“It seems to me that the most ideal form of expression would be some sort of musical language combined with a visual medium, where they were tied together,” says David J. Peterson, the linguist and language creator responsible for bringing to life fictional languages on television projects such as Game of Thrones, The 100, Defiance, Emerald City, and film projects such as Thor: The Dark World and Doctor Strange, among others.
He continues, “Language is a bit of a double edged sword – when you talk about poetry, one of the interesting things is that you take something that already exists and create something beautiful out of it. Poems are creations that sound good despite the constraints on the form of the poem and the language itself. When you’re creating a language, you can sort of cheat, because you get to design the words to sound the way you want them to, and mean what you want them to.”
Peterson recalls watching Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, in which Princess Leia says essentially the same thing to Jabba, with two different meanings. This didn’t make sense to him, and represented the first time he thought about language creation. To Peterson, who went on to receive Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Linguistics, creating languages is an artistic expression. He explains, “There are two different aspects to it: a technical part, which involves creating the grammar and ensuring the language works in its context, as well as an artistic component, which is deciding how this language will encode the vastness of the world. All languages can say everything. They differ in how they say what they say.”
Penny for your thoughts
Inventing a language requires tremendous effort, in terms of both thought and creativity. David finds that his best ideas often come to him in the shower. “The shower is a definite real thing for me,” he says. “I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t do drugs, I don’t even drink coffee. The thing that I call my coffee is my morning shower.” Of course, the recent birth of his first daughter, combined with the unpredictability of working on a film set means morning may come at 10 in the morning, or 3 in the afternoon. Peterson attributes his shower thinking to the shower acting as a sensory deprivation chamber. The flowing water drowns out outside noise. The space is confined; movement is limited. The only activity is washing yourself.
It turns out that this concept of creative thinking occurring in the shower is backed by some science. Nick Stockton investigates this in his Wired piece, ‘What’s up with that: your best thinking seems to happen in the shower.’ He writes, “‘Psychology does have a theory that describes a mental state that seems to foment these kinds of thoughts. It’s called the default mode network.’” Stockton’s article continues with John Kounios, a Drexel University psychologist who studies creativity and distraction.
Kounios explains that in this default mode network, we become less aware of our environment, and more aware of our internal thoughts. Activities like taking a shower are only mildly physically and mentally active, and are familiar enough to keep folks engaged, but not bored. This is the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ for uninterrupted stream of consciousness thought. Imagine ideas are beads, floating around in your head. In this state, those ideas can bump into each other, and form necklaces from those beads. Its no wonder showering is one of the key habits of highly creative people.
Creators tend to struggle with the conundrum, which is, can they let creative ideas remain as ideas, or do they feel compelled to do them? Whether that do-ing is writing, drawing, building, or anything in between. Peterson, too, has struggled with this. “For the first 25 years of my life, I would need to take action right away,” he says. “However, in the last ten years, I’ve gained a better understanding of how I how I work, in addition to understanding that nothing ever goes your way, but you always get second chances at everything.” This new paradigm, though, has brought with it the ability to re-prioritize well, but also a tremendous guilt associated with not following through on creative ideas.
Peterson’s solution, and his second key to creative success, is note taking. “I have numerous different methods of taking notes for myself so those ideas don’t fade away,” he begins. “It used to be that I wrote these things down on little pieces of paper, but I kept losing them. Now, I use a notebook with page numbers, so I can refer to specific page numbers in specific volumes.” In addition to these traditional note taking techniques, the advent of cloud technology has made it easier than ever to capture and categorize a creative idea. Between DropBox and iCloud, these pioneers of the Internet of Things have in many ways made creativity more convenient.
Breakfast at 6 PM
Oftentimes, the most creative folks have a-typical schedules. Peterson is no exception. He would wake up at 10:30 AM, and take a good hour to hour-and-a-half to get ready. From there, he would attend to email that needed attending, and then set out to work on his task of the day. These tasks ranged from “…working on the translation of a particular script that needed to be done, working on something for the art department, or just working on some language, expanding it in some capacity to add vocabulary, or starting preliminary work on a new language.”
At 4:30 in the afternoon, he’d get hungry, have a granola bar, and get back at it for a few hours. Mrs. Peterson gets home from work at 7 PM, they’d have dinner, and spend time together for a few hours, at which point Mrs. Peterson would head to bed, and David went back to work.
“Come 10:30, 11 I’d go back to sit down at the computer and would work semi-unproductively for like an hour. Then it would really turn on around midnight and I’d keep working and probably get the best work of the day in between then and 2:30 AM. After that, I’d go to bed. It’d take me about a half hour to get to sleep. I’d sleep exactly seven and a half hours and wake up the next day and do exactly the same thing.”
In the last year, however, Peterson’s schedule has been drastically altered, both by the birth of his first daughter, and most recently, working on a film set in Los Angeles. Though he’s been on sets before, never to the level of performing day-to-day activity, which has been an eye opening experience. Peterson recalls his longest day, shooting on location on Los Angeles:
“I left my home at 4:30 in the afternoon and arrived around 6. They didn’t start shooting for a while, so I go up to the catering location and get what’s called breakfast. The first meal of the day is always called breakfast even if it’s 6 PM. I go to the set, and they’re setting up. I had a book with me, so I read a little bit. They’re finally ready to shoot, and it’s a scene where three characters are running away from some other characters, and they duck into a basement to have a conversation.”
“This conversation was in English. One of the characters in the background said some lines in the language I had created, but the truth is the audio wasn’t recorded. They shot that scene for about four or five hours before moving on to the next one. In retrospect, I could have gone home then because it turned out there was no more dialogue for the rest of the night, but they didn’t know that, so I had to hang out just in case.”
“I’d made friends on set, so we’d chat. I messed around on my phone, read my book. Went and got snacks. Probably too much [laughs]. They’ve got endless amounts of food on film sets. They called a wrap at 7:45 AM the next morning, and I was home at around 9. So my day was from 4:30 PM to 9 AM.”
Peterson explains that there are certain people who will always have something to do on set. Those are the director, assistant director, personal assistants, cameramen, and sound people. Aside from that, many of the folks on sets have a specific function that they’re there for, and in between, they’re on standby. That’s where he fits in, along with the person who makes custom contact lenses for the actors to change the color of their eyes, and the makeup people. The makeup folks have their work cut out for them prior to shooting, but after the actors are ready, they’re there to do touch-ups, and in the interim, they just hang around.
The Rains of Castamere
In 2006, Peterson founded the Language Creation Conference at UC Berkeley, the first of its kind. In 2007, he co-founded the Language Creation Society. Two years later, HBO approached the Language Creation Society looking to create Dothraki, as George R.R. Martin, the author of the series A Song of Ice and Fire, had not developed any languages for his novels. Game of Thrones showrunner Dan Weiss explained this decision, saying, “Real languages have a structure and phonetic consistency that you can feel even when you don’t understand a word of them … and for the actors, we knew we needed a real language onto which they could map the (translated) dialogue. The lines need to mean something so they know where to lay stress and how to play them.”
HBO decided to challenge the Language Creation Society – may the best Dothraki language win. Peterson entered, and competed against close to 40 others. He worked for two months, often spending 16 hours a day to shape the language. He submitted over 300 pages to HBO, and emerged as the victor. Of Peterson’s victory, Weiss says, “It was clear from his presentation that he had really thought through Dothraki, and taken a truly anthropological approach to the language—taking into account the history, geography, and culture of the language, and making sure the language adequately reflected their reality. And probably influenced their reality in some ways—or co-evolved with it, at least. David was extremely smart and extremely methodical, and we knew his Dothraki was the one very early on.”
For years, fictional languages in the media have been phoned in. In the original Star Wars trilogy, for instance, sound designer Ben Burtt’s languages were an amalgamation of existing languages, rather than constructed languages. Rather than working systematically, as real languages would, these efforts are illusions. Peterson’s approach to language creation is different – he mapped out Dothraki’s entire history, the etymology of the words, and created a fully functioning language outside of simply the words in the script.
“The big difference between myself and some of the people that came before me, is that I’m actually a language creator,” he says. “Language creation is what I’d done for fun for 17 years prior to Game of Thrones, so when they approached me saying ‘Hey, would you like to create a language for us? We’ll pay you.’ It was more like, ‘Here, why don’t we pay you for your hobby with no expectations because we have no way to evaluate your work and we’ll pay you to do it, and you’ll be in a famous medium.’ You can’t get better than that.”
In reality, Peterson is the spokesperson for the language creation community; both as the founder of the Language Creation Society, and for emerging from the community he helped create with such an opportunity as working on Game of Thrones. “It would be criminal if I was the one person that came out of this community with this opportunity and didn’t give my absolute best to demonstrate what we can do, and why we should be hired,” he tells me. “With every single job I do, I am representing the work of every member of the language creation community. I cannot let them down.”
As it so happened, the success of the language creation community was largely due to the success of Game of Thrones. “I worked on a show called Star Crossed, which finished airing two years ago. If that had been my first job, it likely would have been my last,” Peterson confesses. “Not because we didn’t do good work on it, but because nobody’s heard of it.”
“It’s not only a matter of the quality of the work, it also is the quality of the production. That fact that Game of Thrones would air on HBO was a strong indication it would be critically acclaimed. But nobody could have anticipated the fact that it went on to become an era-defining show. This was extremely fortunate for the language creation community, because let me tell you, Game of Thrones directly led to most, if not all of my other jobs in entertainment.”
The phenomena of Game of Thrones caused producers, writers, and show-runners not to sweep created languages under the rug. As Peterson puts it, “They either decided, ‘We need to hire somebody to do this so we can be as good as Game of Thrones.’ or they said, ‘Well, we at least need to pay lip service to this because everyone will ask about it.’” Shows like CW’s The 100, Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, and NBC’s Emerald City have capitalized on this, deciding to create languages for their shows (and hiring Peterson to do so).