The Dothraki language on "Game of Thrones" sounds Arabic to English ears, and that's problematic, says linguist


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    Jonah Katz

West Virginia University - Eberly College of Arts and Sciences

With tens of millions of viewers each week, HBO’s award-winning series “Game of Thrones” features characters and themes that have become cultural touchstones.

Jonah Katz at West Virginia University’s Eberly College of Arts and Sciences is available to comment on how the show, which will end this weekend, intersects his field of study. Katz is an assistant professor of linguistics in the department of world languages, literatures and linguistics.

“The Dothraki language in ‘Game of Thrones’ is a conlang, or constructed language," Katz says. "To create an interesting fictional animal, you'd ideally want to know something about biology. And to create an interesting fictional language, it's good to know something about linguistics.

"Which sounds are possible, which are impossible, and how can sounds be combined into meaningful elements like words? These aspects of sound structure are phonetics and phonology, which are my specialties in linguistics. Dothraki involves a bunch of sounds that are unusual or impossible in English, such as denti-alveolar consonants, made with the tongue tip flat against the upper teeth and alveolar ridge, as well as a velar fricative, a uvular stop, and an apical trill like Spanish ‘rr.’

"All of these sounds are present in Modern Standard Arabic. Coupled with the foreign, primitive and nomadic nature of the Dothraki people, this might bring particular associations to English speakers. Of course, Arabic speakers think this is ridiculous. This is an area of the show that's come in for heavy criticism: the story seems to use a kind of linguistic Orientalism that conjures associations between the brutal, primitive Dothraki and Westerners' very real cultural preconceptions of non-Western people.”

Jonah Katz can be reached at jokatz@mail.wvu.edu or 304.293.5121.

Note: Additional WVU scholars are available for comment on "Game of Thrones."

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