Sing it with me, to the tune of “Respect” by Aretha Franklin: "Ath-ch-o-m-a-r / ezzos fini shohae mae dothra h’anhaan / Ath-ch-o-m-a-r / Mra zhor, TCB.”
Admittedly, the Dothraki translation of “Respect” doesn’t roll off the tongue. But for Reuben “Tihi” Hayslett, a 35-year-old activist and campaign manager at Demand Progress based in California, it’s way more fun.
“Learning Dothraki has kept a youthfulness about myself. All of this is really just play,” Hayslett, who has gone by his chosen Dothraki name Tihi since 2018, said in an interview with Refinery29. “I don’t want my inner child to die.”
In 2013, Hayslett began studying the language of the mythical plains-dwelling, horse-riding people of Game of Thrones using the Living Language Dothraki textbook written by the language’s creator, David J. Peterson. Peterson developed both Dothraki and High Valyrian for the HBO series using the smattering of vocabulary words found in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series as springboards.
After a few months sitting with Peterson’s book and now-defunct Dothraki Wiki, Hayslett could conjugate the verb for “to ride” in every tense. But it was discouraging being a lone Dothraki speaker, stranded in the plains of California. So Hayslett began translating pop music as an exercise.
“Melissa Etheridge talks about her heart ripping and walking through fire. All of that stuff is easy to translate into Dothraki,” Hayslett said. “Beyonce is harder. In Dothraki, abstract concepts like ‘love’ have too many syllables. You can get really long-ass words in Dothraki.”
After months desperately checking message boards and “dreaming” of a fellow Dothraki rider, Hayslett found his people. Now, he is one of a tiny, but committed, group of Dothraki learners who convene on Discord, a chat platform initially designed for gamers, to forge through the language in written and video chats. Hailing from France, Saudi Arabia, Spain, the United States and beyond, this geographically disparate community might be the world’s only real khalasar, or a tribe of Dothraki riders.
According to Peterson, not even the actors on Game of Thrones speak Dothraki. “They can deliver the lines even today exactly the same way they did on the show, but they no longer know what the words mean,” Peterson told Refinery29.
Hayslett’s commitment to this fictional language, spoken only by characters in a TV show and developed by a one person, flies in direct opposition to popular discourse around language learning. English isn’t the most commonly studied language in the world because our harsh syllables are beautiful — it’s because it’s the world’s lingua franca. It’s useful.
The same can’t be said for Dothraki, which won't help with navigating job markets or foreign countries. So what’s the point of learning Game of Thrones’ fictional languages? For Peterson, who studies his own constructed languages with the same zeal as the world’s languages, the reason fans flock to Dothraki, High Valyrian, and other con-langs, like Star Trek’s Klingon, is obvious. It’s all about achieving one-ness with the work.
“It’s the same reason people go to theme parks,” David J. Peterson told Refinery29. “You can pretend you’re on the show. Other aspects of production, like costumes and sets, just need to look a certain way. But the language — that’s real. If you learn the language, you have 100% of what was in the show. That can never happen with any other aspect.”
Menaka Kumar, an undergraduate from North Carolina, said learning High Valyrian on Duolingo has deepened her connection to Game of Thrones. “I already loved the show but knowing the language makes me feel closer to the Game of Thrones universe,” Kumar told Refinery29 in an email. “Now I can understand the things the characters say who speak High Valyrian.”
“It’s a way of expressing yourself as a fan,” Alison Emmert, a long-time fan of the books and show, told Refinery29 over the phone. Like Kumar, she eagerly began the High Valyrian course when it appeared on Duolingo in 2017.
When the Dothraki reappeared in season 7 to fight the Lannisters, Hayslett was overjoyed. “I was freaking out. I never had a prouder moment in my life. I was cheering, ‘Hell yah, but the Dothraki version,” he said.
This particular facet of the Game of Thrones fandom requires extracurricular work.
The pace of conversation in “Rhaesh Dothraki” Discord channel is casual and enthusiastic, structured around a daily question and vocabulary challenge. Discussions in Dothraki, the group’s only common tongue, ensues. “It’s as hard as any other language,” Adrian Gracia, a 19-year-old based in Spain who’s been learning Dothraki since 2018, told Refinery29.
In addition to going over grammar, the independent community of speakers has kept the language evolving beyond the show’s dispersed, Essos-set scenes.
“We get to steer it where we want to go. Which was one of my original motivations for learning Dothraki. I want to guide the life of a fictional language and to make sure it’s not as misogynist, violent, and hypermasculine as in the show. Let’s guide Dothraki to a gentler place,” Hayslett said.
Which is quite a goal, considering the Dothraki’s reputation as a notoriously violent people. In addition to being a war-mongerer, Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) rapes his teen bride, Daenerys Targaryen (Emila Clarke), on their wedding night. All in a Khal’s day’s work.
But within the language, Hayslett sees evidence for another Dothraki — a society that’s not depicted in Game of Thrones. “There are gender neutral pronouns. They’re very anti-capitalist — there’s no such thing as ‘work,’ that’s a joy. They have a non-Western view of whiteness and Blackness. They have more words for kinds of brown skin tone than they do for white skin,” Hayslett said.
Offline, Hayslett and the group’s leader (or khal), a 20-year-old Minnesota-based linguistics student named Connor, try to coax that hidden Dothraki culture into being. They’re creating a Dothraki Atlas, with entries for the people’s diet, musical instruments, and life ceremonies, using the language as a primary source.
“I created an astrology system based on the time of day and season you were born. I’m a grass sister,” Hayslett confessed.
Most learners don’t quite approach Game of Thrones con-langs with Hayslett’s zeal. According to Duolingo, there are currently 913k actively High Valyrian learners, meaning people who have completed at least one lesson in the past 12 months, and 1.2 million people have started the course. From those numbers, it’s tough to glean how many people are regularly taking the course, and how far they’re proceeding.
While Emmert is aiming toward conversational fluency in High Valyrian, her priority is still on French and Spanish — the languages that allow her to travel the world, not just TV show universes.
“I would like to be fluent in real languages,” Emmert said. “But I hope that one day I might be able to pull up some High Valyrian phrases on the top of my head instead of having to look them up.”