From “CHOAM” to “Chewbacca”: 10 Ways to Create New Words for New Worlds

Imagine you are some deity about to create a new universe from scratch, including all of its stars and planets, mountains and oceans, plants and animals. You’ll probably start with a handful of subatomic particles, a sprinkling of energy, and give it all a good mix together. If, as is more likely, you are a writer trying to build a new universe on your typewriter your building blocks are going to be different. To create a new Star Wars galaxy, or the desert planet of Arrakis, or the island of Westeros, you’re going to need new words – and more than just a few of them…

2015 is quite a year for science fiction fans. This December will see the release of the seventh chapter in the Star Wars series, The Force Awakens, one of the most eagerly anticipated films of all time – and potentially the most lucrative. 2015 also marks the 60th anniversary of Dune, Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece. Set millennia into our own “future”, Dune tells the tale of a young nobleman who enlists the powers of a strange desert people to avenge the death of his father.

Arguably, George Lucas’ Star Wars borrows more than just a desert setting from Herbert’s 1960s classic. One thing that the two sagas certainly have in common is an abundance of fantastic and exotic words. From Herbert, for example, we have “Paul Atreides”, “Vladimir Harkonnen”, “stillsuits” and “sandworms”. From Lucas and his colleagues, we have “Luke Skywalker”, “Darth Vader”, “lightsabers” and “ewoks”.

But just how did Frank Herbert and George Lucas come up with these wonderful new words?

Lucas and Herbert – just like George R. R Martin – might not be trained linguists. But, in naming the alien things and novel concepts that populate their fantasy worlds, they both demonstrate high levels of sophistication in lexicogenesis – the term linguist Gary Miller uses to describe the processes which give rise to new words. And, as it turns out, they rely on the very same processes of word creation that linguists have identified on our own planet – the very same mechanisms that all of us can use, and which keep English topped up with everyday neologisms like “manspreading”, “contactless” and “binge-watch”.

So, in celebration of a bumper year for science fiction, here are the ten main ways that budding science fiction writers, like Frank Herbert and George Lucas, can create new words for new worlds.

  1. Borrow words (and the concepts they represent)

Of course, new fantasy worlds need to have some commonalities with our own universe or otherwise we’d struggle to connect with them on any sort of level. It’s no surprise that both Dune and Star Wars feature humans (or humanoids at least) – as well as planets, stars, deserts, food, drink, gravity, love, hate, and so on. It’s trivial to say that, for most of these, there’s no need for a new word. It suffices to use the relevant linguistic label (the common noun), like “planet” or “star”, that already exists in English – or whatever language the writer is working in.

But where the word and concept doesn’t exist in English, there’s also the possibility of borrowing common nouns, and the relevant concepts they represent, from other languages too. Herbert does this masterfully in Dune, borrowing heavily from Arabic (“Butlerian jihad”, “erg”, “Mahdi”) and Persian, as well as Turkish, Latin and French. In Dune, the title for the ruler of the galaxy (the “Padishah” Emperor), for example, comes directly from Persian.

In borrowing these words and concepts, Herbert gives us a flavour of “Galach”, the “official language of the Imperium” and the native tongue of Dune’s central characters. In the same way that the English of North America mixes British English together with words and concepts from Spanish, French, and various indigenous languages, Herbert’s fictional language is “hybrid Inglo-Slavic with strong traces of cultural-specialisation terms adopted during the long chain of human migration”. Lucas too, is not afraid of a bit of borrowing either. The word “stormtrooper” (the English translation of “Stosstrupp”), for example, comes from Nazi Germany.

  1. Borrow proper names

In any science fiction universe, people and places need naming too. Proper names can be taken from a variety of source languages, and not just English. Herbert, for example, borrows many first names and family names directly from English (“Jessica”, “Duncan”) as well as Russian (“Vladimir”), Finnish (“Harkonnen”), Chinese (“Yueh”), and ancient Greek (“Leto”). Lucas also derives characters’ names from a variety of sources, including a Moghul emperor (“Admiral Ackbar”) and a 1960s TV character (“Han Solo”). Despite the linguistic diversity, however, it’s perhaps not surprising that the central characters of both Dune and Star Wars still have first names (“Paul” and “Luke”) that are less than alien to English speakers.

Proper names can also be borrowed to name other things too, such as places. Dune’s “Giedi Prime”, for example, is derived from the name of a star in the Capricornus Constellation. Luke Skywalker’s home planet “Tatooine” takes its name from a city in Tunisia.

And, as is the case on our own planet, you can use place names as surnames (Dune’s “Duncan Idaho” or Star Wars’ “Wedge Antilles”), or surnames as first names (“Anakin”, for example, comes from the surname of a British film director). And, likewise, if you want to give familiar names and labels just a whiff of the exotic, you can use an unusual spelling but keep the sound or pronunciation the same. One of Herbert’s minor characters, for example, is called “Piter”. This is something that George R. R. Martin does to even greater effect in A Game of Thrones (think “Robb Stark”, “Jaime Lannister”, “Joffrey” and “Ser Jorah”).

  1. Use existing words for completely unrelated concepts and things

Related to the first two, you can also take existing linguistic labels, from English or otherwise, and apply them to new – seemingly unrelated – concepts or things. In Star Wars, the proper names of characters “Wedge” and “Wicket” are everyday common nouns (the latter being everyday, at least, if you are a fan of cricket). In Dune, Arrakis’ all important spice “melange” borrows its label from the French for “mixture”. The drug “verite”, for example, looks like the French word for “truth”.

  1. Extend the meaning of existing words

In fantasy fiction, it’s not always clear whether there is supposed to be a semantic link, metaphorical or otherwise, between the linguistic label from our own planet and the concept, person or thing it is used to represent – even if you can’t stop yourself as a reader from mentally trying to find one. For example, it’s not clear whether the Dune spice is supposed to be a mixture of various substances, or whether “verite” – a bit like ten pints of lager – is more likely to make you tell the truth.

However, what is certain is that another very good way of naming new concepts and things is to simply take an existing word, and extend its meaning. Herbert, for example, uses this process of semantic extension to come up the word “shield” (some kind of electromagnetic defensive barrier) and “carryall” (a flying vehicle for transporting spice). Famously, Lucas extends the common meaning of “force” to describe the invisible “energy field created by all living things” that gives a Jedi their power.

  1. Extend the function of existing words

Related to this, another way to create new words is the process of conversion – that is, taking an existing word and changing its grammatical function. Verbing, the process of creating a verb from another part of speech, is a very common example of conversion in English (think “to email” and “to text”). Herbert does it, for example, with “weirding room”, creating a verb from the adjective “weird”.

  1. Play with a word’s component sounds

One simple mechanism for creating new words is to take old ones and make small changes to their pronunciation. For example, one of the major cities on Herbert’s Dune planet is “Carthag”, which can be arrived at by changing a phoneme (vowel or consonant) or two of “Carthage” (“Qartaj” in Arabic) – the ancient Tunisian city. Apparently, for Star Wars, Lucas derived the name “Chewbacca” from “sobaka” the Russian word for dog. Interestingly, these sorts of phonological changes often mirror the changes that happen to words on our planet, as languages evolve, or as they are borrowed from one language into another.

  1. Build new words from parts of old ones

In any language – certainly in any Earth language – words are built up from smaller chunks of meaning, called morphemes (themselves built up from phonemes). As a result, new words can be formed by chopping bits off existing words, or by adding adding other bits to them.

In Dune, for example, Herbert creates a name for the galaxy’s currency “Solari” by taking the word “solar” and adding “-i”, which looks suspiciously like the Arabic suffix used to describe people from a particular region (think “Iraqi” or “Pakistani”). He also derives the name of the prevalent language, “Galach”, by chopping the end of the word “galaxy”, in a process which linguists call back-formation. Similarly in Star Wars, to create the gangster “Greedo”, Lucas takes an adjective befitting the character’s penchant for money and adds the suffix “-o”, an English device for creating faux Italian or Spanish names (like “el stinko”).

  1. Combine words in new ways

Perhaps the most common – and most fundamental – way of creating new words is to simply combine old ones together. Both Herbert and Lucas rely heavily on compound nouns, which forge together two or more words – and the concepts which underpin them – to create entirely new ones. In Dune, for example, there are “stillsuits”, “groundcars”, “sandworms” and “battle language”. In Star Wars, famously, there are “star destroyers”, “lightsabers” and “the Death Star”.

On Earth as on more distant planets, wherever compound nouns get too long, especially when describing machines or organisations, it’s not uncommon to substitute them for a suitable acronym. On Arrakis, for example, the “Field CP” is a “command post”. In Star Wars, “ATAT” is an “All Terrain Armoured Transport”.

  1. Use any combination of the above

Of course, if you want to be really creative, you can use pretty much any combination of the processes above. Herbert, in particular, isn’t afraid to mix and match. He forms “lasgun” and “repkit”, for example, by contracting the compounds “laser gun” and “repair kit” to form what linguists call portmanteau words or blends. “CHOAM”, a powerful intra-galactic trading company, stands for “Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles”, where “Honnete” and “Ober” are borrowed from French and Old German, respectively.

  1. Create a new word from scratch

Finally, if all else fails, you can simply create a new word from scratch – that is, from some arbitrary combination of vowels and consonants. When you do so, you need to make a decision whether the new word you create will fit into the sound system of English – that is, the set of rules which govern which phonemes, and which combination of phonemes, are allowed in English – or whether it will fit into some other, possibly alien, language. For example, while “Han” and “Hoth” are entirely plausible words in English, “pchagavas” and “hrobas” in Herbert’s invented “Chakobsa” language, are definitely not.

It’s actually pretty difficult to invent a new word that doesn’t share at least some similarities with existing ones. But short of asking Frank Herbert or George Lucas directly, it’s really quite difficult to tell if a word is an entirely arbitrary invention, or whether similarities with other words are intended for artistic reasons. For example, is Paul Atreides’ home planet of “Caladan” a complete invention, or is it derived somehow from (the equally watery) “Caledonia”? Is the name for Dune’s native “Fremen” an accidental string of vowels and consonants, or is it a contraction of “Free men”? Because we all love looking for deeper, hidden meanings in words, the fantasy universes of Dune and Star Wars leave plenty of room for folk etymologies about the meaning of things. According to this website, for example, Han Solo’s name means “he who is alone”:

“Solo” means alone, and Han is very much a loner. Also in Swedish, Han means “he”. Combine these two definitions, and the resulting translation is “he [who is] alone.” 

Whether that’s what Lucas had in mind is highly debatable, and the man himself has been known to spread a few myths about how his characters’ names were created.

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How to Win the Game of Tongues: Breaking the Unwritten Rules of Conversation

'And Ygritte Says' by Alexeil April. Used under Creative Commons license (http://alexielapril.deviantart.com/art/and-Ygritte-says-306166334)

‘And Ygritte Says’ by Alexeil April (http://alexielapril.deviantart.com/art/and-Ygritte-says-306166334). Used under Creative Commons license.

Every day, when I leave my office for lunch, I run a gauntlet of people collecting for charity.

‘Hi,’ one said to me just last week, trying to hold my gaze with a suspiciously large smile. ‘What’s your name?’

For a moment, I contemplated the strangeness of her approach (opening the conversation by asking my name), and then the hunger in my stomach. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I’m in a rush’.

As I got away, I wondered why I had said ‘sorry’? After all, what on earth did I have to be sorry about?

Maybe I apologised because I’m British and I have had this kind of defensive politeness drilled into me from an early age. After all, I hadn’t given the charity collector what she wanted – and these are just the sort of people to hand out left hooks when they don’t get their own way.

But, there’s a simpler, and more fundamental, explanation. In this view, I said ‘sorry’ because I had deliberately ignored my interlocutor’s question. In doing so, I had broken one of the fundamental rules of conversation – that, if someone asks you a question, you respond. And, as it turns out, I wasn’t the only guilty partner: the charity collector had also broken a fundamental rule of conversation by asking my name outright.

Let me explain.

In the 1970s, the American sociologist Harvey Sacks and two colleagues, Emanuel Schlegloff and Gail Jefferson, began to look at things that might seem taken for granted whenever a conversation happens. They began to delve into the common patterns and features of mundane, everyday conversations. To probe these patterns, Sacks and his co-workers developed a new research method called ‘conversation analysis’, which many linguists and sociologists still use today.

Through their work, Sacks and his colleagues were able to ascertain a number of fundamental ‘rules’ of verbal interaction that you won’t see written down anywhere (outside of conversation analysts’ books and journal papers, that is). Nonetheless, these are rules that we all know, and have known, from an early age – even if we don’t know we know them. They are the ‘ground rules’ of speaking, if you like, without which all verbal interaction would rapidly descend into chaos. And they are rules we use every day.

Firstly, it’s clear that any give conversation is made up of turns: I speak, then you speak, then I speak, and so on. One of the first rules of conversation is that, any given turn can be made up of a number of smaller components – the building blocks of conversation – which conversation analysts call ‘turn construction units’. These can be anything from a simple ‘eh?’, to words, phrases, and whole sentences – or even multiple sentences strung together. Valid turns include: ‘Hello’, ‘My cat has died’ and ‘Have you seen my book? I’ve been looking for it everywhere’. What don’t count as a turns, however, are incomplete sentences like ‘Have you seen my’ and ‘I’ve been looking for’.

The rule is important because, if we have an understanding of what counts as a valid turn, we can anticipate when someone else is going to finish speaking. As a result, to maximise conversational efficiency, we can time our turn to begin almost the instant our interlocutor finishes theirs.

Take this example from HBO’s Game of Thrones, where Brienne of Tarth is talking to the squire Podrick:. Notice how Podrick’s first two turns (2 & 4) come immediately after Brienne’s:

  1. Brienne: I think we can treat ourselves to a feather bed for the night [pause] and a hot meal not cooked by you.
  2. Podrick: Couldn’t agree more, my lady.
  3. Brienne: Don’t start expecting silk underclothes [pause]. You’re not working for your former lord any longer.
  4. Podrick: Yes, my lady.
  5. Brienne: Don’t get drunk!
  6. Podrick: [pause] No, my lady.

In particular, notice how Podrick delivers his ‘Yes, my lady’ just as soon as Brienne finishes her sentence. It’s a neat trick, and one that we all carry out, many times each day.

Another fundamental rule is that interlocutors’ turns – as in the conversation between Brienne and Podrick – can be arranged naturally into pairs, the third most basic unit of any conversation. Sacks and colleagues identify a variety of different types of such ‘turn pairs’ that occur frequently in conversation. They range from question-answer (‘How are you? Good, thanks!’) to goodbye-goodbye (‘S’ya later! Bye!’). This, for example, is what a greeting-greeting turn pair looks like Game of Thrones style.

The importance of this rule is that, whenever anyone gives the first part of an identifiable turn pair (such as a greeting or a question), society expects someone to respond accordingly – and to do so rapidly. For example, have you ever noticed on radio phone-ins how odd it is when the time-pressed host says ‘goodbye’ to an interviewee then cuts them off before they have had chance to respond? It feels unnatural, somehow. The silence of the missing turn is almost audible. As linguists Mark Dingemanse and Nick Enfield have written, ‘so deeply ingrained is our expectation of a rapid reply that any hitch in the flow of conversation is subject to interpretation’ (think of a politician stalling for time when a difficult question comes up).

Furthermore, researchers have found that many of these rules are universal to cultures and societies across the world. They are essentially the same whether you are speaking Dutch, English or Japanese – and probably even Dothraki.

But the rules of conversation, just like any rules, are made to be broken. Any fan of Game of Thrones will know that the competition for the Iron Throne is as much a battle of tongues as a clash of swords. It’s clear that whoever ends up ruling the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros will have earned their status through some hard fought conversations. And the best players know that, if you want to win the game of tongues, sometimes you’ve got to cheat.

At Oberyn’s first meeting of the Small Council, for example, Mace Tyrell shows he’s not afraid to break one of the basic rules of conversation (that the second speaker’s turn should come after the first speaker’s) by interrupting before Oberyn’s turn before it is finished:

  1. Oberyn: So, does this mean I am master of something now? Coins, ships…
  2. Mace: Lord Tywin and I have already determined that I should be the master of ships.

And, in the very first scene of the series, King Robert shows his royal credentials by violating another. When Ned greets him politely, in place of an expected greeting, Robert comes back with an insult:

  1. Ned: Your Grace.
  2. Robert: [pause] You’ve got fat.

Whenever a second turn in a pair is one which is not expected to follow the first (like when an insult follows a greeting) conversation analysts refer to this ‘dispreference’. Usually, when this happens, the response tends to be marked somehow, often by a pause but also sometimes – like when I refused to tell a complete stranger my name – by an apology: ‘sorry!’.

There are other rules too – and many more ways to break them. And conversation analysis is a powerful way to look at how individuals obey and exploit these rules, strategically, in conversation.

To finish, here’s a characteristically delicious bit of dialogue from Game of Thrones in which Daenerys is trying to secure financial support from the Spice King of Qarth. There’s plenty of rule breaking going on here, especially in the form of interruptions. What’s just as interesting is how the order of speakers within the turn pairs is reversed (from the Spice King interrogating Dany to Dany questioning the Spice King), as the power ebbs back and forth:

  1. Dany: I’m not asking you for the Kingdoms. I’m asking you for ships. I need to cross the Narrow Sea.
  2. Spice King: I need my ships as well. I use them, you see, to bring spices from one port to anoth…
  3. Dany: Whatever you grant me now will be repaid three times over when I retake the Iron Throne
  4. Spice King: Retake? [pause] Did you once sit on the Iron Throne?
  5. Dany: My father sat there, before he was murdered
  6. […]
  7. Spice King: Forgive me, little princess, but I cannot make an investment based on wishes and dreams. Now if you’ll pardon me…
  8. Dany: Do you know Illyrio Mopatis, Magister of Pentos?

Dany may not be successful in this fundraising attempt – but based on this performance, you can’t help but suspect she’ll be successful in the end.

So to summarise, if those are the rules, how can you win the Game of Tongues? The answer is simple: Get creative. Break them.

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’.