David J. Peterson invents fake languages for a living. His most well-known creations to date include Dothraki and Valyrian on Game of Thrones, Trigedasleng on The 100, the demonic Verbis Diablo on Penny Dreadful, and Nelvayu in Doctor Strange. His most recent project is NBC’s Emerald City an epic fantasy take on the Wizard of Oz world.
Peterson spoke with Inverse about mining from the Oz books to create new witchy languages, the difference between earth languages and space languages, and more.
What’s your process like, when you begin forming a language?
The first thing is to figure out how language is going to be used and who’s going to be speaking it. In the case of Emerald City, I was creating two languages of very different characters. One of them was my usual process. I was creating a language for the Munja’kin, who are basically just human beings. They’re the analogs of the Munchkins and speak a language that is more or less a human language. When I’m creating the grammar for this type of a language — which I call a naturalistic language — I try to create it in such a way that the language looks like a language that we speak here on earth. It’s not totally regular, it’s not very simple, everything doesn’t line up one to one with some other language. It has its own unique character, its own irregularities, its own quirks.
What do you mean by a language you’d find on Earth?
The witch language itself is not something like you would find on earth. Our languages evolve gradually over time, because you have a bunch of people who speak a language. Their children are born and they learn the language, but they change it incrementally, just little bits, so that the language of a child is not going to be exactly the same as the parents. With the witch language, a part of the fictional conceit of the show is that witches are simply born being able to speak and understand this language, which means that they don’t learn it at the knee of anybody, they’re not listening to it, and they don’t teach it to anybody, it doesn’t evolve. It’s not a naturalistic language. That was a very different task from what I’m used to.
Different than Doctor Strange, even?
I guess you could say it’s a little bit more similar to what I did in Doctor Strange, except pushing it further. Since I knew that this was going to be used for chanting and singing and spells a lot, I focused on making sure that the rhythm of it would have a particular character to it. I kind of did a similar thing for Doctor Strange where I was creating a language for this chanting, but I’d say even that was a little closer to things like Dothraki and Trigedasleng than what I did for Emerald City.
And you also said it depends on who is speaking the language — how do you go about researching that?
I get as much information as I can, given the circumstances. Sometimes I’m brought onto a show sometimes before there’s even a script, or it’s a very early pilot script. There’s nothing to watch, and not only that, the characters themselves are evolving. What I do at that point is I talk to the producer or the writer and I ask them to tell me as much as they possibly can about this character. This paints a picture in my mind, and usually pushes me in one direction or the other. I sit down, for myself, to sketch up a little grammar idea, but then for them to give it a sound of it, so they can hear what I’m imagining. Sometimes it’s right on the money, sometimes it needs a little revision.
In the case of Game of Thrones, I didn’t have time to read all the books, because it was a competition. We had a month and a half to do it. I couldn’t read all of them, though I did read the Daenerys chapters. After that, it helps, if there’s any type of background and I have the time for it, it really helps to dive in, to get a sense of the character. All the languages I create are directly tied to those characters and what I imagined from them.
For Emerald City, because of course these are based, it’s a very different adaptation of the Oz books. I grew up reading all of the original Oz books. Part of Oz is that there’s Emerald City in the center, it’s divided into these four regions. That actually kind of wed itself to this idea about the elements that ended up shaping the grammar of the witch language. There are four variants of the language. There are four elements associated with those variants, and then there’s four colors associated with them as well. They’re kind of tied to one of the four regions, and also the four cardinal directions. Actually, this not being a natural language was what freed me up to allow me to do this kind of a thing. It’s the type of thing where because it’s Oz, you can do that. It makes sense. Thank you for giving me the answer that I should have been giving, because yes, the land of Oz directly tied in to how I created that language specifically.
What’s the most surprising thing to you about your career?
That it exists. (laughter) It’s still mindbogglingly baffling that anybody who created languages got a single job to create a language for a television show. It just was unthinkable. It was unthinkable even ten years ago, because we actually had this discussion. I was on the board of the Language Creation Society, and somehow it came up, somebody asked a question, “What if you’re ever approached by a movie studio to create a language?” The Language Creation Society discussed this internally. After several people shared their opinions, we came to a conclusion. That conclusion was that this scenario was so unbelievably unrealistic that we shouldn’t even waste the time.
Just the fact that there was one opportunity is still amazing to me. The fact that I’ve done this for nine different television shows now, and movies, the fact that I’ve even lost count is ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. I thank my lucky stars every single day. I really, really hope that this can lead to more opportunities for more language creators because I think that what we do, personally it’s a lot of fun and it’s very fulfilling for all of us, but I think that there is artistic merit to what we’re doing. I like that people are now being able to see it, they’re able to see it, that they’re able to hear it. I think there are a lot more voices out there who also have things to share.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.