Game of Thrones is back for another sea, and the return to Westeros has been pretty great so far. And given how ly the show is s, some might want to immerse themselves completely in the Seven Kingdoms. Sadly, we can’t inside our TVs yet, but there are other ways to dive deeper into Game of Thrones’ world. The latest comes from Duolingo. The popular language-learning app recently added a High Valerian les. If you’ve ever wanted to warn someone of approaching dragons (or just complain about your while he’s in the room with you), you can now do it in the most appropriate language possible.
The les is structured like all Duolingo less. You st with the basics, a few nouns and maybe a basic verb, and build up to more complicated sentences. If you spend five minutes a day with the app, you’ll go from simple sentences like “I am” to complex ideas like “the dragon is eating my .” (It’s a common problem among native High Valyrian speakers.) And make no mistake, Valyrian isn’t a simple code or cipher. It’s not a just matter of switching out English words for Valyrian ones. Valyrian is a language with its own unique grammar and gender system.
Valyrian was created by linguist David . Peter, who also created the Dothraki language for the show. Peter is the per who gned the High Valyrian les for Duolingo. I got a chance to talk to him about the les plan and how he built the language. When we spoke, he was still finishing up the course. He said creating a High Valyrian course was a rigorous process, but no different from creating one for any other language.
The way Duolingo s is the language is broken up into a skill tree. You st out with some very basic skills (like present tense verbs), and your way up to things like semantics. When you, as the learner, correctly translate a sentence from High Valyrian into English, the app adds the words in that sentence to your skill level. That’s how it determines your command over the language. On his side, he has to pick the words he wants each les to teach, and turn them into sentences the will be able to with at that point in the course.
Sometimes the est p, he said is coming up with things to say. With countless words at his disposal, stringing them together into a meaninul sentence can prove difficult. “I have a lot of sentences about turtles,” Peter said. It might be a while before you st speaking lines from the show. At , the most complex sentences you’ll learn are “the man is y” and “the woman is y.” In the final les, you’re saying things like “Valyrian is my tongue.”
So how do you teach a language that no one on Eh natively speaks (or ever spoke)? Peter has studied language for yeas, and points out that languages are just systems. Creating a system is entirely possible, you just have to define what the rules are. By studying human languages, Peter has a good idea of what people like to do with language and what they’re capable of. “All language on Eh are equally capable of expressing any thought that a human being can express. They are equally capable of translating an idea from one language to another.” Peter said that grammatical structures and emphases changes from language to language, and some may have to use more words, but they can still communicate the same idea.
Creating a language, he says, is all about deciding how you want to say everything that needs to be said. If done right, it shouldn’t match any other language system that’s ever existed. It can correspond for a sentence here and there, but it should be it’s own thing. To create Valyrian, he had to decide how descriptive he wanted single nouns to be, and when adjectives should be added. He then did the same for verbs and adverbs, and all other ps of sch. Peter compared creating a language to sting a of Minecraft. You st with nothing and build a little t at a time until you have something recognizable.
What’s it like to speak High Valyrian? Unlike many western Eh languages, the most important p of the sentence is at the end. Adjectives come , as do relative clauses, with nouns and verbs at the end. Peter gave an example. “The man I talked to yesterday has a nice cat,” in Valyrian would be literally translated as “The yesterday I talked to man a nice cat has.” For an English-speaker, that may take some getting used to, but someone who speaks apanese or Turkish will pick it up easily.
“It’s a highly inflectional language,” Peter said. “Which means that it’s got a lot more tenses and aspects that are expressed on the verb than English does… it also has a lot of cases that are inflected on the noun. In English, all the cases that High Valyrian has are replaced with prepositional phrases. So in English, if we’re talking about a mountain, “mountain” stays the same whether it’s the subject (‘the mountain is g’) or the object (‘I see a mountain’). Valyrian would have a different form for that.” Valyrian also has different forms for prepositional phrases. So “to the mountain” has a different noun form than “of the mountain.” There could also be a single word for hitting someone with a mountain (using it as a weapon) in Valyrian. That may be the case for learning High Valyrian I’ve ever heard. In what other language can you hit someone with a mountain?
In that way, Russian and Turkish speakers will feel at with High Valyrian. I asked if there’s an Eh language High Valyrian is closest to, and he said probably Latin. “Valyrian has more cases than Latin, but it has the same number of verb forms. And neither language has icles. I guess that’s a closer correspondence than anything I can think of offhand.”
Peter created both Dothraki and High Valyrian for the show. Dothraki was created as p of a linguistic competition. Whoever created the Dothraki language got to on the show. That was their application process. Peter had about 50 Dothraki words to with from the books. He was able to build out from those into an entire language. With Valyrian, though he was now officially ing on the show, he had even less to go on.
“There were ly only two phrases. Valar Morghulis and Valar Dohaeris. Those were the only phrases. After that, there was one or two words here and there, like ‘valonqar,’ which we know means ‘little ,’” Peter said. The only other clues he had to with were the Valyrian derived names, like Daenyres and Illyrio. The names informed him as to what Valyrian words sound like, and how they’re gendered. The two phrases allowed him to create the verb system. “Those two phrases were my sole inspiration for the rest of the Valyrian language… It was specifically because those two phrases were translated as ‘all men must serve’ and ‘all men must die. It wasn’t just a simple use of the present tense or something there. What that indicated to me was if there’s some sort of inflection there that gave you a tense form modality that translated as ‘must die’ and ‘must serve,’ then there must be other modalities and tenses as well… I used that information then, to generate the rest of the verb forms.”
The most interesting p of High Valyrian to me was the gender system. In High Valyrian, a noun’s gender isn’t to (like it is in Spanish, with its masculine and feminine nouns.) The gender system grew out of the fact that “Valar” was translated as “all men.” That gave Peter the idea that High Valyrian has different gender forms for definite and indefinite plurals (meaning things that can be counted vs. things that can’t). That led to the Valyrian language having four genders. The countable nouns have solar and lunar genders, while the m nouns have aquatic and terrestrial genders. The lunar and aquatic genders are essentially the same, but they refer to different types of nouns. Same with solar and terrestrial. Peter was very clear that none of the genders are meant to be taken as masculine or feminine. In fact, man, woman, boy and girl are all expressed in the lunar gender. Peter said he s playing around with gender in languages, but he’s not a fan of the -based genders you see in European languages.
So what’s the goal here? Why have an entire language course for a fictional language that won’t help you at all if you travel abroad? According to Peter, the answer is simple: Language is fun. That’s why he says people should learn ts of other languages and play around with them.
“Even if your end goal is not to be fluent, it’s fun to dip into a language and learn a bunch of stuff for a year or a half year or something,” he said. “I think people think of it as entirely utilitarian, as a tool, or they think of it as an obstacle or chore. What it ly is, is human beings’ greatest invention of all time. Nothing that human beings have ever accomplished has been done without language. And I think it’s cool to rate that.” Peter says that even if someone dabbles around in High Valyrian once and never touch it again, he just wants them to have some fun with it. “If they come away with a better appreciation of what language can be, or just a sense that it can be fun, that makes me happy.
You can learn High Valyrian now on Duolingo’s website, and it’s coming to the app once its beta concludes.
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