David J. Peterson in Madrisphere
-To begin with, when did you get started in the field of conlanging? Was it hard in the beginning?
I started creating language during my first year in college at UC Berkeley in 2000. At the beginning it wasn’t difficult, because I didn’t know what I was doing. It’s easy to ignore mistakes you don’t know you’re making! As I learned more about linguistics, and, more importantly, more about creating languages from my colleagues on the Conlang Listserv, I began to understand that some things I was taking for granted about language were causing me to create languages that weren’t of very high quality. From then on, I strove to get better and really dedicate myself to learning how to create high quality, authentic languages.
-Does your nick name “Dedalvs” mean something? Does it come from any of your conlangs (constructed languages)?
Actually it comes from Stephen Dedalus, a character in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. I was very much interested in James Joyce and the early moderns in college, and so when I needed a user name for various things online, I used Dedalvs (a kind of Latinate version of Dedalus) because it usually wasn’t taken. Since then it’s stuck with me.
-How do you get the inspiration for creating a language?
It usually comes from the situation or project. I get ideas based on the culture I’m presented with when I’m working on shows, and based on what the producers think they want. Usually it starts with a grammatical idea—that is a certain type of verbal conjugation system or nominal declension system. From there I build out and start testing things. All of these projects grow incrementally, bit by bit, and are the products of endless bouts of revision.
-As the current president and co-founder of the Language Creation Society, what would you recommend to beginners interested in this field?
It’s the same was with any art. First, you learn as much as you can about the works that have been produced, and second, you practice. In the case of language creation, there are two sources of inspiration: natural languages (those that exist naturally in the real world, e.g. English, Spanish, Tamil, Ainu, etc.) and constructed languages. Both are instrumental in informing one about the art. First it’s important to understand the variety and breadth of natural languages. I continue to study languages to this day (right now I’m working through Hindi). After that, it’s important to see what work others have done. There are thousands of language creators online and they share their work with the world via websites and blogs. It’s important to see what others have done so you don’t get stuck reinventing the wheel, and see what kinds of things are possible when you’re the one designing the language. After that, just get to work! One’s first language is pretty much always terrible, but that’s fine. Every system one creates is a building block—something to learn from. Since language creation is often a solitary endeavor, it can also help to join one of the existing language creation communities (like the Conlang Listserv) to get feedback on one’s work—and informed feedback. It’s one thing to show your work to a friend; another to show it to a language creator who has a background in the art.
-Your work in the TV series Game of Thrones has been a turning point in your career. Have you felt any difference in your lifestyle after this?
Not really. Every so often I go and do neat things, like getting to speak at TED and El Ser Creativo, but otherwise I pretty much spend my days at home working on my languages. It’s outstanding.
-As Game of Thrones’ context is a fantasy medieval period, did you inspire any aspect of its languages in any reconstructed language from the real medieval times?
Latin served as an inspiration for High Valyrian specifically because George R. R. Martin really wanted it to serve as an inspiration for High Valyrian, and I wanted to honor that desire. Aside from that, though, I have often referred to other languages whose dominant period was at a place and time similar to the languages I was working on. For example, for Dothraki, George R. R. Martin imagined them to live in a place and be quite similar to the Mongols of the Silk Road era. Mongolian culture from that time, then, helped to inform me as to what life in that time in place was like, which informs what the vocabulary is like. Regarding the language itself, my study of historical linguistics has been invaluable, but there aren’t any specific languages that inform the process. Evolving a language is really a matter of art, and getting just the right sound takes a lot of work and a lot of testing.
-One of your most recent works consists on Defiance, a transmedia between a videogame and a Sci-Fi TV series on an apocalyptical Earth where humans and three different races of aliens coexist. Three races, three languages. Is it confusing creating and working on three different languages by the same time?
It’s not confusing, but what does happen (and this still happens) is that if I’m translating dialogue into one language, I start to get the grammar into my head, and so it’s a bit jarring when I have to switch. When you’re using a language, there really is a kind of feel you have for it, and so switching between languages requires a mindset switch. That’s the toughest part, but at the same time, it’s fun! It’s like getting to be three different people.
-As we have seen in an interview with the actress performing the Castithan lady Stahma Tarr, Jamie Murray, you taught her the Castithan language phonology so that she could pronounce it in a surprising fluency, and we can see in the show how good your work was with the other two languages. What would you advise in order to achieve such fluency and a proper phonology in a non-native language quite different from ours?
It really is a matter of listening and repeating, and trying one’s best to sound like the recording. Something that helps out that often gets overlooked is the intonation. The general intonation of a given language usually differs sharply from other languages. If you get hung up on trying to pronounce the sounds you’re unfamiliar with, it’s easy to forget about the intonation. The different intonation is really what sells it, though. That’s actually one of the things I think not just Jaime Murray, but all the Defiance cast members are great at. They really nail the intonation, and the result sounds wonderful.
-The languages in Game of Thrones, Valyrian and Dothraki, had some little basis from which you developed the complete languages. Were you given any basic structure or idea before the development of Defiance languages?
With the Defiance languages, I was really just given the script and an idea about what the aliens were like, plus a couple of character names. Additionally, though, they wanted the two main languages, Irathient and Castithan, to sound as different as possible on screen. That latter dictate actually proved to be the driving inspiration for the two languages, as I created them to be mirror opposites grammatically, and to sound as different as possible on screen.
-When you are developing a conlang’s phonology, do you relate it to the physiological capability of the race of its speakers? Do you need any previous knowledge of the characteristics of the race using this language?
Yes, but in my case they’ve always had basically a human vocal tract, so there’s never needed to be a difference.
-You have just finished your work in Thor 2: The Dark World developing the Dark Elf language. Does this conlang have any similarity with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish?
No, aside from the fact that the Dark Elf language’s sound was inspired by Finnish, and one of Tolkien’s languages, Quenya, was largely inspired by Finnish. Grammatically the Dark Elf language, Shiväisith, is pretty interesting. The verbs give me fits; quite difficult to figure out when using it, even though I designed it to be an evolved, auxiliary-based system. It’s a fun language.
-Now you are working in the new TV series Star-Crossed, also involving alien species. Will you apply characteristics of any of your Defiance languages or will it be a brand new language?
No, the Sondiv language for Star-Crossed is entirely different from any of the languages I created for Defiance. The sound of it is actually really kind of neat. I’m excited for people to hear it.
-You have a great presence in the Internet and in social networks such as Twitter or Tumblr, and you seem to be very close to your fans. Doesn’t it get hard to keep updated every network and project you are involved with?
Quite difficult. I do my best, but I’m much better at keeping up during the spring and early summer, when I don’t have mountains of translation to do.
-What would you advise to Spanish young people to encourage them studying Linguistics?
Linguistics really came to the forefront in the 1950s when Noam Chomsky published Syntactic Structures. Since then, Americans have dominated the field of linguistics. This shouldn’t be the case—and, indeed, it’s becoming less and less the case with each passing year. Spaniards have one of the most fascinating languages to study right in their own backyard—Basque—so there’s ample opportunity to really make an impact on the field. Plus (and I can’t stress this enough) it’s fun!
Interview by Vanessa Martín.