TV's Fake Language Master
The Atlantic|April 2016

How one linguist creates obsessively detailed and fully functional languages for Game of Thrones and other shows. 

Denise Martin

ONE WEDNESDAY EVENING in January, David J. Peterson stood backstage at The Daily Show’s set in Manhattan, teaching Trevor Noah, the show’s host, how to speak Kinuk’aaz. No teacher could have been better suited to the lesson: Peterson invents languages for a living, and Kinuk’aaz, an alien language spoken on the Syfy channel show Defiance, is one of his creations. Others— there are about 40 in all— include High Valyrian, the mellifluous tongue of power players on Game of Thrones; Trigedasleng, a dialect descended from English and spoken by humans in a post-apocalyptic future on the CW drama The 100; and Noalath, a language used by druids on MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles.

In the softly lit greenroom, Noah and Peterson drilled a dialogue they planned to perform during Peterson’s interview, including a Kinuk’aaz greeting: Guderet k’agetirim (“Welcome to the show”). Noah slowly sounded out the phrase.“Goo-dee-ret kag-eh-tee-rum. Like that?” he asked. Peterson, whose long brown hair was parted neatly down the middle, repeated the second word back to Noah in a guttural tone. “K’agetirim,” he said. “Say it with a German r.” Noah speaks eight languages (among them German, Zulu, and Xhosa); he voiced the r deeper in his throat this time, perfectly mimicking Peterson’s pronunciation. A producer signaled that it was time to go, and as Noah left the room, he practiced the harsh, explosive syllables under his breath: “Guderet k’agetirim! Guderet k’agetirim!” He paused in the doorway and shook his head. “Yeah, I wouldn’t want to speak Kinuk’aaz,” he said. “I’m more … High Valyrian.”

Half an hour later, Peterson walked onstage to discuss his new book, The Art of Language Invention. Noah greeted him with the Kinuk’aaz phrase they’d practiced, or something that sounded a little like it: “Ku-ta-rekt kaka-teh-reem!” he said. Peterson’s languages might be made up, but they aren’t gibberish; they have consistent grammar and phonology. You can speak them wrong—even their inventor trips up from time to time. When Peter son returned backstage, I asked how Noah had fared in Kinuk’aaz. “Good eff ort,” Peterson said, chuckling. “But he botched it.”

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