George R. R. Martin’s invented language in A Game of Thrones
This post includes spoilers for Game of Thrones and Harry Potter.
This blog has hosted several pieces relating to the fantasy series Game of Thrones, including a guest post by the brilliant David Peterson, who created the fictional languages that appear on the television show.
However, the blog has not yet discussed the invented words and languages that George R.R. Martin created for his book series, A Song of Ice and Fire. The difference is that Martin, unlike Peterson (who explicitly avoids doing this in his language creation), uses roots and sounds that would be familiar to English speakers in order to give a frisson of recognition to many of his invented words.
Here are a few prominent examples from the series:
1. Weirwood trees
Weirwood trees are a species of tree with blood-red leaves and an important role in the Old Religion of Westeros. Worshippers of the Old Gods treat weirwoods as sacred trees, praying to special weirwoods that have had faces carved into their trunks. (Sap sometimes trickles from these faces like red tears.)
The name weirwood utilizes the Proto-Indo-European root *wer, ‘man’. Weirwood trees are ‘man-wood’ trees in the sense that they are understood to be connected to the gods, who look out onto the world through their graven faces. Moreover, Bran Stark eventually learns that special people, called greenseers, have the ability to look out from weirwood faces.
The name of the tree thus functions in the narrative as subtle foreshadowing. In our own (non-Westerosi) folklore and fantasy, we use the root *wer in the word werewolf—literally, ‘man-wolf’—and its relatives: wereshark, werecat, and so forth. The name of the weirwood tree subtly hints at the supernatural connection between these trees and men.
2. Valar Morghulis
Valar Morghulis is a famous phrase in the language High Valyrian, meaning ‘All men must die’. The Proto-Indo-European root *mer, ‘death’, generated the Latin mort, which is surely a reminiscence embedded in the word morghulis.
This root is tremendously popular in the invented vocabularies of fantasy literature. Examples from other fantasy series are Mordor in ‘Lord of the Rings’ and Voldemort in ‘Harry Potter’.
Khaleesi is a word in the Dothraki language that refers to the wife of a Khal, the ruler of a Dothraki tribe. In English, the suffix –ess is often used to indicate that the subject is female: for example, mistress, governess, duchess, patroness, princess, actress. A version of this seems to operate in Dothraki when the suffix –eesi, added to Khal, creates Khaleesi.
The suffix –ess originates from the French –esse. (This in turn originates from the Latin –issa and ultimately from the Greek –issa.) As such, –ess began to be incorporated into English words after the Norman Conquest: first as a part of words that were borrowed wholesale from French into English (mistress, governess, countess), and then as a new formation in which –ess was added as an independent suffix to born-English words (murderess, authoress, teacheress) (see Dennis Baron).
Mhysa is a word in the Ghiscari language that means mother. In Martin’s fictional world, the Ghiscari Empire was once a great civilization that had its heart in Slaver’s Bay on the continent of Essos. Although the empire is long gone, the language is still in use in that region. When Daenerys Targaryen conquers the city of Astapor in Slaver’s Bay, she is mystified to see crowds in the streets chanting, ‘mhysa’. Her translator explains that the word means ‘mother’; the people chanting the word are the city’s freed slaves, who have embraced her as their own.
The basic sound of the word, especially the beginning sound /m/, will be familiar to speakers from a great many languages: English (mother), French (mère), Latin (mater), Greek (meter), Irish (máthair), German (Mutter), Sanskrit (matar-), and more.
Many scholars of language have theorized, plausibly, that the sound originated, in at least a few of these languages, in baby talk. (The novelist Amy Tan has a character reflect, “And then I realized what the first word must have been: ma, the sound of a baby smacking its lips in search of her mother’s breast.”)
A warg is a person with the ability to project his consciousness into the minds of wolves. (In the books, skinchanger is the general term for a person who can project his consciousness into an animal, and warg is a specific term pertaining to wolves. In the television show, the term warg applies for both cases.) In Westeros, this is a rare power. It seems to run in families; the siblings Bran Stark and Arya Stark are proven wargs, with the signs of this ability first showing in the form of dreams in which they take over the bodies of their pet direwolves.
Martin almost certainly adopted this word as a tribute to the great fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, who, in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, uses the word warg to describe an enormous species of wolf. (Martin uses the word direwolf, the name of an actual extinct species, for this purpose.) Tolkien took this word from the Proto-Germanic *wargaz, meaning ‘criminal’, which generated the Old Norse vargr, meaning ‘outlaw’ and therefore ‘wolf’ in a metaphoric sense.
6. Vaes Dothrak
A large city in the vast Dothraki territory of steppes and grasslands, Vaes Dothrak is where the Dothraki tribes meet to exchange goods and seek counsel. This city is also where the widows of khals who have died go to live out the rest of their days; forbidden to take another husband, these women join the dosh khaleen, where they perform religious functions and advise the Dothraki. Membership in the dosh khaleen is mandatory; the only alternative is death. Some time after the death of her husband, Khal Drogo, Daenerys is taken by force to join the dosh khaleen; she must use her wits to escape this lifelong sentence.
The word Vaes possibly comes from the Latin vastus, meaning ‘huge’ or ‘desolate space’. (It is the origin of the English waste, as in wasteland.) As Bente Videbaeck has noted, this etymology would lend the city’s name a frisson of sorrow and desolation that is appropriate for the role that it plays in Daenerys’s story: “The Vaes is indeed huge, but also, for the women, a desolate spot that wastes their lives.”
A traditional gathering in which the people of the Iron Islands (the Westeros version of Vikings) choose their next king. The Anglo-Saxon term that surely inspired this one is ‘folkmoot’, a civic assembly. Although there is no English word Kingsmoot, both king and moot go back to Old English: king originates in the Proto-Germanic *kuningaz (‘leader of a people’), and moot goes back through Old English compounds like folkmoot (‘civic gathering’) and witenagemot (‘gathering of wise men’) to a Germanic root.
Nineteenth-century English scholars were a little obsessed with the folkmoot, which they thought might offer a native model of democracy. In the Iron Islands, however, the tradition of the Kingsmoot does not reflect a democratic society. In practice, hereditary monarchy determines the ruler in most cases; only when the line of descent is in question do the Iron Islanders meet for a Kingsmoot. Moreover, only ship captains can cast votes for who will ascend to the Salt Throne.
Other fantasy authors have also played with this root. Tolkien uses the term Entmoot to describe a meeting of Ents (sentient, talking creatures that resemble trees), and J.K. Rowling uses the term Wizengamot, most likely a play on witenagemot, to describe a formal council of wizards.
Literature and the Uses of Language Invention
As I mentioned, the fact that George R.R. Martin sometimes draws on existing etymologies for his invented languages separates his practice from that of David Peterson, who creates more fully developed versions of the same languages for the television series Game of Thrones. The different practices make sense; Peterson’s work serves the art of world-building, whereas Martin’s work also serves a specific literary tradition. It is well-known that Martin’s book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, arose, in part, as a response to social questions in J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, The Lord of the Rings, that Martin felt merited new exploration. (The question of what makes a good king, for example; as Martin has commented about Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, who Tolkien implies will be a decent king because he was a decent man, “What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine?”)
In other words, A Song of Ice and Fire is literature in part because its meaning arises out of the conversation it develops with other literary texts. Invented words like warg and valar morghulis, which not only draw on existing etymologies, but also allude to Tolkien, testify to the existence of this conversation; they are signs of intertextuality. Along similar lines, invented words like weirwood perform the narrative function of foreshadowing. (J.K. Rowling likewise embedded foreshadowing in a name when she called a character who was revealed to be a werewolf Lupin.)
Neither is a better or worse art, then; they’re just different arts. The emergence of such a complex verbal universe from the interaction of these different elements is fascinating to see.