The Sound of Spoken Dothraki is the Sound of 1000 Dying Metaphors

Sorry, I just thought that would be a nice title. I subscribe to Pinker’s idea that those pretty metaphors in our language (MONEY IS WATER) are by and large dead metaphors since the context where they were made passed long ago. And so the sheep metaphors in Icelandic (Nej, SHEEP er KRONA!). And horse metaphors, were I to hypothetically write/speak Dothraki as a non-horse owning modern amateur language hobbyist. [Wait, are there horse metaphors in Dothraki? I don't really know, I don't have a 300 page ref guide to check) So back to what I really wanted to write about:

As I've said before, learning a language poorly takes a long time. So as a indiscriminate learner of languages, very rapidly I have to get picky about what I bother to study. I like languages that are small. Oddly, Klingon is small. The active community made the vocabulary closed and "de facto" capped at about 3000 words, which grows by about 1 every few years. I think one of the more recent new words was "monk". Dothraki is scheduled to be about 7000+ words, which is about the vocabulary at which people begin to report they feel fluent in say French or Spanish. So by that measure it isn't small. [By published vocab it is small, but texts written contrained by 500 words are not going to be compat with future texts unconstrained by 500 words.] So I ignored it for a few years, until I finished season 1 of GoT. I was annoyed that I had to switch the subtitles back from Swedish to English for the Dothraki sections.

It appears that the reference grammar of Dothraki is at 300+ pages now. Where is the book? I’m wondering if like Na’vi, Dothraki a prisoner of the needs and concerns (or more likely, the lack of needs and concerns) of the movie makers.

Movie makers want a language that isn’t constrained by backwards compat issues (this became a nuisance in the history of Klingon), that is reasonably easy to pronounce by actors, makes the movie sound better than ook-gook-poop nonsense, etc.

What fans want: A published lexicon, enough words in enough semantic domains to get by (but not too many, this is a commercially useless skill you know?), stagnation in the development of grammar, pedagogical grammars (lessons rather than a phonetics/morphology/syntax/discourse tome), a stock of canonical corpus texts, a safe harbor for using the language without risk of cease and desist letters.

Lets score Dothraki so far:
Lexicon – cobbled together by fans by reverse engineering leaked & in movie material
Grammar – Unpublished, so I presume that stuff beyond the current movie text is subject to change
Pedagogical grammars – Again, unpublished, lesson cobbled together by the reverse engineering of fans.
Canonical texts – Laboriously copied down by fans
Safe harbor – Not sure (I know for Klingon, at least the KLI can publish books & make money, couldn’t find the current status for Na’vi, initially Frommer acted as if he was pretty constrained about publishing much & I’d assume that meant fans were similarly constrained) (And yeah, what language we wisper behind closed doors– hollywood couldn’t give a flying f*k, and for usage up to but not publishing for significant money, I can’t imagine a lawyer could be motivated to squash it. But take down notices are always a risk when posting fan-fic or stuff that borders on that)
And what I keep thinking fans want, but don’t know it yet. They want governance… not a great Khal to crush them under the heel of his boot (er, horses’ shoes?), but more like the Tiddly Wink Tournament official rules. Are loan words from English okay? (Like EO) Can words change part of speech to fill a lexical gap? Can new words be coined? Which community proposal for weights, measures, calendars and the Moh’s scale should be used?

Often I’ve been criticized for not understanding conlanging, that one is supposed to enjoy it not by actually using a language, but by sitting in a large chair and reading the reference grammar and dictionary and being amused by that. Well, follow your joy, I’ll follow mine. I’m always shopping for languages to use, even if the number of years left in my life doesn’t really warrant learning many more.

Anyhow, I’ve got 45 minutes until the end of my holiday, maybe I can make some progress on that red Lojban book. At least it has been published.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Sound of Spoken Dothraki is the Sound of 1000 Dying Metaphors

  1. Indeed, the Dothraki grammar does exist, as D.Peterson had to write one before being selected by HBO for the series. However, everything about Dothraki is copyrighted HBO and that’s why the release of new material does not depend on David, but on the producer. I was one of the happy one who could have a look at the grammar since I was myself a finalist in the linguistic contest organized for the creation of Dothraki…

  2. Koppa Dasao says:

    What’s the point of making a language and NOT having people use it? Language is a cultural tool for communication, not a piece of art in an art gallery or an artifact in a museum.

    A language that cannot be used is an useless language.

    • In this case, this was a language made for (and bought by) a client for a TV-series set in a fictional universe, this is not like an auxlang whose purpose is to become, hopefully, a means of international communication.
      Just to give another example, I was selected for the next client after HBO : I had to create a sound system which tries to give an idea of how dogs perceive the human language. Of course, this “system” cannot be efficiently used as a means of communication.