Exclusive: David J. Peterson: The Languages of "Defiance"

David J. PetersonIf you've watched Syfy's series Defiance, you've no doubt heard two of the Votan races, Irathient and Castithan, speaking in their native tongues. What you may not realize is how much is involved in creating a language for a series, let alone two. It's not just a few made up words, but rather entire languages are created. These include pronunciation and grammar rules just like any other language. The two languages and writings systems of Defiance were created by David J. Peterson, who also previously created the languages on Game of Thrones.

Peterson recently talked to Jamie Ruby in a exclusive interview for SciFi Vision about what it took to create these languages.

David J. PetersonPeterson was into languages long before Defiance. "I started [creating languages] at the same time that I started studying linguistics. It was when I was a freshman at college at UC Berkeley. What happened was I was taking a bunch of language courses at the time; I was an English major, but I also very much enjoyed and wanted to learn as many languages as I could.

"My mother had encouraged me to take a linguistics course, which I hadn't originally wanted to, but eventually I bowed because it fulfilled the breadth requirement. So it was while I was taking my first linguistics course that I got the idea of creating my own language. I kind of started at that point and then never really stopped, because when you create your own language you either drop it right away, because you realize how difficult it is or how long it's going to take, or you just never stop, and I went with the latter."

It was Peterson's work with languages that brought him to Game of Thrones and eventually Defiance. "I was working on Game of Thrones - by that time the first season would have finished airing and the second season we would have finished writing and shooting - and one of the producers on the show, Tom Lieber, was a big fan of Game of Thrones and was working on Defiance, which was early at this point. And he had a friend who was friends with a guy named Bryan Cogman, and Bryan Cogman was a guy who worked with me closely. He was Dave [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss]'s assistant at the time, now he's one of the writers on Game of Thrones.

"So through that friend of his, Tom Lieber got a hold of Bryan Cogman, who then passed on my information to him, and he just emailed me one day. At that time Rockne O'Bannon had just produced his first script for the pilot and that was basically the stage we were at. So he told me about the show very briefly and then sent along the pilot script. I got to read it and I really enjoyed it. So then I met with Rockne and Tom in L.A. for sushi and...they gave me an overview of the series and said that mainly they wanted these two languages that would sound different on screen. So I told them my ideas about how I would achieve that, and then after that, I was pretty much a part of the project and have been with it ever since."

There is an actual process to creating an original language. "Every language starts with a certain set of top-level goals, because any time you set out to create a language you have, whether consciously or unconsciously, something you're trying to achieve with that language, whether it's something that you're using for a personal communication, between you and a friend, or something that's going to fit some sort of culture. With a TV show, that's what I'm doing.

"With Defiance the very first goal that was given to me was that the two languages needed to be quite distinct, quite audibly distinct. That ended up being the impetus for where I was going with them. I decided to make the languages polar opposites, so that grammatically and audibly they would sound very, very different, so that if you weren't looking at the screen, if you knew nothing about the show, you'd know the two languages were different. So that's why my initial idea was to have Castithan spoken very quickly and Iriathient spoken very slowly.

"If you start there then, for example, if Castithan was to be spoken quickly, it would need to be easy to pronounce, and if Irathient was going to be spoken slowly it would need to have a lot more consonant clusters to slow things up a little bit. And if it was to be spoken slowly it begat certain grammatical choices so that...you can put information on different parts of a word, grammatical information and lexical information, all to ensure that it if it was spoken slowly and words had to be cut you'd be able to recover that information fairly simply, so you got most of the message, even if a world was dropped. So that kind of changed how I was doing the grammar there.

"In general then, you start with a sound system, or phonology is the proper term, and figure out what sounds are part of the language, and then move on to some of the inflectional morphology, nouns and verbs. Usually at that point I start coming up with test sentences to see how things are working, which usually requires that the phonology be revised a little bit.

"And when that's revised, you get back to the morphology and you keep working on it, keep working on sentences, and eventually you move on to derivational morphology – if you add a suffix or a prefix on a noun and it becomes an adjective, that's an example of derivational morphology.

"And then you just keep working at it, keep translating, keep revising, and eventually through a several-month process you get to a point where the grammar's pretty stable and you can focus on just adding entries to the lexicon, which then takes the rest of your life."

The stylized looks of the writing systems on Defiance were also created by Peterson, including that of the Indogene. "That was all me. That was actually not something that was planned at the beginning. In fact what happened was there was this film crew from CNN that was doing a short program on me for a show of theirs called "The Next List" in March of 2012. They wanted to do this program on me and they wanted to go through a day of my life so they could see what that was like, without realizing that a day in my life is very, very boring, because even on days when I'm working, I just sit there, translate stuff, and then go to sleep at the end of the day. And not only that, in March I was doing absolutely nothing; Game of Thrones was done filming and I was doing some prep work for Defiance but it still wasn't a lot at that stage.

"So I was trying to think of something that I could do and I came up with the idea of asking Kevin Murphy if I could have a meeting at the Gower Studios with them so that they could film it, so it could look like I was doing something.

"And so to try to make it productive, of course what I love doing the most when I'm creating languages is creating writing systems, so I thought "Oh, okay, I will put together something and ask them basically if this is something that I can do." So that's what I did for that meeting.

"...So up to that point maybe somebody thought, "Yeah, it would be cool if that happened," but it wasn't really an idea until I gave them some initial sketches of what I was thinking of for the writing systems. And then they approved it, and after that I just refined the writing systems. I came up with the idea for the hexagrams for the writing systems for the Indogene, and it was after that that they incorporated it into [everything]. The hex patterns on the skin came from there and like the hexagonal print on the walls, and you see on the show the hexagonal contact lenses for the Indogene, all of that came from the scripts, which I thought was really cool."

Besides creating part of the Indogene design, Peterson also invented the entire caste system for the Castithans. "They knew that they wanted to have [a caste system] but it had never been fleshed out exactly what it was or how it worked. And since it's tied to language, I just came up with the whole thing.

David J. Peterson"The word "liro," which is the word for caste in Castithan, originally meant cloud. And the caste system is, it's based on the various levels at which clouds form. There are three levels. At the highest level, only certain types of clouds will form in an atmosphere, and then there's a second level and a third level. And all the liros are based on cloud names, except for the warrior caste; it's kind of an army, their name is based on the word for wind because they have interactions with every level of society. And then there are also symbols which are associated with each caste. I forget if you see any in the show. There was an early idea to put the caste symbols on the forehead of each Castithan, but after they mocked it up and took a look at it, they realized it looked way too much like Stargate. But I think that the symbols do show up in other places."

Peterson tries to make it as easy for the actors to grasp the languages as possible. He records the lines for the actors on MP3s as well as tries to write out the lines simpler. "I do a slightly more simplified version where I break it down syllable by syllable, and then for the main stresses I put that syllable in all caps to make it a little easier to speak. What you devise is what's called the Romanization system, a way of writing it with Roman characters. I devised it to be maximally simple so it didn't rely on using diacritics or special characters and where it's one sound or one digraph - one digraph or one letter has one sound so that if something is spelled one way it will always be pronounced the exact same way. That's the approach I use for all the languages for both shows that I work on and it seems to work out all right."

Peterson has gotten to work directly with the actors of Defiance to help them. "It's not a regular thing, but I was actually on set three times during the filming of the first season. And I got to work with the actors a bit each time, but mainly I got to talk to them beforehand. I've actually talked to the whole cast a bunch and now that they're all on Twitter we talk all the time.

"I was helping Jesse Rath (Alak) when I was there for the pilot when he was filming a scene, where it was kind of amusing; he had a really, really long line that he got perfect every single time he recorded it, and then there was a super short one that he was having trouble with. It just works out that way sometimes.

"For the most part when I'm not there it's just all over email or Twitter or over the phone. That was one of the coolest parts about Defiance, the fact that I got to meet the entire cast and I got to talk to them beforehand, and work with them a little bit as they were getting used to using the languages.

"At this point, they're all pros. They're incredible. They don't need help anymore."

Some actors had a harder time than others. "I will say that the people who had the hardest time are the ones who are not speaking any of it by the end of the season. I think it's one of those types of things where as they started working on it, everybody saw if somebody else started doing very well, then they wanted to do even better. So they made each other better.

"I remember Tony Curran (Datak) was I think the first one to really be able to get the sound down very well, and that was in the first telephone conversation I ever had with him. I was shocked because of his accent...His accent is so thick that I was thinking, "Wow, he going to have a tough time with this," but he just rattled it right off; he did it perfectly. He's great at doing just accents in general; he doesn't speak with a Scottish brogue on the show either. I think he's probably just used to it, so he slipped right into Castithan and has been good with it from day one.

"And that set the tone; everyone else wanted to get better. Jaime Murray (Stahma)'s really, really good. And who else? Noah Danby and Tiio Horn? Incredible! They play Sukar and Rynn, they are just absolutely amazing."

Peterson may have created the languages, but that doesn't mean it's easy for him to speak them. "It's still difficult. And by no means am I fluent, not even close. The one I'm best in is Dothraki [from Game of Thrones], but I still don't feel comfortable just speaking that. Actually probably second would be Castithan. I'm pretty good at pronouncing the stuff. Dothraki is the easiest. I'd say that actually Irathient is the next easiest. Castithan I always have trouble with; even though it was designed to be really simple to pronounce, it's so quick that it's hard to get right. Usually I end up recording things dozens of time before I get it right. I feel sorry for the actors; that's not how they do it."

The process is similar to learning another language. "It is very much like another language, which means I'm as good with something like Castithan as I am with Hawaiian. I know the grammar very, very well, and I know some vocabulary, but I will always need a dictionary. But to speak it? No, I just can't come up with stuff off the cuff. I can speak it if it's written down, but it's like with Hawaiian. I've studied it so much, and I have all these resources, and I've spent a lot of time with Polynesian in general, but I never had a language class so I can't just speak it. I need to have studied it in a language learning environment with a class, with a fluent speaker in order to be able to speak anything. And that goes for any language I've ever studied. So I can speak a little bit of French and Russian and Esperanto and German and Arabic, certainly, and American Sign Language. I can do all those, but even though I've spent a lot more time with Hawaiian than I have with Russian, for example, I can speak Russian better than I will ever be able to speak Hawaiian unless I get to take a class at some point.

"So that's the way it is with my created languages, too. I know them, and I know them very, very well, but I just can't speak them. They're kind of two different skills."

There are rules that have to be followed in order to make a language work. "It's better to create the words beforehand, because if you have to create the words on the fly, it's like a new translation comes in and you don't have any of the words. First of all the translation takes a lot more time, and second, the word-coining process is usually not as satisfying. The words are always going to be better if you have time to be able to sit down with them and really think about, "Okay, how should this world have evolved? What is its etymology, how is it going to relate to other words? Will there be any related concepts based on this stem?" And that's something you can only do if you've got a lot of time to sit down and work with it. So doing it on the fly is my least favorite part of the job because I'll always end up doing something I'll regret. And with a TV show once it's aired [it's too late]."

The most difficult part for Peterson lies in verb creation. "The most difficult part of creating a language is always the verbs, because verbs are much more dynamic than nouns, which are rather static. It's really easy to come up with a word that is the name of something, and then exactly how it will work. Because nouns will fall into classes but they pretty much all work the same grammatically, whereas verbs are all over the place and change radically over the course of the language's history. Any time you think about what's the most complex part of a language, you're always going to come to the verbs, and it's really difficult to create that authentically and have it look good and be realistic while also retaining the appropriate level of complexity."

David J. PetersonFans of the series would love if there was a dictionary to the languages of Defiance, but unfortunately that's not up to Peterson. "I would absolutely love to. Syfy, of course, they own all the language materials and they are really the ones who call the shots when it comes to marketing. So it's pretty much the ball is in their court. But for myself, I would absolutely love to; I think that would be great. There's actually been quite a bit of interest in the languages in Defiance more so than Dothraki, and I think it's primarily because of the writing systems. Writing systems are much more accessible than the language, because you can actually look at them and appreciate them without knowing much about language itself. So I would love to do that but we will see if that happens."

Peterson constantly gets requests for translations. "Especially now on Tumblr, my inbox is just flooded with people asking for their names, usually in Irathient or Castithan. I would actually love it if I could just release the fonts so that people could play around with them and they wouldn't ask me anymore.

"...Before the show even aired somebody asked for their name in Castithan because they were going to get a tattoo of their name on their arm, and they did. That was just the best, most awesome thing to me. People have gotten Dothraki words tattooed on them before, but something that was written in a writing system [that's] my artwork? To think that somebody would mark themselves indelibly with something I created like that; I was just over the moon, it was the best thing ever. That was before the show even aired, so it was like, "I hope you like the show when it comes out."

So far there are only two complete language systems on Defiance, but there could be more in the future. "I've only made the two. I made language sketches for Indojisnen, the Indogene language, and for Yanga Kayang for the Liberata. The Indogene, they have a full writing system but not actually a full language. However, if you tune into season two there may be more languages."

You can catch Defiance every Monday night on Syfy.

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