Kadt (1991) argued:
The realisation that language and power are interlinked has finally challenged the main-line preoccupation with purely formal studies and enabled the development of a branch of linguistics which looks critically at the ways in which language is implicated in societal power relations. For language, which pervades every aspect of our lives, is never neutral, it empowers and disempowers; and any talk of a ‘better society’, any hope for emancipation, requires as a precondition informed knowledge about the mutual dependancy of language and power. (p. 1)
This sums up the various points raised both in the theoretical framework and the case study. Language constructs the world by being integral to the world. The conscious formation of arbitrary relations as put forth in Saussurean semiotics is best seen in the practice of conlang creation. If we consider conlangs a posteriori creations, then, compared to the a priori nature of “natural languages,” conscious formation becomes even more interesting.
Kadt (1991) also argues that there are two sides to every language’s power: the pragmatic power and the symbolic power. Pragmatic power refers to the power of individuals using that language while symbolic power is the power the language itself holds in terms of its relationship with various ideologies and discourses. Here, Kadt gives the colonial example of English as the bearer of civilisation, an argument which can be extended further to the focus on philology and locating linguistic historicity as what determines a language’s and, by extension, a civilisation’s worth. This argument applies very well to conlangs since they rely on phonetics to alienate the audience while also relying on the relationship of a sound with discourse to inform audience reception. Dothraki proves an excellent example with Peterson himself saying that it emulates Arabic (Wright 2010).
Language and civilisation are inextricably tied together. This association lies in large part in the sounds and morphological constructions of the languages. If we combine this with the understandings of pre-conceptions (that Peterson (2015) has admitted to relying on while constructing Dothraki and choosing the right phonemes) and how our biases make us more inclined to one language over another, then the study of conlangs does, evidently, matter.
Both Dothraki and High Valyrian originate in the continent of Essos. The difference is that High Valyrian has the ability to transcend this continent and cross into Westeros when the Targaryen family takes the Iron Throne. High Valyrian being based on Latin has further implications in its colonial and oriental understanding, particularly within the linguistic context of India, where the Sanskrit versus Latin debate was at its height during colonialism due to language’s link to civilisation. The notion that the oldest language and civilisation automatically is considered richer and more worthy of respect, plays into linguistic hierarchies that inform our understandings of these fictional realities, and, in turn, our own reality.
The question, thus, is less about whether or not a layperson or fan of the series can make the connections made in this paper, and more about the connotations of conlangs being constructed the way they are, especially in a widely popular series like Game of Thrones, which influences not only our understanding of the past but also serves as inspiration for contemporary and future fantasy writers. If fiction often holds up a mirror to reality or is mimetic by nature, then conlangs are equally mimetic of “natural” languages. This mimesis can help us understand our relationship with “natural” languages (beginning, perhaps, with the very notion of naturalness) and the way language and power correlate and inform larger social structures. The goal of this paper is, therefore, to provide a starting point for an even more intersectional understanding of conlangs, especially considering how much language shapes our world, as is evident through these analyses of the languages of Game of Thrones.
Understanding the mimetic nature of conlangs and how they can inform the construction of their world reveals not only the depth of the mimesis but also how this mirror can evolve into another understanding of reality, making fictional universes no longer simulations. The blurring of the line between reality and fiction, and understanding that the study of conlangs is more complicated than assigning labels of “good” or “bad” and “Western” or “Eastern”, then presents the further scope of this study. Through conlangs, our relationship with language can be further explored and, by extension, the structural implications of language-use can be revealed. This paper has attempted to elucidate the various possible understandings of conlangs, creating the space to dive deeper into sociolinguistics within the context of conlangs and their processes of formation.
 For example, if we see a tree in reality when we say the word TREE (pronounced /triː/) or write down TREE or draw a tree, we are establishing a relationship between the sound or illustration (the signifier) and the physical tree before us (the referent). Therefore, the sound becomes a signified for the physical tree since it now has meaning. The arbitrariness comes into play when you note that there is no reason /triː/ (as spoken) and TREE (as written) should represent the tree before us. The written form of TREE, which is also a physical representation, bears no semblance to the tree we see before us. The illustration mimics reality but the written word TREE does not. Similarly, /triː/ bears no resemblance to what is before us primarily because this is a sound. However, this arbitrary relationship is nonetheless established and /triː/, TREE and the illustration of a tree all have the same meaning in terms of the brute reality they represent.
 This is the same way, in brute reality, a tree is different from a bag. Similarly, the written form of TREE is different from BAG even though the actual shapes of the signifiers bear no resemblance to the referents. TREE becomes TREE because it is not BAG.
 The 3 understandings of Orientalism, according to Said (1979) are: “1) Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient – and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or philologist – either in its specific or its general aspects, is an Orientalist, and what he or she does is Orientalism…. 2) a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident….” 3) Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient, dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”. (p. 10-11)
 Esperanto’s relative success compared to other conlangs in this regard has been explained by Blanke, saying, “1) Lexical sources are easily recognisable for many…. 2) Esperanto has an easily grasped phonology…. 3) Phonological alphabet and simple orthography…. 4) Lacks morphemic variants…. 5) Allows for easy combinability of morphemes through productive word formation…. 6) Open to the assimilation of new international lexical elements…. 7) Esperanto is characterised by unambiguous marking of the principal classes of words and grammatical categories” (as cited in Rao, 2014, p. 2).
 The 1×01 structure is commonly followed when discussing individual episodes of television shows. The first number denotes the season, and the second denotes the episode. 1×02 would, therefore, be the second episode of the first season.
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