Thoughts on Language in “Game of Thrones”

Game of Thrones

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I wrote a post eons ago questioning why characters in fantasy films have British accents. HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation was my impetus, yet I confess I haven’t seen the program until recently.

Aspects of the show’s language are more complex than I expected. Strikingly, characters from the Northern half of GoT‘s world speak with Northern English accents. Since actors Sean Bean and Mark Addy are Yorkshiremen, this might seem a coincidence.

But other actors are clearly affecting Northernness, so this must have been a deliberate production choice. This is obvious when contrasting London-bred actor Alfie Allen’s real accent with that of his Northern-sounding character (Warning: some vague spoilers):

Other cast members use Received Pronunciation, although relatively few are English. Hence Aidan Gillen, Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and Iain Glen speak RP with a slightly “foreign” quality. I didn’t find this distracting. It suggests regional dialects and perhaps languages that exist beyond the narrative confines. You can get an idea of how Gillen’s natural Dublinese colors his character’s speech in this promo clip, for instance:

(GoT’s writers are from the US, by the way, so the syntax and slang sometimes sounds a little jarring coming from, say, Sheffield-accented lips. Lynne Murphy could probably tally many lexical “slip ups.”)

There are definitely missed opportunities to make the GoT universe more linguistically diverse. But language is arguably less important in this universe than it was in The Lord of the Rings.  It doesn’t strike me as Martin’s strong suit as a novelist: Many character names sound like tweaked English/Celtic monikers (e.g. “Catelyn,” “Eddard”), and some place names sound suspiciously like literary in-jokes*.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Martin’s imagination. Tolkien was a brilliant linguist, so it’s unfair to expect later fantasists to craft entire language families from scratch. Martin’s world is unique as well in that corrupt central governments are as dangerous as supernatural and malevolent forces. Political pressure for linguistic uniformity strikes me as more realistic here than a land where you can’t understand the village next door.

The exception is Dothraki, the constructed language created for the show. Like Klingon before it, Dothraki has become something of a sub-cultural phenomenon, with a Wikipedia page more detailed than those of many real languages. But it sticks out for being a lone minority tongue in what often sounds like a monolingual and mono-dialectal world.

*”Riverrun” is the first word in Finnegan’s Wake; “Casterly Rock,” home to the semi-villainous Lannisters, sounds like “Castle Rock,” home base for the more fascistic schoolboys in Golding’s Lord of the Flies (Stephen King borrowed the name for the fictional town where he sets many novels). It’s possible neither name was intended to be allusive, but astute literature aficionados will make a connection nonetheless.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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31 Responses to Thoughts on Language in “Game of Thrones”

  1. Mark Flowers says:

    It should probably be pointed out that GoT is pretty obviously based (in part) on the Wars of the Roses, and as such has a much better claim for using practically monolingual English (and British accents) than many other fantasy series.

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  3. m.m. says:

    thats cause many real languages are dying/dead and lacking in info :b

    • AW says:

      And are spoken by remote peoples with no internet access.

    • That’s certainly true, although what I’m thinking of specifically are minority European or Chinese languages. Lombard is spoken by millions of people, for instance, but details on the actual structure of the language are scant on Wikipedia. Not that it’s the fault of the Wikipedia community; it’s probably more due to a lack of linguistics research on Lombard in English.

  4. AW says:

    It seems odd they would have done this, since the vast majority of the American audience wouldn’t know about England’s accent geography.

    And since it’s set in a fantasy world, even British audiences wouldn’t care.

  5. AUDIO NOIR says:

    i personally thought it was a bit silly all the grief kevin costner took for his portrayal of robin hood in “the wrong accent” when, in fact, the language spoken in that part of the world at that time would have been wholly unintelligible to modern english speakers. and, of course, ‘BRAVEHEART’ too was completely linguistically inaccurate (as is most of the movie for that matter) as very few scots in that time would have spoken english in any form and even the english again spoke a form of english utterly foreign to modern ears. in that case, though, i can see why they did it the way they did for ease of understanding. as to why fantasy is nearly always in british accents i’ve often wondered that one myself as i’ve wondered why anything having to do with the devil nearly always has a british accent. in fact i saw an english guy on youtube do an entire rant on why is it that so many bad guys in american movies have english (RP to be exact) accents. another one i’ve often wondered is how an african american actor like james earl jones ended up with something so “mid-atlantic”.

    ideas anyone?

    • gaelsano says:

      The belief you must do some sort of English English accent in fantasy or medieval historical films because the story is set in England vexes me considerably. 20th century Estuary English is no closer to 13th century London English than Boston English is. They’re linguistic cousins. It’s as if the directors and/or audiences think that the English of England remained “pure” and the English of her former colonies is “bastardized”.

      In fact, in most respects, NE US English is phonologically far closer to most Medieval Englishes. The overly high vowel for THOUGHT and R-dropping mark that prestigious register of RP but not Medieval English nor Renaissance English. Grammatically though, American Englishes are less conservative.

      Lexically, it could go either way and few are qualified to know which words are more conservative. “Fall” is the original term for the third season but fell out of a favour in Britain to be replaced the loanword of “autumn”. I don’t care if English got an academy and settled on British RP as standard but I really hate Brits calling my use of “fall” an Americanism. There are actually few Americanisms, and those that do exist are often coined by American inventors. Admittedly, though, I think “flashlight” is a dumb word. (It doesn’t flash at all, does it?)

      In any case it’s a moot point anyway. Just like with “Lincoln”. The authentic tongue of the day would be often unintelligible. Either go all the way like Mel Gibson and throw up subtitles or just do it in the tongue that viewers understand. Do directors expect praise for half-assing it?

      If you’re going to fault a historical movie for using contractions like “don’t” or for using the wrong country’s actors then you should criticize every actor in Lincoln who merges the vowels of THOUGHT and LOT.

      I say bollocks to all of this and just have people speak in a common accent for the sake of the audience’s understanding like actors in theatre do or just let them do their respective accents as in “Valkyire”. In the context of GoT, it seems clever to have accents for the various regions and it’s probably least confusing if they just map them onto 20th (21st?) century English English accents that are similarly geographically distributed.

      This discussion may finally push me to watch the show. As much as I advocate prescriptivism in many contexts I thoroughly enjoy hearing and playing around with dialects and accents. It’s one of the many things I enjoy about new “Doctor Who”.

      • gaelsano says:

        I meant NE English outside of NYC and Boston (which are mostly non-rhotic) and New England (cot-caught merged). I’m thinking of parts of NY State (East of Syracuse), Pennsylvania, Maryland, Jersey, Virginia.

        I’ve found people to come from “General American” heartland to have exceptionally flat tones when speaking and anyone West of the Mississippi of course had cot-caught merged (except parts of San Fran) and is like SE England in their fronting of GOAT and GOOSE.

      • dw says:

        In fact, in most respects, NE US English is phonologically far closer to most Medieval Englishes.

        No. Both US and England varieties have diverged in their own different ways, to approximately the same extent. To say that one is far closer to Medieval English than the other is way off the mark. If you want a really phonologically conservative variety, look at traditional Irish English.

        The overly high vowel for THOUGHT

        as opposed to, say, the “overly high vowel for TRAP” in most US English? And, for what it’s worth, that’s a phonetic, not a phonological criterion.

        R-dropping

        I’ll grant you that. But isn’t R-dropping also a traditional feature of “NE US English” (assuming “NE” means “North-East” or “New England”)?

        Here’s a list of phonological innovations found in much US but not most English English: the pre-R mergers (merry/marry/merry, nearer/mirror), the COT/CAUGHT merger (and, for those varieties that have resisted this, the LOT/CLOTH split), intervocalic T-lenititon (sometimes resulting in a merger), more extensive yod-dropping (resulting in new homophones such as do/due).

        • James D. says:

          It seems to me that almost every accent of English has some type (and in some cases multiple types [see /t/]) of T-lenition. T-voicing is very common in NAEng, true, but T-glottaling seems to be very common in England and Scotland. There is also T-fricativization in Ireland, England and the Antipodes (see above). But I suppose these other types of lenition couldn’t possibly cause a merger with intervocalic /d/, right? Well, unless intervocalic /d/ somehow also became [ʔ] or [θ̠], which seems unlikely. BTW I don’t think much research has been done on whether or not intervocalic /t/ and /d/ have actually merged in most NAEng. All right, that’s as OT as this comment will go. Cheers :)

        • dw says:

          I don’t think much research has been done on whether or not intervocalic /t/ and /d/ have actually merged in most NAEng.

          There’s a ton of (unscientific) evidence available via Google — for example the 185,000 hits for “it doesn’t madder”, many of which appear to be genuine spelling errors.

        • James D. says:

          Okay. If those are genuine spelling errors, then I would think that would indicate a merger for those people. But I’m not an actual linguist so I don’t really know too much about mergers, other than the fact that they happen.

      • L says:

        It’s as if the directors and/or audiences think that the English of England remained “pure” and the English of her former colonies is “bastardized”.

        Most people really do seem to think that, though the majority would probably just go with “changed” rather than “bastardized”. It’s just one of those widespread misconceptions, and the movie industry caters to audience expectations. And I have to admit I’d find it very jarring to have characters in a historical film about medieval England speaking in a US accent, despite knowing it’s not actually any more incorrect.

    • L says:

      James Earl Jones suffered from sever stuttering as a child and refused to speak for years. A techer coached him and helped him to speak by practicing reading poetry. So that might have something to do with it. Or not. Maybe it’s just his acting accent? I have to admit I have no idea what James Earl Jones actually sounds like outside of acting.

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  6. Yoni says:

    Just pointing out that Mark Addy’s Robert Baratheon is actually from the Stormlands, south of King’s Landing and almost what you’d call “Southron lands”.

    I actually found the slightly tweaked real world names really adds to the immersion in Martin’s world. It feels like these characters could have been part of our own history (and of course Martin freely admits using actual history as an inspiration).

    • My understanding, though, was that he went to live further north, in The Vale of Arryn, when he was an adolescent.

      I don’t actually mind the lack of conlangs and exotic place names. “Fantasy” is almost not the right term for GoT/aSoIaF–it’s more like “universe creation.” Part of its appeal is that it feels like a mash up of British history, with elements drawn from other cultures. The Dothraki, for instance, have a geographical and cultural relationship with Westeros that (very) roughly resembles Ireland’s relationship to England, but the land they inhabit resembles the American West and their culture has an Aztec-ish quality to it. King’s Landing is, like London, located in a relatively Southerly location, but in this universe that equates to a Mediterranean climate. I think many people find the books so compelling because of its mixture of familiar and unfamiliar elements.

      • Yoni says:

        Admittedly I’m splitting hairs here: while he was raised in the Vale (with Ned Stark), the Vale is still not what the characters in the ASOIAF universe consider north. Populations living north of The Neck/Moat Cailin (roughly) are considered Northmen.

        The second part of your comment rang true for me – it’s that mixture which makes it so great. I can’t explain why this is, but I found it fascinating to see a similar tradition of knighthood to medieval Europe, but Ser is spelled differently from Sir.

        • Brigitte says:

          I think The Vale is supposed to have an accent closer to Welsh, but I could be wrong.

          I always assumed that Robert was supposed to have picked up his accent from Eddard Stark when they were growing up in the Vale/fighting together as young men? He was also in love with Stark’s sister, so it would make sense that he would adopt his peers accent, rather than that of his guardians in the Vale?

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  8. boynamedsue says:

    The linguistic situation in Martin’s books is a good deal more complex than that presented in the series. There are at least 4 languages on Westeros, 3 of them spoken by humans, and dialectical differences within the main one are visible in the text. In the continents beyond, as well as Dothraki we find languages evolved from Valyrian (a Latin analogue) and other unrelated tongues.

    Place and Family names show substrata effects, for example we have the island of Skagos (meaning rock in a language no longer spoken there) and its leading family called Magnar (meaning lord in the same language). Then there is the Valerian family who were originally Valyrians.

    I always think of the clear English origin of most names as being similar to Tolkein’s trick with the Shire of using English language words to represent meanings of Middle Earth languages, when in reality they would be in a language that sounds nothing like English. I read a collection of short stories set in Westeros in French, and the names had been completely changed to replicate this effect, which makes me think that this was Martin’s intention.

  9. Peggy Trawick says:

    It would be great if Game of Thrones included some Scots.

    • Alai Mac Erc says:

      There are (at least) three Scots actors in the series, all (coincidentally or not) playing North(wo)men. Curiously, two are having a go at a Yorkshireish, and the third is using what is aptly described elsewhere at an “ACTING!” accent.

      I think it might have made sense to make the Wildlings Scots (or Northumbrians?). But equally, this is the series that brought us the question “why is there a ‘g’ in ‘night’?” (To which the correct answer is surely, “there isn’t, we’re not speaking English, ya berk.) GRR (or his scriptproxy) is no JRR.

  10. asdf says:

    There’s a city in Westeros that’s actually named after some other fantasy author, can’t remember it now. So yes, there are a lot of literary in-jokes there.

  11. Jim says:

    As Brit I am really quite taken back as how poorly Game of Thrones is at getting the English right. Peter Dinklage’s absurd English accent makes Lord Tyrian difficult to take seriously; surely they had an elocution coach there to set him straight?? Then there’s the language itself, it so often sounds American; dropping prepositions, conjunctions and articles, e.g “Go get water” (instead of “go AND get SOME water”), “Go find your brother” (instead of “go AND find”), “Who are you writing?” (instead of “Who are you writing TO?”). I even heard one of them say “So, here’s the thing…” Come on, it’s a bloody joke! I realise the writer of the books and the scriptwriters are American but surely they had someone advising them on and editing the scripts to make sure it sounded authentic? Even the actors could have pointed it out. Very irritating!!

    • dw says:

      Still less irritating than the pathetic American (and indeed all non-UK) accents in any British comedy shows before, at the earliest, the 1980s. Try Fawlty Towers for numerous examples.

    • RedRaven says:

      Despite some similarities and influences, their world is not our world. There is no “authentic” except for what the author says it is.

      This is a fantasy series set in a fantasy world, using American syntax is just fine since it is apparently true to the world the author created.

    • Cygnetian says:

      I agree with you Jim. I find Dinklage’s accent so tortured-sounding that it gets in the way of his performance. And I, also find the modern lexical short-cuts sloppy-sounding and annoying.

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