In July 2017, the app Duolingo went live with the beta version of a new language to learn: High Valyrian, an ancient — and fictional — tongue spoken in Game of Thrones.
Most fans of the series know a few phrases of Valyrian already: valar morghulis, which means “all men must die,” or dracarys, which means “dragonfire.” The latter is how Daenerys Targaryen instructs her dragons to burn her enemies, and the word plays a pivotal role in the show’s final season.
High Valyrian may be the stuff of fantasy, but the language itself is real — and functional. It was created by David Peterson, an academic linguist bad boy known for inventing many other languages for TV and film. Considered Hollywood’s premier language creator, Peterson is credited with building a tongue for the Dark Elves in Thor: The Dark World, and creating Chakobsa, the language spoken by the Fremen people in the upcoming Dune movie. Thrones show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss also enlisted Peterson to create the Dothraki language in 2009.
In the constructed language — or “conlang” — community, Peterson is a rock star. So it was a big deal when he agreed to lead the development of a High Valyrian lesson plan on Duolingo, an app that (somewhat aggressively) gamifies language learning. Game of Thrones fans were thrilled to learn a language that is ingrained into a show they loved, and what’s more, conlang fans were eager to learn from one of the best language constructors around.
Jenny, a 21-year-old linguistics student in Australia, was “hyped” to find out High Valyrian would soon be an option on Duolingo.
“It’s just cool that a conlang was going to be on such a popular platform,” she says. “Also because it’s attached to a series I care a lot about, and because David Peterson was the one developing the course!”
Jenny has read Peterson’s book The Art of Language Invention, and she subscribes to his YouTube channel, where he discusses the ins and outs of language construction:
But it wasn’t just linguistics fans excited for High Valyrian. Various Game of Thrones–related subreddits often host excited threads about the opportunity to learn the language on the app:
Before Duolingo, there were no other resources for learning a Game of Thrones language besides Peterson’s Dothraki “Conversational Language Course” book, which doesn’t cover High Valerian. So when Duolingo announced its partnership with Peterson to develop a High Valerian course, its giant audience of 25 million active daily users opened the floodgates.
According to the Guardian, more than 100,000 people signed up to learn High Valyrian on Duolingo last month, “more than the number who understand Scottish Gaelic, which stands at 87,056, according to the last census.”
Fans said they were hyped to learn the language not only because it’s an opportunity to dig deeper into the infinitely complex series, but it could also provide clues to clever, under-the-radar plot developments and subtle nuances in scenes that are almost entirely in Valyrian.
So, in search of a deeper understanding of the Thrones universe, Jenny dedicated weeks to learning High Valyrian on Duolingo.
“My philosophy is that if you want to really become fluent in a language, you need a really good motivation to get you beyond the beginner stage, because after that there’s a lot of effort that goes into working on listening and reading comprehension as well as speaking, writing, accents, etc,” Jenny tells MEL.
Blair, 25, another Thrones fan, has gotten through half the course in a week’s time. “I moved around a lot as a kid, so I’ve been fascinated with different languages and accents all my life,” he says. “I’ve always thought it would be fun to learn an a priori language [like Latin, a language not based on prior languages], and finding out [Valyrian] was on Duolingo seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine my passion for GoT and learning languages.”
For Blair, knowing High Valyrian helped made him feel more enmeshed in the show — and not just because he didn’t need to rely on captions. “I felt like I was in on a secret,” he says. “Plus, it was funny having some insight into which characters spoke Valyrian more naturally.”
Blair also happens to be fluent in several languages: English, Spanish, French, “plus some German, Bulgarian and Russian,” so learning Valyrian was more of a challenge, since it isn’t based on any other known language. “So learning something as starkly (GoT pun fully intended) different as Valyrian was a challenge at first. Ultimately, it gave me the guts to get out of my comfort zone and start learning a dialect I’ve always been drawn to, which is Egyptian Arabic.”
In Valyrian, “the word order and genders were tricky,” he explains. “Valyrian has four, even more than German’s three! But overall, the language sounds beautiful — sort of similar to Bulgarian, actually. You can speak it melodically or aggressively, so it’s nice to have that flexibility!”
Jenny also enjoyed the challenge of learning such a new language. “I believe the phonology — the distinctive sounds in the language — isn’t too difficult for a native English speaker, but it has a noun case like in Latin and German, which would be unfamiliar to a monolingual English speaker. No language is really harder than any other in general, but for an English speaker, the whole ‘case’ thing might be a confusing concept to get around,” she explains. “Don’t take my word for it, though, it’s been ages since I looked at the course! Also, IMO, challenging languages — from an English perspective, anyway — are more fun!”
Both Blair and Jenny stopped just short of completing the Duolingo course.
Jenny didn’t find learning High Valyrian as helpful as she expected when it came to a more important part of her fandom: theory crafting and world-building. “The languages in their current form are creations of the show,” she explains, “so High Valyrian as developed by David Peterson is not really an integral part of enjoying the books.”
But she might come back to it, if Martin is able to integrate more of the language into the A Song of Ice and Fire books — assuming the sixth volume, The Winds of Winter, eventually comes out.
“It’s really fascinating that an entire language can be developed in a show from just a few words and phrases used in a book, and that adaptation could rebound to affect the original,” she says. “So I’d love to pick it up again if George R.R. Martin ends up using more High Valyrian in his upcoming books.”
Plus she’d like to study in it a bit more in pursuit of building her own language construction skills. “I’d like to develop my own conlangs one day and David Peterson is like the grand master of conlang creation.”
For Blair, he’s just not a huge fan of the Duolingo format. “It can seem more like rote memorization over learning and applying rules of grammar,” he says. “And while it was fun at first and definitely enhanced my experience watching the show, it didn’t feel very productive. I ultimately decided to redirect my energy toward a language that would actually be useful in the real world.”
“If anything,” Blair concludes, “it’s super-fun to casually call my dog a good girl in Valyrian — ‘sȳz riña.’ For that alone, it was all worth it!”