DES MOINES — The world is full of more than 7,000 living languages, meaning they’re still spoken somewhere daily.

David J. Peterson is a linguist who constructs languages for "Game of Thrones" and other TV shows, movies and video games.
Special to the Register

And we have a hard time hanging onto them: About one-third are endangered.

So I was reluctant to give David Peterson any more publicity for what could be construed as his mad quest: He spends all day, every day dreaming up even more languages for TV shows, movies and video games.

Peterson, 37, is responsible so far for some 40 languages that help make Game of Thrones and the other fictional worlds we love seem that much more richly detailed and believable.

He has amassed a lexicon of at least 30,000 words that wouldn’t be fluttering across our screens and pages if not for his obsessive mind.

I do my best to mangle a single language, English, to earn my keep. But here’s a guy whose job is littering the world with more languages to let people run wild with an even greater variety of mispronunciations and bad grammar.

More: 'Game of Thrones' creators sign on for a new series of 'Star Wars' movies

More: Here's when the final season of 'Game of Thrones' will premiere

And he travels to college campuses — like his visit to Iowa State University in Ames on Monday for a free lecture — to preach the love of linguistics to a digital generation that arguably pays more attention to GIFs and emojis.

David Peterson wrote a guide to speaking Dothraki, one of two languages he created for "Game of Thrones."
Special to the Register

"I have not come across a language that I don’t like,” Peterson said, resolute in his mission.

“I would love to learn all of them.”

Just for fun, he’s studying the South African language Xhosa.

Eseneziri!

That’s not Xhosa. That means “hello” in Irathient, Peterson’s personal favorite among his original languages. He built it for the SyFy series Defiance.

Peterson, who lives in Orange County, Calif., with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter, Meridian, gets pigeonholed as the Game of Thrones guy.

That’s fair, considering he devised two languages for the HBO series: Dothraki and Valyrian. And that fabled realm of Westeros — sprung from the mind and thousands of violently bloody pages of George R.R. Martin — has won a mass audience far beyond the usual sci-fi/fantasy enclave.

But that’s just the tip of the proverbial tongue of Peterson’s work.

His most popular language by far — in terms of fans interested in speaking it and hounding him to cough up new words — is Trigedasleng, a future English heard in the CW series The 100.

More: George R.R. Martin novella ‘Nightflyers’ lands at Syfy

More: Remember the 'Game of Thrones' leak? An Iranian hacker was charged with stealing HBO scripts to raise bitcoin

Sometimes he’s a consultant from afar who never crosses paths with the actors who utter his words. (That has been true for Game of Thrones and perhaps his biggest professional disappointment.)

Other times, Peterson lurks on set throughout the filming process to serve as an attentive vocal coach, as he did with the recent Will Smith series for Netflix, Bright.

The technical term for all this is “conlang” — a “constructed language.” Peterson is a “conlanger.”

Before he set down this path, he was a mild-mannered aspiring high school English teacher. Unlike me, he didn’t grow up a big sci-fi or fantasy geek.

Nineteenth-century Russian literature is more his thing.

He was corrupted by a linguistics course at the University of California, Berkeley. He had “no idea that somebody could create a language, let alone it would be something I could do and would enjoy.”

Then, Peterson discovered the “language creation community” that had subsisted mostly as an underground hobby, inspired by such prominent examples as Klingon from Star Trek or J.R.R. Tolkien’s languages constructed for Middle Earth and The Lord of the Rings.

In the real world, Esperanto, an international language devised in 1887, is the most widely spoken example of a conlang.

Not every fictional language mentioned in a movie qualifies as a conlang, with its own fully formed set of rules. Not even Klingon became a conlang until it was fleshed out for 1984’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

But as with all modern life, the rise of the internet provided crucial sunlight for this corner of nerd culture to reach full bloom.

Peterson became a founding member of the Language Creation Society, which came together in 2006 as a non-profit because he and his fellow zealots wanted to raise money for their inaugural conference.

Frustrated with his career, he had quit his English teaching job at a community college and was eking through some lean months when Game of Thrones came calling.

Producers approached the Language Creation Society to help them hire a linguist to create Dothraki and Valyrian. Peterson chose to compete as a candidate rather than help manage the contest.

And he got the gig.

It gradually changed his life. He has written books, such as a guide to Dothraki and The Art of Language Invention.

But this will be his first foray into Iowa, which in recent weeks has felt as frigid as anything Jon Snow from Game of Thrones has experienced atop or beyond his giant wall of ice.

One of the most prominent speakers of Dothraki was the actor Jason Momoa, who grew up in Iowa.

But Momoa was born in balmy Hawaii, which also happens to be home to Peterson’s favorite indigenous language.

George R.R. Martin
Karolina Webb

The other Iowa connection for Peterson is that Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin spent three formative years in the late 1970s as a journalism and English professor at Clarke College (now Clarke University) in Dubuque.

It’s where the man renowned for his imaginary castles bought his first modest house.

"I think a lot of the stuff in A Game of Thrones," Martin once told Vanity Fair, "the snow and ice and freezing, comes from my memories of Dubuque."

Martin's fans continue to pray (in whatever language) that his endlessly delayed novel The Winds of Winter finally will be published this year.

Peterson wouldn't reveal the titles of his current workload, which includes two more movies and two video games.

But he's also wordsmithing for the third season of AMC’s Into the Badlands, a show set in a future dystopia, 500 years after a savage war in which humanity has retained some technology but no guns.

Peterson eventually brought me around to his way of thinking. I had been focused on the negative: We live in a world in which its difficult for us, as a society, to correctly place even a single apostrophe. Its really difficult. You know its true. 

But Peterson evangelizes that language most of all should be fun — not choked by the anxiety of grammar snobs.

Sek, k'athjilari.

That's Dothraki for "Yes, definitely."

Follow Kyle Munson on Twitter: @KyleMunson