FontLab Valar Ilis! A Song of Conscripts and Conlangs
Some of our users of FontLab VI who live in Westeros have been asking what the “VI” actually stands for. Since the TV tale of Westeros (that is, Game of Thrones) has just ended, we’re here to provide a spoiler-free answer: “VI” is an abbreviation that in High Valyrian means “Valar Ipradtis” (all men must eat). Or was it “Valar Ilis” (all men must have a registered place of residence*)? One of those, it was.
Part of what lures viewers into author George R.R. Martin’s fantasy world is the sense of rich history and detailed background in the book series A Song of Ice and Fire that the TV show is based on. Much of this can be credited to Martin, but one thing he didn’t do, beyond a few words and phrases, was create the languages. That is instead the work of a remarkable linguist named David J. Peterson, who has invented dozens of languages, including at least 20 for films and television shows.
For Game of Thrones, Peterson first won a contest to create Dothraki, the language of the barbarian/nomad horse people of the plains, a tribe that key player Danaerys Targaryen marries into and becomes the leader of, after the death of her husband. Peterson followed that up with a rendition of High Valyrian, a dead/scholarly language occupying a role similar to that of Latin in Renaissance Europe; not spoken natively by anyone, but the language of scholars everywhere, particularly written.
These are just two of the couple of dozen languages Peterson has made for various media properties, primarily films and television. He has done so many that it is easy to lose count, but one simple metric is: how many separate shows has he created an Elvish language for? Three to date, and one suspects there will be more. He has at least six films and nine TV shows to his credit so far, including two Marvel movies (Doctor Strange and Thor: The Dark World), The 100, Bright, and more in the works, including the upcoming Denis Villeneuve version of Dune.
Peterson didn’t create writing systems (also called scripts) for the Dothraki and High Valyrian languages for Game of Thrones, since both the books and the TV show spelled the phrases using the Latin alphabet. However, he has invented the scripts for many of his languages, especially the many he has designed for his own entertainment, on his own schedule. He also designed fonts that represent his invented scripts. While the visual representation is not his first focus, he still needs a flexible and powerful tool to make fonts for these fictional languages — and his tool of choice for years has been FontLab. First FontLab Studio 5, and now FontLab VI.
The invented or constructed languages even have a shorthand name: conlangs. There is a whole conlang community around them! While some people are fans of just one particular conlang because of the media associated with it (such as Star Trek fans who get into Klingon, or Tolkien fans who get into his Elvish Sindarin and his Dwarvish Khuzdul), others get into the entire idea of inventing languages and scripts. Constructed scripts are called conscripts. Some are used to write just one conlang (usually of the same name), some are used for multiple conlangs (just like the Latin script is used to write English, German, Polish or Yoruba). Some people even invent conscripts to write existing human languages.
From a font creation perspective, conlang fonts offer a number of challenges, beyond just figuring out what the characters should look like. At least some written languages have characters that combine or alter depending on context, or group in some interesting ways. In our world, the Indic writing systems (such as Devanagari, used to write the Hindi language) are a good example of this. Coding this involves using OpenType layout features — found in the Features panel in FontLab VI.
Another wrinkle is that these newly-invented characters have no standard slots in Unicode, so the designer is faced with the less-than-exciting choices of either using existing assigned slots “incorrectly,” or making use of Unicode’s Private Use Area (PUA) codepoints which have no standard meaning, and are not easily typed with standard keyboard layouts.
If the idea of making your own languages appeals, you are not alone, and making the fonts for them can be great fun. The ConScript Unicode Registry project coordinates the assignment of PUA codepoints for constructed writing systems, including scripts for conlangs, while the ConLang Code Registry provides ISO-639 – 3‑compatible language codes — so if you’d like to take a shot at making a Ferengi, Ssûraki or Tengwar font, make sure your glyphs are properly encoded!
More on conlangs and conscripts:
- Washington Post article
- The Language Creation Society (conlang.org)
- Peterson’s web site
- ConScript Unicode Registry (original and appendix)
- ConLang Code Registry
*) “Valar ilis” literally means: all men must “be” or “reside”; from High Valyrian “ilagon”: to be there, to be in a certain place, to lie, to reside, to exist. The phrase is used in Westeros by the officials of the Bureau of the Master of Coins to remind everyone that you need to have a registered place of residence when you’re applying for a permit to excavate minerals, to sell minerals, to sell swords or sword-like objects that are longer than 21.5 inches, to operate an establishment that serves alcohol after 9:35 pm, or when you wish to import live chickens or other birds that resemble chickens from the distance or that produce sounds that resemble those of a chicken, or when you intend to play a musical instrument in public, or for other related purposes, unless you carry a Vagabond Certificate issued by the High Office of Beer, Groceries and Migration.