I Tried To Learn Dothraki & Here's What Happened

by Melissa Ragsdale

The story of Daenerys in Game of Thrones and A Song Of Ice And Fire is one of my favorite parts of the entire series. Sold into a culture where misogyny, violence, and casual rape are rampant, she finds herself in a completely unknown situation. It's amazing to watch and read as Daeny takes ownership of her fate, demanding what she wants sexually and working to understand the foreign culture that is now her own.

I wanted to know just how hard it would have been for Daeny to make this transformation happen, so I decided to spend some time learning Dothraki, the language of the people she now rules.

Fantasy and sci-fi have a long history of creating new languages. The two most well-known constructed languages are Elvish (from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series) and Kilngon (from Star Trek), both of which are so widespread that it's relatively common for people to learn them and speak them. In the world of A Song of Ice and Fire series alone, there is a wide pantheon of languages and dialects, including Dothraki and High Valyrian.

Although the Dothraki characters in the book speak the language, we only see a very small sampling of Dothraki words in the books. However, for the show, David J. Peterson invented a complex and fully usable Dothraki language, which currently contains over 3,000 words.

To give some background on my experiment, I should say I have a brain that's pretty attuned to language. I'm bilingual (I speak English and Spanish), and a few summers ago, I taught myself a good chunk of beginners German on my own. I pick up new languages quickly, and I'm always eager to learn about other cultures. So, I thought that learning Dothraki would be no sweat. After all, it's a made up language — how hard could it be? Boy, was I wrong. Here are seven things I learned as I ventured into the world of Dothraki:

1. There are a ton of resources for Dothraki — including an app!

My plan going into this project was that I would look up some key phrases, make some flash cards, run some drills with myself, and that would be it. But when I started to research Dothraki, I found that there are a number of resources for learning the language. David J. Peterson put out a Living Language book on the Dothraki, if books are your preferred method. But there's also an online wiki, a web-based translator, a downloadable dictionary, and even an app designed to help you learn Dothraki called Dothraki Companion. The hub for all Dothraki language inquiries is the website Tongues of Ice and Fire. As an addict to language apps, I did most of my learning using Dothraki Companion, and I have to say, the app is incredibly well-designed; it's filled with vocabulary flashcards, grammar modules, and games to help you cultivate an understanding of the language.

2. There's a large community of Dothraki scholars.

After looking at Tongues of Ice and Fire for a few minutes, it became immediately clear that there is actually a large community of people learning and speaking Dothraki. People are putting legitimate amounts of time and effort into this language, which, if you ask me, is incredible. I even stumbled across cool initiatives like Dothraki haiku contests. (I tried to write a Dothraki haiku myself, and found it immensely difficult.)

3. Dothraki has a pretty complicated grammar structure.

Dothraki has a complicated set of grammar and conjugation rules based on the person you're addressing. The gender of the person, the amount of people (i.e. a single person vs. many), and the status of a person as Dothraki or non-Dothraki all impact the conjugation of a verb. Can you imagine picking all of that up on the fly like Daeny does? There is no doubt that it would be intense.

4. Dothraki has very specific pronunciation.

Dothraki Companion begins by teaching you about pronunciation, giving you audio samples of every word. Dothraki is an interesting combination of rich vowels and sounds that come from the back of the throat, and there are very specific rules about how Dothraki words are pronounced. For instance, double letters are each pronounced. So, the word "addrivat" (meaning "to kill") is pronounced "ad-dri-vat." Diving into these rules is fascinating, and becomes even more so when you learn that there are also a variety of dialects within Dothraki. For instance, the app calls attention to the many different ways 'khaleesi' is pronounced across regions.

5. A lot of Dothraki is based on horse terminology.

The Dothraki culture is rooted in horses, and it's very much reflected in their language. You learn about this in the books, but it really shows when you sit down and start learning key phrases. There's a whole section of Dothraki Companion about horses, and even every-day phrases take their words from horse phrases. For instance, "Hash yer dothrae chek" means "How are you?", but it literally translates to "Do you ride well?" In order to respond, you say, "Anha dothrak chek" — which literally means "I ride well."

6. Dothraki is fascinating.

My Dothraki education mostly consisted of me sitting in a coffee shop for hours on end, talking to my iPad in this strange, made-up language. I'm sure the other cafe patrons thought I was absolutely crazy. With all of its nuances, diving into the world of Dothraki turned out to be a ton of fun. From the way the words feel on your tongue to figuring out the patterns of the language, learning Dothraki is a project that will get the wheels of your brain spinning in all kinds of directions. Even if you don't want to be a serious speaker of the language, trying out the words and playing with the app is certainly worth a shot.

7. Dothraki won't be learned in a single night.

Even though I tried my hardest, I am certainly nowhere close to being fluent in Dothraki. Like any language, Dothraki is not something that can be picked up right away. It takes a lot of practice, exposure, and study. While we have all of these great resources for studying Dothraki, Daenerys certainly had more exposure than we'll ever get. But, as the series progresses and we dive back into the world of the Game of Thrones, I'll see how often I can test out my skills.

Images: Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO; Dothraki Companion; Giphy