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[Today Yesterday a Month Ago] Dothraki and the Dogly One

December 16, 2014

There are many reasons why I feel sorry for people who are fans of anyone else than Tad Williams – the Dogly One, as we sometimes call him. Because most of them will probably never get what we have, getting to have dinner or drinks with Tad, calling him on the phone, getting invited to his home, free books, inside information, or, as in this case, free tickets to an event.

I know, I know. Tad would tell me, “you’re friends, not fans.” But still, that is how we all started out – and how many people get an e-mail from their favourite author’s wife saying, more or less, “Tad is going to be interviewing Steven Erikson in Menlo Park tomorrow, do you want to come? I can get you free tickets.”

I haven’t read anything by Steven Erikson yet (so many books, so little time!), but of course we weren’t going to turn that down.


Tad and Steven were the last of four things on the program of the Sci Fi/Fantasy Day at Kepler’s Books, and since it made more sense for Cyan and me to go there early to avoid the worst of the traffic, we got to see two others.

We missed the first one, called “Other Worlds -Andy Weir (The Martian) in conversation with Matthew Jobin (The Nethergrim)” while having lunch at a Mexican restaurant, but since we knew neither of these people, we didn’t mind.


(Yesterday, I wrote about vegetables I didn’t know… this was one of those cases, neither the name “jicama” nor the taste being the slightest bit familiar, and upon googling it a few days later, I found that this was indeed a plant I had never heard of.)

The first thing we went to was “A Class in Dothraki with David Peterson” – David Peterson is the guy who took the few words of Dothraki that George R. R. Martin put in A Song of Ice and Fire and expanded them into a whole language for the Game of Thrones TV series (which I still haven’t seen. Sometimes I think about it, but again, always so much else to do.)

Since I love languages, both real and made-up, this was really interesting for me – I wish I had taken a lot more notes than I did.

It was also interesting because Dothraki had come up in one of the panels we’d gone to at WFC – I love all those connections.

Most of the notes I have were written about two weeks later from memory…

As far as I remember, for the pilot, HBO just had the Dothraki speaking gibberish, but that didn’t sound too good. They asked GRRM if he had any more of the language, but he told them there was only what was in the books, he only made up the words he needed. So they had a competition to decide who would get to work on the language for HBO, and David Peterson won it. I think he talked a bit about analysing the bits and pieces from the books and building a grammar from them, which worked astonishingly well, considering that GRRM doesn’t seem to have put a lot of thought into it. The only thing I remember how there was one phrase that showed that adjectives have to come after nouns (I believe it was “a strong son” or “a strong prince”, but it’s been too long since I read A Song of Ice and Fire, I have no idea where that might be found.) Though it’s also possible that the reason I don’t remember much about this is that he simply didn’t say much about creating the grammar.

What he did talk about in detail was pronunciation. Again, I didn’t take any notes at the time, but I wrote down as much as I remembered when I was back home. I found it rather interesting, because he often talked about “this is what you do with your tongue to make that sound” and “If you chopped off your head and looked into your neck, you could see your vocal cords doing this.”

Vowels – mostly what I remembered about this was “more or less as in German”. But since that won’t be very helpful to most of my readers, this gives the following examples: a as in “father”, e as in “check”, i as in “machine”, o as in “mow”. All vowels are pronounced individually, so “ae” is “a-e”, not a single sound, and “oo” is “o-o”, not as in “moon”.

Th: always a soft th, not a voiced one (so say my notes. This is one area of English pronunciation where I always really notice it’s not my native language. I remember learning how to pronounce a th in school, but I don’t think I learned there are two different ones until long after I was out of school, and still can’t really tell the difference.)

H: is always pronounced, even if it’s at the very end of a word.

ZH: is kind of a harsh “sh”. He talked about how, if you put your fingers on your throat while you pronounce it, you can feel your vocal cords vibrate.

KH: is the sound of German “ch”. Which most English speakers have trouble with (a lovely sound to have in your name when you’re travelling), but David Peterson says many of them actually use it sometimes, just not in words, but as a sound to express annoyance, a sort of harsh exhalation. (He also mentioned that the Dothraki language was supposed to sound “harsh”, and usually what people mean when they say that is that it should have this sound in it.)

(What was also really interesting for me is that he said English actually used to have that sound – the “gh” for example in “knight”. The “k” used to be pronounced too, making the word sound very similar to German “Knecht”. Which means “farmhand”, but there is also the word “Waffenknecht” (“Waffen” = weapons”), meaning “man-at-arms”, so there does seem to be a connection there.)

N, D (and I think some other letters I forgot): for those, the tongue is placed a little differently than in English, further to the front of the mouth, against the teeth. Which is also, Peterson said, one of the subtle differences betweeen English and Spanish – I remember him using the word “donde” as an example, which doesn’t sound quite right if you pronounce the d and n the English way. (Which led to me spending a lot of time muttering English and Spanish and also German words to myself and realising I pronounce d and n a little differently in each language – which surprised me a little, because it’s not something anyone ever taught me.)

G: always a hard g.

Q: this was really interesting to me, because it was another one of those letters where Peterson explained “here, this is where you put your tongue, this is how you move it”. If you pronounce a “k”, you put your tongue against the roof of your mouth. Pronouncing a “q” is very similar, but you put your tongue further back, against your uvula. (Which was interesting to me mainly because I guess the Qanuc in Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn might be using the same sound.)

R: as in Spanish. It was a relief to me that there were many people in the audience who, like me, can’t roll their r’s. And I had to laugh at “I’m going to give you some advice that doesn’t really help, but everyone gives it, so I will too” (or something like that). Which was something I’ve found myself when I was still taking Spanish at school – I can roll r’s if I exhale really strongly, but not in a word.

Double consonants are always pronounced individually, so a “tt” is “t-t”, for example.



After the pronunciation, he went over some vocabulary, which I’ve remembered nothing of, then showed some pictures and the first person to correctly name the pictured thing in Dothraki could win a replica coin. (But I don’t do well under pressure, so I didn’t even try.)

He also mentioned the Dothraki haiku competition he runs every year, and that the same person has won it for three years now, and since that is something that was mentioned at WFC, Cyan went up to him afterwards and said, “The guy who keeps winning the haiku competition – he’s Finnish, right?” Too bad I wasn’t around to see his look of “How do you know?”

I know there were some Smarchers there when I got back from the bathroom, but I can’t for the life of me remember in which order they arrived, so I’ll just move on to the panel that followed: “Face-off: Sci Fi Versus Fantasy. (What’s the Difference and Which Is Better?” with Marie Brennan, Chaz Brenchley, Ellen Klages, and Pat Murphy.

Marie Brennan and Ellen Klages had been at WFC, not that I remembered seeing them there (I’m not good with faces), but they talked about it. It was rather funny sitting in the audience thinking, “oh, hey, me too!” – because really, what’s the chances of being in the same place again, a week later on the other side of the continent? (But still, not as crazy as that one encounter at WFC last year.)

For this, I did take notes:

Chaz: “SF is a subset of fantasy” → Marie: all fiction is fantasy
“SF is harder, you have to be cleverer”

“if you had to draw the line [between science fiction and fantasy], where would you draw it?”
Ellen: “It would be a Möbius line.”

Pat: reads stories in class and lets students guess [whether they’re sci fi/fantasy]
→ start of Kafka’s Metamorphosis
→ “that’s fantasy, but that’s not where it’s shelved”

→ “Kafka is one of ours”
→ “we’ll take Kafka, we’ll take Twain”

Ellen: writes the things sci fi readers like, but doesn’t write sci fi
→ real science in the real world

Ellen: some people refuse to read books because of genre
(I believe this is where WFC came up, because they talked about the cab ride to the airport, and talking about sci fi/fantasy, and the cab driver saying, “no, I don’t read that stuff” in what I remember as a rather dismissive way – despite knowing they are both writers! Not very nice.)

if it’s YA, it’s all YA, no further distinctions are made

“it’s chic to be geek” (bookstore employee who was moderating)

Pat: stuff has to be shelved somewhere in a bookstore → defines audience
with movies, there is less of a division, because in cinemas or on tv, they don’t need to be shelved
→ superheroes

people who grew up reading sci fi – “I can make that real” – look at your phone, a few decades ago that was sci fi

Pat: sci fi/fantasy readers are willing to accept they won’t understand everything – not so much “suspension of disbelief” as “suspension of understanding”
→ non-sci fi/fantasy readers get stuck on details they don’t understand

but don’t throw in too much your readers don’t understand all at once, or too many similar names
(I think there was an example sentence somewhere here, something like “He took the wufflebing across the ghalgoo to get the dirgle” – with different nonsense-words, of course, that was just me pressing random keys until something vaguely word-like came out.)

Marie: “When people say, ‘oh, writing fantasy is easy, you can just make stuff up,’ I want to throw the contents of my nonfiction bookcase at them, in alphabetical order by subject.”

Ellen: “I like research more than writing”

Pat: “Boiling Dog Hot Spring” (don’t you love notes with absolutely no context? I think he told a story about doing research by actually going to places, looking for a hot spring in which a dog had allegedly been boiled to death, only the land now belonged to… I want to say Google, but I might be making that up. In any case, I found the name funny. Maybe I’ll use it in a story some time.)

“favourite research: the kind where you go out and look at things”

Chaz: for one book he wrote about where he lived at the time, so he didn’t need to do any research
(From memory, again, there was a story about how he was talking to another writer, talking about research, and that other writer told him about talking to police officers, I think, and finding out how to make Molotov cocktails (I think – I say “I think” a lot, don’t I), and Chaz said, “Oh, I just went to that kid who’d broken into my house a couple of times and he told me how to make them.” – followed by a lot of questions from the other panelists, “This kid broke into your house?” – “Several times?” – “And you still went to talk to him?”, and Chaz was all, no big deal, that was just the sort of area he lived in at the time, things like that happened.”
Fantasy: the nice thing about the internet: if you need to know how fast/how far eight men can carry a girl in a litter, and post about it, eight men will build a litter, put a girl in it and run around in a field with it

things that aren’t sci fi sold as sci fi, because the characters “have a sci fi attitude”

sci fi: “your future is outdated” – when real-life technology surpasses what has been written about
solution “history diverged in the 80s” → to avoid having to rewrite everything

“the past doesn’t change”
→ Marie: “but our understanding of it changes”

“robot fairy”
(again, notes with no context are such a lovely thing…)

Marie: sci fi could happen, fantasy couldn’t
but science always changes

Marie: fantasy(+horror): the world is responsive to people
sci fi: the world is mechanical

Audience member: “How do you write all these stories?” – some panelist quoting Asimov: “I love to type.”

Pat: tv/movies: you don’t have to create it in your head, it’s a different sort of processing

speculative fiction
→ as an umbrella term
→ to dodge the dreaded sci fi/fantasy (authors who don’t want to be seen as genre writers)

some things are not sci fi or fantasy because they were written by literary authors

(and then the last line in my notes is: “it’s no longer not to respectable to write speculative fiction” and I don’t know if that means “it’s no longer not respectable” and the “to” just doesn’t belong, or if I completely changed track in the middle of the sentence and it’s supposed to say “it’s no longer respectable”… which would be a rather different thing)

Even if the name of the panel had asked, “Which is better?” all the panelists agreed that both were good – so no dramatic fights. (Although I seem to remember there were some swords on the table.) At the end, the audience got to vote, too, and most people also voted for “both”.

More Smarchers arrived then, and Tad and his wife Deborah Beale (it feels weird using her full name, but I suppose I should, for any readers who aren’t Smarchers).

And I remembered my role as the inofficial Smarch camerawoman (although I wasn’t in the best seat for it, and didn’t want to move to the front and sit there by myself – I can be heard whispering to Cyan about that in the first video.)

There are some small bits missing, because I had a bad experience at WFC 2013 when I recorded a whole panel, and the video turned out to be unusable, and I didn’t have time to test my new camera enough to know that wouldn’t happen. So I decided to only record ten minutes or so at a time, just to be save. (And at one point my battery died, so one of the videos is even shorter.)

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

Part 7:

Tad and Deborah had to get home to their family, but our Smarch group – redNathalie, Auros, Jeremy, his brother, Cyan and me – went out for pizza afterwards. It was a small enough group for me to not feel shy and awkward (even though there was a bit much background noise for my liking, but what can you expect in a crowded restaurant?), so I remember that evening fondly, even if I can’t remember a single thing we talked about.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2014 19:48

    Loved this post! Highly interesting to me for several reasons, in part because I teach tongue placement in animations.

    Yes, there are two ‘th’ sounds in English. You may hear the difference if you repeat the phrase ‘This thaw’. The word ‘this’ almost has a ‘d’ sound to it, with the tongue tapping the front teeth at almost the same place as ‘d’. The ‘th’ in ‘thaw’ is different: the tongue is brought down from the front teeth, not up as in ‘this’.

    I’ll comment on the videos later…

    • December 16, 2014 21:32

      I always wonder, if I’d learned about the different th’s when I was younger, would it be easier to tell the difference? Because I can, but it’s something I really have to pay attention to, not something that comes naturally.

      • December 16, 2014 21:55

        I’m a bit the same way with the German ‘ch’ sound. If I’m careful, I can make the sound. But it’s not an easy sound to replicate, at least for an American. It just makes ‘lebkuchhhhhhen’ so much harder to say. I have to plan the sound in advance, or it isn’t remotely right.

        • December 16, 2014 21:58

          I’m kind of the same with Spanish rr, too. Sometimes, if I really concentrate, I can do it. But most times I can’t.

          • December 16, 2014 22:01

            I can’t do the Spanish trilled ‘rr’ at all. My tongue just refuses to cooperate, and won’t do the backflips that are apparently required. 😦 This despite four years of Spanish classes, months of intensive therapy, and forty tongue surgeries to try to correct the problem. 😉

            • December 16, 2014 22:02

              Well, that shows a lot of determination to get the sound right. 😀

  2. ylvsladuchesse permalink
    December 16, 2014 20:02

    Yay. Will see the vids when kids are abed…

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