The first time you heard “Star Trek” characters speak Klingon, or the “Game of Thrones” characters speaking Dothraki and High Valyrian, you might have assumed that the actors were just speaking a few words of gibberish, created by some screenwriter to sound authentic. But these are complete languages, with vocabulary, syntax, grammar, and even made-up histories. There’s only one person on the planet whose full-time job is creating them—and these days, he’s swamped with requests. No doubt about it: Conlangs (constructed languages) are the new special effect. Me nem nesa!

Guests: David Peterson, author/linguist/full-time language maker. Mark Okrand, author/linguist/creator of Klingon. Angela Carpenter, linguistics professor at Wellesley College.

Episode transcript

Theme begins.

What would “Star Trek” be if the Klingons didn’t speak Klingon? 

[Klingon sample]

What would “Game of Thrones” be if Danaerys didn’t speak High Valyrian? 

[Valyrian sample]

Those are invented languages, complete with syntax, grammar, and vocabulary, commissioned by Hollywood executives. But where did they come from? Who makes them up? And what happens when people tear these languages out of movieland—and into the real world? I’m David Pogue, and this is “Unsung Science”: the stories behind amazing accomplishments in science and tech.

[Theme ends.]

FIRST AD

Season 1, Episode 6: How Fake Movie Languages Become Real.

[Music begins]

I don’t know what you did with your pandemic. But I checked off a bucket-list item I’d been putting off forever: I finally watched “Game of Thrones” on HBO Max. All 73 hours of it. Including the final season, which was …everything people said it was. An absolute dumpster fire. Nonsensical, rushed, and just so dumb.

Otherwise, “Game of Thrones” is pretty great. It’s a sprawling fantasy epic, set in a pseudo-Medieval, sorta-kinda Europe. There are hundreds of characters. Most of them speak English—with, for some reason, British accents. 

Jamie: You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to do anything.

Tommen: I have to answer to the gods.

Jamie: Not when you’re sitting in that chair!

But because these are made-up tribes from made-up lands, some of them speak made-up languages. For long stretches. With subtitles.

[Dothraki sample]

That’s Dothraki, spoken by the nomadic horseback warriors of Essos. 

[Valyrian sample]

And that’s High Valyrian, which is the “Game of Thrones” version of Latin—a dead language from a long-dead empire, kept alive mostly by scholars. 

Dothraki and Valyrian are only the latest in a grand tradition of phony languages—better known as constructed languages, or conlangs—from movies and TV shows. The only Hollywood conlang more famous than Dothraki and Valyrian is, of course, this one:

[Klingon sample]

That’s Klingon, spoken by the Klingon aliens in the “Star Trek” TV shows and movies. 

Marc: I’m Mark Okrand, and I guess I’m best known as the person who devised the Klingon dialog for Star Trek. 

David: I mean, in your real life, you’re a linguist, right? Has Klingon taken over your life? 

Marc: Now it has, because now I’m retired. So—so yeah.

Yes, Marc Okrand is the man who created the Klingon language. But his first movie conlang wasn’t Klingon. It was Vulcan, and the movie was “Star Trek 2.”

And how he got that gig has got to be one of the goofiest, most reverse-engineered stories in all of screenwriting. 

Marc: There’s a scene where Mr. Spock and the new Vulcan character named Savik have a little discussion with Captain Kirk, and then Kirk goes off to look around. And Savik says to Spock, “he’s so human.”

And Spock says, “nobody’s perfect.”  

That scene was filmed with the characters, the actors speaking English. When they went into post-production, they said, “why are they speaking English?” 

Why aren’t they speaking Vulcan?” 

The producers decided that the simplest fix was to hire a linguist to watch the scene as it was shot in English, study the actors’ lips as they spoke, and make up some fake Vulcan syllables that matched their English-language lip movements. The actors would then dub those Vulcan words over the existing scene, and English subtitles would tell the audience what the Vulcan words meant. 

Marc: So I made up gobbledygook. I watched the scene, made up some gibberish that matched, I hope matched the lips. 

Worked one day with Savic, who is Kirstie Alley—

[Savic line]

—worked a couple of days later with Spock, you know, with Leonard Nimoy. 

[Spock line]

Then I drove away, realizing that I had just taught Mr. Spock how to speak Vulcan, which was very cool, and I thought this is the end of my “Star Trek” career, probably the end of my movie career. 

It was not. A year and a half later, producer Harvey Bennett called Marc up and told him about a new movie with Klingons as the villains.

Marc: ”OK, now we’re making this other movie. You did the Vulcan. You want to do Klingon?”

He did.

Now, the first “Star Trek” movie had included a little Klingon—a handful of very short utterances, written by producer John Povo and James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty. 

Marc: The longest one is three syllables. 

[Klingon lines here] 

John and Jimmy who made it up, I think, were not all that concerned about grammar and vocabulary, and that sort of thing. They wanted to make a weird-sounding language. That was the goal. 

But for “Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock,” released in 1984, the producers commissioned Marc to compose a full-blown, working language.

Marc: I made up a grammatical system, made up, you know, a phonological structure, you know.

David: Did Harve give you any kind of a brief, or a goal? I mean, did he say “I want it guttural and harsh,” or—

Marc: Guttural is exactly the right word. It’s actually in the script.   it says in the script, “Krug says, in his guttural Klingon, blah, blah, blah.” so I assume what they meant by that is cccchhhhh kinds of sounds. 

Most words are one syllable. It’s very abrupt, because it’s full of glottal stops. So it’s kind of chunky. And a lot of velar and uvular fricatives, the stuff in the back of the throat that’s noisy.

[Klingon sample]

Marc: In terms of the grammar, it’s pretty straightforward. It’s got no tense, it’s got no gender in the sense of sex— sexually based gender. Yeah. No agreement and so forth.

[Music]

In general, the Klingon language matches the Klingon personality: hostile and spitty. It doesn’t even have words for courtesies like “Good morning” and “Nice to see you.” People come up to Marc all the time and say, 

Marc: “You’re the language guy, say something in Klingon. Say ‘hello, how are you?’” I say, “a Klingon would never say that!” (laughter)

Once Marc had created his conlang, he recorded himself speaking the Klingon parts on cassette tapes, which he mailed to Paramount. The actors learned their lines by listening to those tapes.

Marc: And then I went out to Hollywood.   most of the time I’m just outside the frame when they’re speaking Klingon. 

David: So you’re on set.   cameras rolling and union sound technicians and key grips….What do you do when the actor says it wrong? 

Marc: Well, I learned really quickly what you do!

You know, when you make a movie,   the director yells, “cut,” and then the director checks with the camera person. “Is that OK?” “Yeah, it was OK,” or “no,  there was a shadow from the microphone.” And if there was Klingon, check with me. “Was that OK?”  

Well I learned very, very quickly not to give “no” as an answer very often, because they were annoyed.   time is money.   So if the actor said it and set it wrong, but it still sounded like it could be Klingon to me, I’d say it was fine. 

I would just keep notes.   The individual words sometimes would change from one thing to another, and sometimes even the grammar would change, as a result. 

Klingon’s evolution is filled with accidents like that—where actor screwups wound up shaping the Klingon language for all future generations. Like the scene in Star Trek 3 where the Klingons have taken three human prisoners.

Marc: And Krug really wants something from Captain Kirk.  And he says:

Krug: And now to show you that my intentions are sincere, I shall kill one of the prisoners.

Marc: And then he says, in Klingon,   “kill one of them. I don’t care which one.” 

And the way to say that in Klingon,   is “WAAT! Yehoch?”—which means “kill one”— “whyte yeschoch,” which means “I don’t —I don’t care about who.”  

So it’s time for Krug to say the line. And he says, you know,  “YaHOCH! JeHASpach.” 

Krug: YaHOCH! JeHASpach pei!

Marc: And then Nimoy yells “cut. That was great!” And Christopher Lloyd says, “I blew it.   I said the line wrong,” which is true. He left off the waat and he left off the vyte. 

Krug: YaHOCH! JeHASpach pei!

Marc: And Nimoy says, “Marc. How did the Klingon sound to you?”

David: Oh, boy. 

Marc: So there’s only one possible answer I could give, and I said “the Klingon sounded fine,” and then I thought to myself, Now what? Because what he said in the first line was kill. And the whole point is “kill one.”

David: Right.

Marc: And I thought about it,   and I said, “ah—here’s what we’ll do. This little prefix ye, that means it’s an imperative, it’s a command, is still a prefix that means it’s a command, but you only use it with a singular object.”

David: Oh, man. And this is how languages evolve!

Marc: Exactly. So things changed as a result of moviemaking. 

David: And that doesn’t violate your— your purist sense of integrity?

Marc: Uh, not with Klingon at that stage of the game, because nobody knew anything about this language except for me. So  I could make up new rules and bend things.  

Eventually, Marc Okrand wrote some books that documented the Klingon language. They became the bibles for wannabe speakers all over the world. 

David: So how much then, is Klingon a usable language? Is there enough vocab? 

Marc: Oh, totally. Well, there’s not— not yet enough, but it’s growing.   

Today, there’s a Klingon Language Institute, which holds an annual five-day Klingon conference and oversees the translation of various works into Klingon, including the Bible and several Shakespeare plays. 

[Music]

Here’s the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet:

[Klingon soliloquy]

Or, more precisely: “To continue, or not to continue. Now I must ask this.”

[Soliloquy repeat]

The language-learning app Duo Lingo offers a free Klingon course, right alongside French, Italian, and Spanish. It sounds like this:

[DuoLingo sample]

And during ​​ period that Netflix had “Star Trek: Discovery,” you could turn on Klingon subtitles for the first episode. That might have been useful for the 30 or so people who speak fluent Klingon. One of them is a guy named d’Armond Speers, who raised his son with Klingon as his first language. 

Meanwhile, Marc also helps to keep the flame alive.

Marc: The Klingon Language Institute meets annually. And they send me ahead of the meeting, they send me a list of requests for new words. 

David: So you are still the keeper of the leather-bound book. You don’t—you don’t let people make up their own words. 

Marc: It’s not a matter of let. It’s not my choice. It’s their choice. The Klingon speaking community at some point decided that I would be the sole source of new vocabulary and the sole source of solving grammatical or resolving grammatical disputes. They didn’t even ask me to vote on that.  

David: Did I read that you have a fake informant?

Marc: He’s not fake! No, there’s a guy named Maltz. Yeah, in Star Trek 3,   There’s Krug,   And he’s got two helpers named Torg and Maltz. And at the end of the movie, all the Klingon are killed except for one. This is Maltz, right? And he’s taken prisoner. So I’ve decided, well, he’s taken    prisoner, I’m going to grab hold of him and learn the language from him.

David: So when someone comes to you with a question, you say, I’ll ask Maltz? 

Marc: I’ll ask Maltz. And everyone plays along with this. “What does Maltz have to say about… da da da?”

After the break: We’ll meet a linguistics professor who can teach you how to make your own constructed language…and the man who created all of the “Game of Thrones” languages.

BREAK

In the Wellesley College course catalog, this is the description of Linguistics 315, “Invented Languages:”

“Over the centuries, invented, or artificial, languages have been devised for many reasons.  The vast majority have failed, but why? Is there a place for invented language? Students will design their own miniature artificial language.”

The professor is linguist Angela Carpenter. She says that invented languages are by no means a new thing.

Angela: Not really, no. One of the earliest attested artificial languages was done in the 12th century by a nun, a woman called Hildegard von Bingen, and she created a language called Lingua Agnota and documented it. 

Now, aside from fake movie languages, the only constructed language I’d ever heard of was Esperanto, which a Polish eye doctor named Ludwig Zamenhof created in 1887. 

Angela: So his idea was to bring the world together in peace.   

Supposedly, about 100,000 people worldwide can speak Esperanto today. Mostly to each other.

David: Would you say there are any other constructed languages that have come anywhere close to actually being spoken in the world? 

Angela:  One could say modern Hebrew is an example. 

David:  Whaaat?

Angela:         Yes, yes, because Hebrew as a spoken language died out.  It was written— it was used for religious reasons, for prayers, et cetera. But as an everyday language, nobody was speaking Hebrew for—since, like I think maybe 200 A.D.  

Enter Russian newspaper editor Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, in the 1880s.

Angela:  He deliberately set about reviving Hebrew. But here’s a problem. Hebrew, as a written language, was missing a lot of vocabulary. I mean, in the Bible, there’s no word for button, or telegraph, or train. Right? 

So Ben-Yehuda invented new words for modern concepts, and promoted Hebrew as an everyday, spoken language.

Angela:  Today, whatever the population of Israel is, that many are people speaking Hebrew. So one could say,  spoken Hebrew is basically a newly constructed language. 

Now—you, dear listener, are unlikely ever to take Linguistics 315 at Wellesley; Professor Carpenter accepts only 15 students at a time. So I invited her to give us a crash course in how her students develop new languages from scratch—right now.

David: I mean, do you say, “Decide what the letters of your alphabet will be, decide what the sound is going to be, whether it’ll sound angry and Germanic, or lulling and soothing?”  

Angela: Well, you hit the nail on the head. We start with the sounds. they get to choose the consonants and the vowels. And in my class,   I encourage them to —actually I require —that they choose some sounds that are not English. 

We also want them to choose the syllable structure. Syllables can be very simple, like what we call a consonant vowel syllable like la, ta, day, right? 

Or you have English which can have a syllable like Sprite—S, P, R—right? So you can start with a very complex consonant cluster.  Then they have to do a stress pattern. 

So English is a language that has—every multisyllabic word has stress on one side, right, telegraph, right, acrimonious, right, so they have to decide on that. 

When you put those things together, your syllables and your stress pattern, you get a particular rhythm of your language. They kind of get, “this is what my language is going to sound like,” even if they don’t have the words yet. 

David: Huh!

Angela: One student wanted a language, a peace loving language. Very interestingly, she had two versions of her language, the regular version, which used as what we call voiced sounds, so buht guh vuh zuh. That’s a voiced sound, right? 

That student’s name is Sam Burke, and here’s what her regular, extroverted dialect sounds like. You’ll hear some V’s and Z’s in there.

[Extroverted sample]

Angela: But when her speakers wanted to go into an introverted state, they changed all their sounds to voiceless sounds. So now it’s like fff sss ttt —words like that. 

David: Cool!

[Introverted sample]

David: I see. So voiced versus unvoiced so— like, they’re the same lips, right, fffff, is the same as vvvv. But in one, your voice box is activated, and the other isn’t?

Angela: Exactly. Fuh and vuh are the exact same sound, just different in terms of voicing. 

David: And then at some point, they’ve got the rules now—they just start making up words that fit the rules they’ve got?

Angela: Yes. The first thing I have them work on are their verbs, their tenses. What tenses are they going to have? Not all languages have the same tenses as English. Some languages have several future tense, or several past tense. Right? 

I give them assignments such as, “Come up with 25 verbs.” And depending on the culture, there’s some basics: you need walk, run, locomotion of some sort, you know, eat, that sort of thing.  

Then after, we move from verbs, we go to nouns. Nouns also carry a lot of information, right?  Is it one person? Two people? Three people? Gender. Some languages have gender.  

David: I think about le and la in French, or the three of them in German. 

Angela: Yeah!   

David: So presumably at the end of this class, this —each student has some semblance of the beginnings of a language system, right? 

Angela: Yeah, they have a pretty good language system. Many of them have up to a thousand words, by the time they are done. 

[Music]

Constructed languages have always been sort of a nerdy niche, occupied by leagues of language-loving linguists. But in the worlds of scifi and fantasy shows and movies, they’re catching on like wildfire. They’re featured in movies, like the new remake of Dune, Doctor Strange, Thor: The Dark World, Raya and the Last Dragon, and Bright, and in TV series like Defiance, Emerald City, Dominion, Another Life, Lovecraft Country, and Shadow and Bone.

All of those invented languages have something special in common: David J. Peterson. He wrote them all. And the languages in “Game of Thrones”: In the world of Hollywood conlangs, David J. Peterson is the Man.

Pogue: So at this point, are you able to make a complete living from generating languages for people? 

Peterson: Yeah, that’s been the case since, I think, 2015. 

Pogue: I mean, there can’t be more than five people in the world who do that full-time. 

Peterson: I think there’s just one. 

Pogue: It’s you?

Peterson: Yeah. Yeah. 

David is also an author, a linguistics professor, and probably the most famous conlanger working today. To say that languages have always interested him is the understatement of the century.

Peterson: When I was 17, I woke up one day and from a dream quite suddenly, and felt very ashamed that there were millions of people that spoke French and I wasn’t one of them.  

And so I made it my goal to learn French that day, and then to learn every language on the planet, which I thought couldn’t have numbered more than like 60 or 70.  

At UC Berkeley, he took Arabic the first semester and Russian the second. And then one day…

Peterson: There was advertised on my dorm, just a little slip of paper, a student-taught class on Esperanto. 

I had heard of it. I had heard that Esperanto was this language that somebody created, which sounded goofy to me. How do you even do that?   So I have to take this course.  

It was just fun. It was just absolute— an absolute joy.  And somewhere in the middle of that first semester, I thought, “what if I created a language that — what if I just created it for my own personal use?”   And so basically I started right then in class and I kept up with it. I kept up with, you know, creating languages for fun as long as it’s been fun. So it’s been 21 years now. 

While getting his master’s degree in linguistics at UC San Diego, David Peterson helped to start the Language Creation Society, an extracurricular group that’s exactly what it sounds like. And not long thereafter, HBO came a-calling. 

Benioff: Dothraki are a bit of a cross between the Mongols and some of the native American tribes. They’re a horse people, they live in these great vast grass plains. And they make their living conquering other people.

This is the voice of David Benioff, one of the two writer producers of “Game of Thrones.” He’s talking to the camera in an HBO bonus video on YouTube.

Benioff: For the series, we actually thought it would be much more believable if we heard them speaking their own language, rather than have them speaking in heavily accented English.

And here’s his collaborator, Dan Weiss:

Weiss: We went to the Language Creation Society, who turned us on to David Peterson, and he created the language, taking into account what we told him and what was in the books.

Yes, there was a little bit of Dothraki in the “Game of Thrones” books. Author George R.R. Martin didn’t invent a whole language, but the snippets he did include were at least linguistically consistent. 

So for David Peterson to create a full matching language, 

Peterson: It wasn’t like “sit down and create the best language you can.”   It was “try to create something that looks like it was there before the books were written.” That was my goal. 

Dothraki was his very first paid language-invention job. Then, for season 3 of “Game of Thrones,” they hired him to create High Valyrian, too.

Pogue: OK, so what are some of those characteristics of, let’s say, High Valyrian? 

Peterson: I’m trying to think of some words that really sound Valyrian. Let’s see. Word for bronze is rrrydazma. And that type of thing. Has the same suffix as, honestly, as actually as genmazzma, which is Daenerys’s last name.

Pogue: Stormborn, yeah.

Peterson When you hear Valyrian, it’s like these,   na na na na, na na na na na. And then you hit these long vowels. So like daldreee, ez buz dahdree, el da’or. You know? That was the line from the show. “A Dragon is not a slave.” 

Pogue: Huh!

It was really cool to interview these famous conlangers, but I couldn’t keep one nagging thought down: Is all the effort really necessary? The audience doesn’t know what the characters are saying. Is it so important to invent an entire language, with all these rules of syntax, and all this baked-in history and culture, if we’re only going to hear a few seconds of it? 

Couldn’t you get away with a little plausible gibberish?

And the answer: These days, not really. These days, everything’s on demand, everything’s on YouTube, everything’s replayable, and the fans are rabid. They care. They’ll scrutinize every syllable. And if you’re not legit, they’ll catch you. 

Peterson: Fans do get it. They do get it. And it doesn’t take them very long. 

I remember I was watching the last season of Game of Thrones. There’s this line of Dothraki where Daenaerys asks, “how many today?,” referring to how much have the dragons eaten. 

[Dothraki: How many today]

Peterson: (cont’d) And the —he says the Dothraki for “three sheep, ten goats.” 

[Dothraki: Sheep and goats]

But the subtitles say, like, “nine sheep, 12 goats,” something like that. 

And the episode wasn’t done airing before somebody noticed the error and tweeted at me and asked what was up, and I didn’t even know what they were talking about. So I went back in and I looked. I was like, oh, my God, they’re right. 

I was like, did I just make a mistake, that I read the wrong number? But I went back to the script. It’s like, no, I did the right numbers. 

They just decided, “nah, that’s not enough sheep and goats. It’s gotta be more than that.” But then they didn’t have me retranslate it or reshoot it. They just changed the subtitles!

Pogue: Oh my gosh! That’s not showing much respect to your craft. 

Peterson: Well, I mean—  The thing that bothers me and boggles my mind is like, who made that decision? Who was like, “No! No, that’s not enough sheep and goats. Nobody’s going to believe it. We have to change it.”   Like which —which people in the audience— would they be like, “Not enough sheep and goats.” (laughter)

Lately, a flood of new commission requests is coming David Peterson’s way. First, because “Game of Thrones” was so successful—and second, because movie production is ramping back up as the pandemic lockdown throttles back down. 

Pogue: Can you remember any of the requests, the descriptive requests, that you’ve gotten for projects? do they say “I want an angry sounding language,” “a loving sounding language?”

Peterson: Yep. Like honestly, all the all the ones you’ve thrown out, yes. Some of the descriptors are —  harsh, soft, beautiful, whatever.  

And sometimes they mimic descriptions like, ah, just kind of like do a little gibberish line of what they’re hoping it would sound like. And it’s—it’s really cringeworthy. But, you know. If they— if they talk for long enough, I know what they mean. 

Pogue: Let’s say I come to you with a project, and it’s— it’s an alien race that are just schmoopy lullabye speaking, conflict-free. 

Peterson: With something like that, the first question is like, “OK, they’re aliens—are they human aliens? Are they alien aliens?” You know?

Pogue: Oh, I see. 

Peterson: In other words, like, are — are these forehead-ridge aliens, or are these aliens where it’s like, they don’t have ears, they don’t have mouths. Instead they have these two little pincers that they go ts-ts-ts, and that’s it. 

Pogue: Uh, OK. They’re human—humanoid.  

Peterson: Yeah. So like probably what I — I love me some weak fricatives when it comes to that. Weak fricatives are things other than S and Z. So sss and zzz are very—are sibilant, and like things fff, hhhh…sssh can sometimes be a sibilant but it’s like something along in that range. Long vowels, vowel sequences. So it’s like just something like,   Guy you aswannnn annnay. You know? Something like that. 

Pogue: Wow! that’s amazing!

Yeah…Sorry about that falsetto thing. But I mean, he just invented the first sentence of a new conlang in five seconds. 

Peterson: Guy you aswannnn annnay.

Anyway.

Pogue: Can you say something in Dothraki off the cuff? 

Peterson: Probably.  

Pogue: Can you say, “bring me 10 goats?”

Peterson: Oh, my goodness. No, because I don’t remember the word for ten. 

Pogue: OK, so  bring me four goats.

Peterson: Wait —is it inanimate? Crap. If it’s inanimate it doesn’t have a plural and that’s fine. So it would be —it would be like, you know, “they jussun han, desundai.” “Bring to me four goats.”

Pogue: That was really good. Wait a minute. So, so inanimate or animate objects have different plural situations?

Peterson: Yeah. Basically if —if a noun is treated as grammatically inanimate, it doesn’t get any plural. 

Pogue: What do the actors get then in the script? Do they have a quadrant of what the English would have been, what the written Dothraki looks like, and what the phonetic pronunciation is? 

Peterson: Yeah, actually. They also have another line, which is a word for word translation.   Because, you know, it’s important words like, you know, some actor’s putting like a huge emphasis on one word because they think that it lines up with this English word. And actually they just put all this emphasis on a preposition and it sounds a little silly, you know. 

Pogue: And how do they take to having to learn a completely new language? 

Peterson: Oh, they don’t learn it. I don’t think any of the actors who ever do that ever learn the language. Right? You just have to learn how to pronounce it.  I, you know, just record every single line on MP3 exactly the way that it’s supposed to be performed.  

Very different from the old days. You know, when Marc Okrand was working on the Star Trek movies, he would record his lines onto a cassette tape.  

Pogue: He has said, by the way, that, you know, when actors would make a mistake, it was really awkward for him, like —does he raise his hand and stop a million-dollar-a-day production process to correct some word in Klingon that no one will ever catch?

Peterson: Yeah, I would never feel bad about that.

Pogue: You would correct them?

Peterson: Absolutely! 100 percent. I’m not going to change my language just because they had a slip of the tongue. Pfft. No way.

Pogue: Are there examples in the— in the finished shows where they —they spoke something wrong and you just have to live with it? 

Peterson: Oh tons! Tons. 

Pogue: That’s awful!

Peterson: Well, what can you do? I mean, 90 percent of it is good enough. I’d say like eight to nine percent of it is stellar. And then there’s like, you know, one or two percent of it that’s irredeemable. 

Pogue: Wow. Well, thank you, man.  You are David Peterson, creator of languages, as they would say in “Game of Thrones,” probably. 

Peterson: Gereeeen vassay. Thank you. 

Pogue: In Valyrian? 

Peterson: Yup.

[Music]

As with Klingon, Dothraki and Valyrian have leapt off the screen and entered the real world. David Peterson published a book called Living Language Dothraki; he’s made a DuoLingo courses for learning Dothraki and Valyrian, and academics now study his languages. And of course YouTube is full of people speaking Dothraki—

[YouTube lesson]

It’s a weird and rarefied field, this conlanging. I mean, if you look at it in a certain way, maybe the world doesn’t technically need more languages than it’s already got. But Wellesley professor Angela Carpenter doesn’t mourn the fact that there isn’t one universal language. 

Angela: I love language. I love the fact that there are different languages. I really do. I admit it would be much more convenient if we could all communicate with one language.  But language has such a richness, such texture.  So I just see different languages as marvelous ways of seeing how humans differ, yet how they’re the same. 

As for “Star Trek” conlanger Marc Okrand? He claims still to be amazed that Klingon, his 1982 baby, has taken on a life of its own. 

Marc: I’m still in awe that that that— that that stuff is happening. It’s sort of like, you know, if you pick up something that you wrote a long time ago and look at it and say, “I did this? how did I do this?” And that’s what I feel like with Klingon. How did this come about? You know. 

I didn’t set out to make a language that people are going to use. I set out to make some lines of dialog for a film.