The language of Game of Thrones
Somehow A Song of Ice and Fire, the colossal fantasy series by George R. R. Martin, had escaped my notice until the critically acclaimed TV series hit our screens last year, prompting me to buy the first book in the series. Little did I know that a few weeks later I would spend Christmas continually ushering away family members clutching Monopoly and Cluedo boxes so that I could devour all five volumes in unhealthily close succession. The five books have now been translated into more than 20 languages and have sold over 15 million copies worldwide.
I name you a Southron turncloak, Ser!
The series has been labelled by many as ‘medieval fantasy’ and indeed much of the language is evocative of this. As well as the knightly setting of the series, vocabulary is used to add to the medieval flavour. Some are invented words – such as turncloak, which is Martin’s archaic-sounding amendment of turncoat. But many are already-existing words with a long history. Ser for Sir, Southron for Southern, and craven meaning cowardly all date from 1451, 1488, and 1400 respectively, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. My favourite expression mayhaps is first cited in the OED a little later in the late 17th century, with the form mayhap ocurring even earlier in the mid-16th century. Aside from these inclusions I must admit that as a British reader, I found the occasional use of modern-sounding terms such as butt and ass jarring. Yet surprisingly butt meaning ‘buttock’ is first recorded in the OED in circa 1450 and ass is recorded as early as 1860.
To create a language or not to create a language? That is the question!
It is not only the inclusion of archaic words that sets the linguistic scene of the seven kingdoms but the presence of other languages. Martin does not, however, follow in the footsteps of fantasy writers such as Tolkien and others who have fully developed fantasy languages. Martin’s languages – Valyrian, the Common Tongue of Westeros; Braavosi; and Dothraki among others – are not conveyed in any great detail; instead, the tongue in which they are speaking is noted but rendered in English. The characteristics and flavour of each of the different languages in the seven kingdoms are portrayed through a number of colloquial phrases which the reader can then associate with that particular language. This can be seen in the following examples:
- Missendei, a former slave in the eastern city of Astapor, uses “this one” rather than I or me
- the Dothraki use “it is known” concerning a piece of common knowledge or folklore
- when referring to a husband who is a khal (warrior king), “my Sun and Stars” is used, again by the Dothraki
In the TV show, however, this tactic would not work and so the Dothraki language was invented based on a few snippets in Martin’s first book of the series. Dothraki has now grown to a vocabulary of 3,000 words.
The power of proverbs
It is not only the eastern languages that contain these proverb-like phrases – the seven kingdoms of Westeros contain many, such as “Dark wings, dark words”, spoken almost every time anyone sees a raven delivering a message. “Words are wind” is another aphorism used by the characters, meaning ‘actions speak louder than words’ – something particularly relevant in this land of false friends and power struggles. As in the real world, religion has an impact on proverbial sayings and ‘The Seven’ (the gods of the principal religion of the seven kingdoms) provide the phrase “gods be good”, expressing both hope that they will bring favourable outcomes, and disbelief at the very opposite. “Seven hells” is also used as an exclamation of shock, often with humorous connotations.
Mottos and metaphors
Each noble family has a sigil such as the dire wolf (this giant wolf has been extinct for around 10,000 years in our world) of the northern house of Stark, the lion of the Lannisters of Casterly Rock in the West, or the dragon of the usurped house Targaryen. This means that members of said families can be described as this animal or to have their attributes – for example Robb Stark is often referenced as “the young wolf”. Furthermore each noble family has their own family motto which is indicative of their character, whether it be the foreboding “Winter is coming” of the cautious, honourable Starks or the common Lannister phrase “a Lannister always pays his debts”, denoting promises of wealth, or a threat of retribution.
Here be monsters…
Martin does not only include creatures from commonly known mythology to liven up his landscape, such as dragons and giants, but moulds some creatures and objects of his own. Shadowcat is my favourite animal name coinage as I think the name immediately puts the idea of a stealth hunter into your mind, with an element of mystery – not a creature that you would easily catch a glimpse of. The mysterious ‘Weirwood trees’ are at the heart of the religion (known as ‘the Old Gods’) still present in the north of Westeros with their sap-bleeding faces linking them to the supernatural or religious. The weir- prefix could be an echo of weirwolf (an alternate spelling of werewolf, dating back to 1818) as indeed these trees are made into portals through which a certain warg can see their surrounding areas. In the seven kingdoms a warg describes a person who can put their consciousness into an animal’s (or even another person’s) body and thus control their actions. But the most menacing of Martin’s creations are the white walkers, ominously referred to as ‘The Others’, and mentioned in the phrase “the others take you” and other variants when denouncing or dismissing someone.
What’s in a name?
Martin’s word coinage is not limited to objects and creatures but is also evident in the names of his characters and places. One such interesting feature of these books is how the stigma of illegitimacy is displayed so prominently through a child’s surname – as a bastard is not deemed worthy of a family name. Not only does this mean that one can immediately know the status of the character when they are introduced but also where they are from as their surname will reflect the area of Westeros in which they were born; those from the North would bear the name Snow, whereas those from the Riverlands would have the name Rivers, and those from the Southern areas of the Stormlands and the Reach would be Storm and Flowers respectively.
Martin’s place names similarly set the scene. You can easily envisage the snowy and remote Winterfell in the North; the hot nest of vipers fighting for power in King’s Landing with the grimy hustle and bustle of Flea Bottom; the swaggering Bravos (peacock-like musketeers looking for a fight) of the free city of Braavos in the East across the Narrow Sea; and the cliff-top, vertigo-inducing, unnerving heights of the aptly named Eyrie.
From Westeros to our own world
The impact of George R. R. Martin’s works is evident not only from its dedicated fan base but how through these books, a new language has been created. Indeed the writing is so descriptive, with certain phrases recurring so frequently that somehow they have entered my vernacular. For example, my fiancée made the unlikely assurance of returning early in the morning after her sister’s hen-do, to which I automatically replied “words are wind”. Simultaneously, I was greeted by a baffled expression and the realization of what a book geek I can be.
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