A Game of Tongues: Why George R. R. Martin is a Linguist After All

One of the great achievements of any work of fantasy or science fiction is the creation of an entirely new world – think of the Star Wars universe or Lord of the Rings’ Middle-Earth. Although many new worlds have been created by fantasy authors over the years, only a few can match the complex, beguiling and deadly world of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

Of course, no new world would be complete without its own language or languages. Martin is quick to point out that he is no linguist himself. When creating the lands of Westeros and Essos, and all its linguistic complexities, Martin couldn’t rely on classical training as a philologist as J. R. R. Tolkien could. So, although he invented a few words and phrases of Dothraki for the original Game of Thrones novel, he had to hand over to professional language-creators to devise a Dothraki language proper for HBO’s TV series.

But even if George R. R. Martin didn’t hammer out the phonology, case systems and vocabulary of Dothraki or High Valyrian, in creating the linguistic context for his fantasy series, I want to show that he did an excellent job in matching the mind-boggling complexity of real languages. In celebration of the final episode of season 4, here are twenty ways in which – linguistically speaking – Game of Thrones is much more sophisticated than you might think:

1. There are plenty of languages in the known world…

Myrish, Braavosi, Dothraki… OK, so although there might not be the linguistic diversity of our own planet (we have something like 6000 languages), its clear that the Common Tongue of Westeros is not the only one in town.

First of all there’s Dothraki, spoken by the fearsome horse-riders of Essos. In Vaes Dothrak, ‘Khal’ is the title of the ruler, a word which gives rise to the derived forms ‘khalasar’ (for the Khal’s army) and ‘Khaleesi’ (his bride). Then, there’s Valyrian with its ‘liquid accents’, spoken in the free cities of Essos. Elsewhere, there’s the ‘sing-song’ tongue of the unfortunate Lhazareen. Last, but not least, there’s the Common Tongue of the Seven Kingdoms – which, fortunately for us, is surprisingly similar to British or North American Standard English.

2. …And some of the languages are related to each other

In Game of Thrones, Valyrian actually refers to a group of languages, including a number of ‘bastard’ forms, all derived from High Valyrian. He may not be a linguist, but Martin was well aware that, in our own ‘known world’, all but a few languages can be neatly grouped together into language families – groups of languages with a shared pedigree. In this respect, Valyrian is similar to the Romance languages where French, Italian and Spanish, and so on, are all derived from Latin.

3. With so many languages, a good translator is worth hanging on to

Translator Missandei does an outstanding job of mediating between surly slave-owner Krasnys and would-be-Queen Daenerys when she approaches him about buying an army of slaves. When Krasnys exclaims in his Astapori Valyrian, ‘Her Dothraki smell of shit… but may be useful as pig feed,’ Missandei translates this, prudently, as: ‘The Dothraki you have are not worth what they cost to feed’. Small wonder Dany sees fit to offer Missandei a job herself.

4. Different languages have concepts that others don’t

Languages, everywhere, reflect the culture of their speakers – and in Martin’s world it’s no different. In Dothraki, there is no word for throne, for example, a concept which doesn’t exist among the horse-riders of Essos. In the original Game of Thrones novel, Khal Drogo eventually gets tired of Dany talking about the ‘iron chair’ of Westeros. North of the Wall, we find out from Ygritte that the Wildlings don’t have a word in their dialect for ‘windmill’. And it may be something that Ladies in the south like to do but, as Ygritte is quick to point out, ‘swooning’ is simply not in her lexicon.

5. Each language has many dialects

Not surprisingly, given the size of Westeros, there are many dialects of the Common Tongue. Although most ‘high-born’ characters speak in a language which is not discernible from Standard English, Martin litters his prose with various low-born characters speaking in non-Standard forms. As well as phonological differences (accents), this includes grammatical variations between speakers too. For example, Will, of the Night’s watch, uses the past tense form of verbs as the past participle: ‘They couldn’t have froze.’ Mycah, the ill-fated butcher’s boy, uses double negatives which you wouldn’t find in the King’s Common Tongue. He tells Prince Joffrey, when caught sword-fighting with Arya: ‘It’s not no sword, it’s only a stick’. Then there’s Shagga, the mountain clansman, whose own idiolect doesn’t seem to include a first person singular pronoun (‘I’). He tells Tyrion: ‘Shagga will go with the boyman, and if the boyman lies, Shagga will chop of his manhood…’

As well as variation in language depending on the social status of the speaker (what linguist William Labov calls ‘social stratification’), there is also plenty of geographical variation, giving rise to regional dialects. Pyp, Jon Snow’s well-travelled comrade in the Night’s Watch, brags to everyone that he can tell what you are and where you were born ‘just from the sound of your voice.’

6. Some people are good at mimicking the dialects of others

Just like amongst us humans, some people of the known world are better at accents than others. Pyp, we’re told, has a ‘hundred different voices’. When he’s telling his stories, he can shift his accent to play all the parts needed: ‘a king one moment and a swineherd the next.’ But he’s not the only one. In this scene from the TV series, for example, Lady Olenna shows she can do an impressive northern accent.

7. There are particular ways of speaking, tied to particular situations

Just as in real tongues, within the languages of Game of Thrones, there are multiple forms (different ‘registers’ and ‘styles’) that speakers use depending on who they are speaking to, what they are speaking about, where they are, and so on. For example, common among high-born speakers of the Common Tongue is the use of very particular ceremonial language. At the execution of a deserter from the Night’s Watch, Ned Stark declares: ‘In the name of Robert of the House of Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, by the word of Eddard of the House Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, I do sentence you to die.’

Which is not the sort of language you would use when ordering a plate of lemon cakes.

8. Some people are better linguists than others

There are definitely some talented linguists in A Game of Thrones. The Captain who brings Catelyn to King’s Landing, Moreo Tumitis, speaks the Common Tongue ‘fluently, with only a hint of the slightest hint of a Tyroshi accent.’ Arya’s Braavosi sword-master is almost as good. He speaks the Common tongue with a few non-native features (‘I am thinking that when we reach this Winterfell of yours…’). Then of course there’s Dany’s translator, Missandei, who can speak 19 different languages – surely making her one of the most gifted linguists in the ‘known world’.

Other characters are a bit more ‘human’ when it comes to learning languages. When we first meet horse-lord Khal Drogo he can speak only a few words of Valyrian, and only one word of the Common Tongue (‘no’). Although he does eventually learn some more of Dany’s mother tongue, he speaks with ‘an accent so thick and barbarous’ that only Dany can understand him.

But, of course, it’s Dany who takes the prize for effort in attempting to learn the language of her husband, under the wing of her handmaid Jhiqui. ‘Khalakka dothrae mr’anha!’ she exclaims in her best Dothraki (‘A prince rides inside me!’), before ceremonially downing a raw horse’s heart.

9. Some people can’t speak a first language

There are some people in A Game of Thrones who can’t even speak one language. Pity poor Hodor, the giant stable boy from Winterfell, who can only utter one word. ‘Hodor. Hodor. Hodor. Hodor…’

Perhaps, Hodor is inspired by ‘Tan’, a real life patient in 19th Century Paris who suffered from the first recorded instance of Broca’s aphasia – a speech disorder caused by damage to the frontal lobe of the brain. Tan was given the name as this was the only word he could utter.

10. You can exploit the fact that others don’t speak your language

Dany’s truculent brother, Viserys, loves to audibly trash talk the Dothraki in the Common Tongue, knowing full well they don’t understand him. (‘The savages lack the wit to understand the speech of civilised men,’ he says.) It comes back to haunt him, however. Because he can’t speak Dothraki, he doesn’t realise he’s about to receive a crown of molten gold until it’s too late…

11. If you’re bilingual, you have a choice of which language to speak

If you are bilingual in Game of Thrones, and you know that the person you are speaking to speaks the same two languages as you, you have three possibilities: you can speak one language or the other, or you can code-switch between the two. For example, when the Red Priestess Melisandre meets Thoros of Myr in the forests of Westeros, they greet each other in Valyrian, before Thoros suggests switching to the Common Tongue so his men can understand, before later switching back to Valyrian…

12. Code-switching can be a powerful (linguistic) weapon

There are many reasons why individuals might switch languages like this – and they might not always be benevolent. As linguists studying bilingual interaction have pointed out, negotiating which language is used in a given a conversation, sometimes mean negotiating which of the speakers holds the power. In the royals courts of Westeros and Essos, it’s no different.

In Astapor, for example, when Dany negotiates with Krasnys for his army of slaves the conversation is first held in both Valyrian and the Common Tongue, mediated by translator Missandei. Neither party wants to give an inch of ground by speaking in their interlocutors’ mother tongue. However, things change suddenly when Dany offers up one of her dragons in exchange. Suddenly Krasnys is willing to barter with Dany directly. ‘T’ree dragon’, he says, in his pidgin Common Tongue. In the Game of Thrones, it’s a small victory for Dany, who now knows she’s really got him interested…

But the most powerful instance of code-switching is surely what happens next. When Dany finally reveals, to the surprise of everyone, that she can speak fluent Valyrian, Krasnys knows that she has been playing him all along. When she orders her dragon to burn him alive, he also knows it’s too late. Dany has been playing the game of tongues all along.

13. Style-switching is another good weapon in the game of tongues

But even if you are not bilingual, you can still switch between the various registers and styles of your own language to gain the upper hand. In A Game of Thrones, Tyrion is one of the masters of this. When the jailer at the Eyrie shoves a plate of boiled beans in his direction and asks bluntly ‘you want eat’, its an affront to his ego. Tyrion tries to grasp some of it back, humorously switching to a very polite and formal style: ‘A leg of lamb would be pleasant,’ he says. ‘Perhaps a dish of peas and onions, some fresh baked with butter, and a flagon of mulled wine to wash it down. Or beer, if that’s easier. I try not to be overly particular…’

14. But, if all else fails, you can always swear

Sometimes, only a taboo word will do. After all his more linguistically-sophisticated efforts get him no closer to freedom, Tyrion calls his jailer a ‘fucking son of a pox-ridden ass’.

15. Sometimes you can say one thing and mean something entirely different

What is said semantically might not always been the same as what is meant pragmatically. Or, to leave fancy linguistic terminology aside, sarcasm is alive and well in Westeros. In A Game of Thrones, when Littlefinger is escorting Ned around the Red Keep, Ned points out that they aren’t going in the directions of his chambers. No, says Littlefinger. ‘I’m leading you to the dungeons to slit your throat and seal your corpse up behind a wall.’ And when Tyrion is told he will be riding to the top of the Eyrie on a goat, he replies ‘I can scarcely wait’.

16. You should choose your words carefully if you don’t want to be (im)polite

As society dictates, the citizens of Westeros and Essos employ polite forms of language, particularly when they are talking to their equals and their superiors. Politeness and deference is manifest in forms of address (such as ‘my lord’, ‘m’lady’ and ‘Your Grace’), mitigating phrases (‘with respect’), pleas (‘begging your grace’), statements of flattery (‘what a pleasure’), and so on.

And wherever polite language is expected, its absence sends a powerful message. For example, when Dany meets an envoy from Yunkai, the conversation treads a deliciously fine line between politeness and bare-faced aggression.

17. Sometimes you can play with language just for fun

In our world, people have been playing with language for as long as its been around – often just for fun. In Game of Thrones, it’s much the same. When Shae, the prostitute who Tyrion ends up falling for, introduces herself to him, she shows that she’s more than a match for Tyrion’s verbal wit. ‘I am Tyrion, of House Lannister,’ he says. ‘Men call me the Imp.’ In response, Shae deftly plays with the ambiguity of the verb ‘to call’. ‘My mother named me Shae,’ she says. ‘Men call me…. often.’

18. You should know how to use your tongue…

Martin makes it clear that you can get a long way in A Game of Thrones armed with only a sharp tongue. As such, Tyrion – the character with perhaps the sharpest tongue of anyone – can’t understand how his squire, Podrick Payne, can be so quiet. He’s so vexed, he asks Podrick to stick out his tongue and show it to him. ‘Definitely a tongue,’ he says. ‘Someday you must learn to use it…’

19. …But you should still be careful what you say

But sometimes a sharp tongue will only get you so far. In A Game of Thrones, Tyrion’s hired sell-sword and bodyguard, Bronn, warns him: ‘You have a bold tongue, little man. One day someone is like to cut it out and make you eat it.’ The point is you can have the fastest tongue in the world, but it’s not necessarily going to stop someone sticking you with the pointy end of a sword.

20. Conversations are battles to be won or lost

What all this means – and what Martin so deftly captures in the world he creates – is that conversation is a game. Linguists know that, like any game, conversations have fixed rules about who speaks when (‘turn taking’), what is said and what is not said, and so on. Like any game, conversations can be at once about cooperation and about competition, about adversaries and about allies. They are about a negotiation of power.

So, the Game of Thrones is not just fought on the battle field. It is not just a matter of steel and fire. Across Westeros, and the rest of the ‘known world’, it is fought and won in countless conversations. What you say, and how you say it, is no small thing – it can be a matter of life or death. To paraphrase a master of the art: ‘When you play the game of tongues, you either win or you die’.

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