Lizzie O'Leary: Back with you on The Takeaway. I'm Lizzie O'Leary in for Tanzina Vega this week. The new Netflix series Shadow and Bone follows an orphaned teen named Alina Starkov who suddenly discovers extraordinary powers that could change the face of her war-ravaged world. Like a lot of big-budget fantasy shows and movies, think Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings, Shadow and Bone immerses its audience in its fictional world, complete with new lands, new people, new creatures and new languages.
Movie Actor 1: [Fjerdan language].
Movie Actor 2: Where did you learn how to speak Fjerdan like a native?
Movie Actor 1: I speak six languages.
Lizzie O'Leary: Fjerdan, which I don't speak, is just one of the fictional languages created specifically for Shadow and Bone, which is based on Leigh Bardugo's best-selling young adult fantasy novels. When places like HBO or Marvel need somebody to do that, construct a language from scratch, they often turn to this guy.
David J. Peterson: My name is Dan David J. Peterson. I'm a language creator and I've created over 50 languages for television shows and films in Hollywood.
Lizzie O'Leary: Yes, that's right. David has created a lot of languages.
Lizzie O'Leary: Before creating languages professionally, David had been creating them on his own for fun for a decade. If I were to ask you to say hello in Dothraki, what would that be?
David J. Peterson: You would say, "[Dothraki language]".
Lizzie O'Leary: All right.
David J. Peterson: [chuckles] I started in 2000 when I was a sophomore at UC Berkeley. I just happened upon it and I hooked up with other language creators online and started to really learn the craft. Really, I just did it recreationally and I expected that that would be the case, that I would only do it recreationally for the rest of my life. I enjoyed it well enough, so that was fine for me. In 2009, the entire language creation community got an unexpected opportunity. The producers of Game of Thrones emailed the Language Creation Society out of the blue with no forewarning and asked if they could help create the Dothraki language. What happened was the Language Creation Society put together a competition. They announced it to language creators everywhere. I applied with many others, and I was the one who made it through the gauntlet.
Lizzie O'Leary: When you're doing something like this for Game of Thrones, for Shadow and Bone, are you a linguist? Are you a creator? How are you thinking about the structure of language? Are you operating just carte blanche in your head or are you trying to adhere to some rules that you know from existing languages?
David J. Peterson: In terms of how it feels, before I created languages, all I did was write fiction. For me, the feeling is very similar. It feels like you're just creating, like you're an artist. However, everything that I do is informed by-- I have a bachelor's and master's in linguistics-- It's informed by what I know about language, because what you're trying to do, especially when you're creating a more or less realistic language, like I did for Game of Thrones and like I did with Christian Thalmann to create the Fjerdan language for Shadow and Bone, is you're trying to create something that is plausibly human, because the people that you're creating these languages for, it may be in a fantasy setting, but they're real human beings. So, we try to create something that fits the setting, that's fun, that we enjoy, that's interesting, but that adheres to what we know about human languages.
Lizzie O'Leary: Are there pitfalls to think about when you're doing this? I would imagine that you must think about not falling into racial or ethnic stereotypes, for example, or thinking about, I don't know, sounding like Western languages or non-Western languages. How do you think through that part?
David J. Peterson: I think one of the key issues is that a lot of stereotypes about language have to do with sound, and they have really no basis, in fact. There's this a characteristic that a language that has a sound like 'kha' is a harsh language, which is really bizarre, because then, if you ask people, "What are harsh languages to your ear?" And they say things like, "Oh, like German and Dutch and Russian and Arabic." What they don't realize when they say that is that this sound, like 'kha' for example, it's found in both Spanish and French, but nobody describes those languages as harsh. You begin to wonder why and you realize, it's not actually the sound of it. It's something else going on.
It's something that goes back to cultural and racial stereotyping. When a language creator sits down to create a language, it helps to understand all the choices that you're making from the top-down, knowing that first of all, if there is no connection between the sound of a language and the people who speak it, there's also no connection between the grammar of a language and the people who speak it. The connection that you see between culture and language, it comes through in the actual words that are there, both in the words that exist in the language, and that you're more likely to have a native term for things that exist in your life and borrowed terms for things that you have borrowed, but also culture peeks through in idioms and expressions and things like that.
It makes sense to laser-focus on the people you're creating language for. Don't think that, "Oh, these people are like X group, or people who speak Y language in the real world." Forget that. Just think, "Here are these fictional people, and I'm going to use them as my inspiration solely and I'm not going to think about anything else." Rather than thinking about other languages and being informed by them, just focus on linguistic science, what makes sense, what is plausible for a human language, and make those decisions for the language itself, but as long as you adhere to creating a unique vision, then you're going to end up with a unique language, and that's really the goal.
David J. Peterson: Why do you think that there's this interest or demand for this escape into another world right now. Why are you in such demand?
Lizzie O'Leary: It's the same reason we like to travel. It's fun to see what life is like somewhere else. When you go to a different country, it's such a huge sensory experience. When you're watching a TV show or a movie, you get a fraction of that. You're not going to know what it smells like, what the air feels like, and so you have to work with the visuals and the audio. I think what happened with, not even Game of Thrones, I think before that, I think what happened with The Lord of the Rings movies is that when they used Tolkien's languages, it really helps you feel like this is somewhere that's totally different.
For two reasons. One, it's a language that doesn't sound like any other, which is achievable even with jibberish, but something that's unique about language, language that has structure is that your brain can pick up on these repeated patterns, these intonational patterns that make something sound like a language, as opposed to sounding like jibberish, where jibberish is just random, language has patterns. Even if you can't understand the language, your brain can pick up on that. It makes a big difference when there's an authentically-created language and it's used in the production to help flesh out that world. It makes it feel real. It makes it feel like being in another country, and so it just helps up the level of the realism of a show.
Lizzie O'Leary: You mentioned The Lord of the Rings and I'm thinking, okay, Elvish was in the books. Do you think there's something different about now, today that has led to work like yours becoming more popular and more widespread?
David J. Peterson: It might sound like a simple explanation, but I think it's really true. I think it had to do with the popularity of Game of Thrones, because if you look back at the constructed languages in TV and film, the first one was actually [unintelligible 00:08:19], which was a kid's show, nobody was going to pay attention to that. After that, it was like Klingon was created for the Star Trek movie. You have Lord of the Rings, which is a movie. You have Avatar, which is a movie. Movies are wonderful things. They make a huge splash and stick around for a few months, but then they vanished from the public consciousness.
Game of Thrones was a phenomenon for 10 years. It's something that did not fade from the public consciousness while it was hot, and so people were hearing the languages a lot more. There's just a lot more content in terms hours, but also it didn't have that time to like fade away. I think that really made an impression, not just on audiences, but also on writers and producers and directors who weren't able to see a phenomenon and then forget about it. It was constantly reminding them that a created language was another potential tool for them as they try to bring their show to life, and really, I think that was enough to allow it to hit in many other places.
Lizzie O'Leary: Language is a living, breathing thing. Have you ever gotten, I don't know, a response from an actor who's like, "Listen, man, I just can't say that. That's just too weird," or, "I can't learn this particular turn of phrase." Do you ever tailor your work in response?
David J. Peterson: Believe it or not, that's happened very rarely, very rarely. For the most part, actors are really excited about that because it gives them a tool to get into character, something that they don't have to invent on their own. It's like, "Here's this language that nobody's ever heard before and this tells me that I am in this character." Most of the time they react pretty well. Sometimes, if an actor is struggling with a particular sound, it is very freeing to be able to say, "Well, I can just retranslate that and fix it, so that that sound doesn't occur in that line." Sometimes, if the word hasn't been used before, I can just change the word.
Lizzie O'Leary: David J. Peterson is a language creator and author of the book, the Art of Language Invention. Thank you so much for being here.
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