Valyrian languages

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The Valyrian languages form a vast language family spanning a significant portion of Essos, including the Free Cities and Slaver's Bay. All variants are natively called "Valyrian", which can be quite misleading. This is not unlike the situation of Latin in the early Middle Ages as it started to develop into different national languages. For example, a very old form of what would come to be French was termed "Latin" in the Strasbourg Oaths (ca. 842 A.D.) as opposed to the Germanic language that would become German. In this article we will consistently contrast the ancient language of Valyria with its many modern descendants with the terms "High Valyrian" and "Low Valyrian" respectively, although the latter term is not attested in the books. Furthermore, we will differentiate Low Valyrian as the form used in the Free Cities, as opposed to Ghiscari Valyrian, the language from which the variants of Slaver's Bay sprung.

Probably the best way to approach the Valyrian languages is not to consider them as fully different languages but rather, as Tyrion puts it:

... not so much a dialect as nine dialects on the way to becoming separate tongues.[1]


These dialects descended from High Valyrian are sometimes also collectively called "Bastard Valyrian" for their perceived corruption as compared to the mother tongue.

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Valyrian languages

The Valyrian languages are all descended ultimately from High Valyrian, the language of lore and poetry in Valyria of Old. There is one main split in Low Valyrian and it is the difference between the Valyrian as spoken in the Free Cities and the one as spoken in the cities of Slaver's Bay. For the purpose of the chart below, "Low Valyrian" will refer specifically to the Free Cities dialects (in opposition to the "Ghiscari Valyrian" variants of Slaver's Bay). However note that, in other contexts, the same term is frequently used more broadly to encompass all the descendants of High Valyrian, including the Ghiscari ones.


Proto-Valyrian
High Valyrian
Low Valyrian
(Free Cities)
Ghiscari Valyrian
Slaver's Bay Valyrian
Northern Low Valyrian
Southern Low Valyrian
Southern S.B. Valyrian
Braavosi
Lorathi
Pentoshi
Norvosi
Qohorik
Myrish
Tyroshi
Lyseni
Volantene
Meereenese
Yunkish
Astapori
New Ghis


The chart illustrates the relationship of the different dialects of the Valyrian continuum. Speakers of each of the variants will most likely refer to their language as Valyrian. This is illustrated by an exchange between Daenerys Targaryen and Missandei on their way to Yunkai:

"Missandei, what language will these Yunkai'i speak, Valyrian?"

"Yes, Your Grace," the child said. "A different dialect than Astapor's, yet close enough to understand...."[2]


This is because, from the perspective of the speakers, they have continuously used Valyrian even if borrowing from other languages. In the case of Slaver's Bay Valyrian, this would be from the extinct Ghiscari language. To them, the difference between the language they speak and High Valyrian might seem more like a difference of register: the language as it is spoken daily, versus the language of literature, culture and higher education. Keep in mind that, as Tyrion pointed out above, these variants are rather more like dialects in their way to becoming fully fledged different languages, some words are still pretty similar to their High Valyrian forms as Arya noticed in Braavos:

Arya only knew a few words of Braavosi, the ones that were the same in High Valyrian.[3]


This is also seen in Romance languages, for example the Latin for "animal" is animal, which happens to be the same in Spanish, and French (and, for that matter, even English!) Thus, for example, Astapori Valyrian words range from nearly identical to their High Valyrian counterparts (e.g. vala "man", ābra > abra "woman"), to slightly different (e.g. Dovaogēdy > Dovoghedhy "Unsullied"), to nearly unrecognizable (e.g. kostilus > kotlu "please.") In many cases the word might not be related at all (e.g. muña vs. mysa "mother.") As a result, merely knowing High Valyrian does not guarantee that one can understand a particular form of Low Valyrian, as when Sam admits:

"I only have a little High Valyrian, and when they speak to me in Braavosi I cannot understand half of what they're saying."[4]


Low Valyrian of the Free Cities

The Low Valyrian of the Free Cities encompasses nine major variants mentioned. Its main division is geographical: a Northern branch and a Southern one. The Northern branch includes the varieties spoken at Braavos, Lorath, Pentos, Norvos and Qohor. While the Southern branch comprises the varieties spoken at Myr, Tyrosh, Lys and Volantis.[5] The two variants are believed to have derived from a common ancestor, making any of the descendants of each branch more closely related to the other members than they are to members of the other branch. This is further illustrated by that time when Danaerys, trading in the Western Market in Vaes Dothrak, says she spoke in:

...Valyrian, Valyrian as they spoke it in the Free Cities. The words felt strange on her tongue, after so long.

The merchant, upon hearing this, guesses that she is from Tyrosh. She replies:

"My speech may be Tyroshi..."[6]

This was despite her having spent a long time in Pentos.

Beyond this division between North and South, we don't yet know much about the relationships between the various Free Cities dialects. Consequently the chart that follows presents the situation a bit simplistically.

High Valyrian
Low Valyrian
Northern Low Valyrian
Southern Low Valyrian
Braavosi
Lorathi
Pentoshi
Norvosi
Qohorik
Myrish
Tyroshi
Lyseni
Volantene

Ghiscari Valyrian

Ghiscari Valyrian comprises at least four variants we know of. The most prominent of these is called Astapori Valyrian, the other members being Yunkish Valyrian, Meereenese Valyrian and New Ghiscari Valyrian. Unlike the Low Valyrian of the Free Cities, we have a pretty good idea of precisely how this branch of the family is arranged. It is divided into two main groups: Slaver's Bay Valyrian which is comprised of the variants spoken in the different cities of Slaver's Bay, Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen. The other important subdivision is the variant used at New Ghis, which is located on an island, providing a more isolated environment, leading us to believe it may be much more divergent from the variants used in the cities of Slaver's Bay than any of them is with each other.[7] This is represented in the chart below. Within the mainland dialects of Slaver's Bay, Meereenese is quite different from the other two, while Astapori and Yunkish are nearly identical.[8]

In particular Astapori Valyrian is described in the books as having a "characteristic growl," influenced by Ghiscari.[9] A characteristic possibly shared by the other varieties of Ghiscari Valyrian.


High Valyrian
Ghiscari Valyrian
Slaver's Bay Valyrian
Southern S.B. Valyrian
Meereenese
Yunkish
Astapori
New Ghis

Notes

  1. Martin, George R.R. (2011). A Dance with Dragons. Bantam Dell. p. 19. ISBN 0-553-90565-1. 
  2. Martin, George R.R. (2000). A Storm of Swords. Bantam Dell. p. 476. ISBN 0-553-38170-9. 
  3. Martin, George R.R. (2005). A Feast for Crows. Bantam Dell. p. 314. ISBN 978-0-553-80150-7. 
  4. Martin, George R.R. (2005). A Feast for Crows. Bantam Dell. p. 382. ISBN 978-0-553-80150-7. 
  5. LoT
  6. Martin, George R.R. (1996). A Game of Thrones. Bantam Dell. p. 589. ISBN 978-0-553-57340-4. 
  7. SoV:

    New Ghis is pretty far from Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen, so one would have to expect it to be quite different...

  8. SoV:

    It felt, though, that Yunkish Valyrian and Astapori Valyrian would be closer to each other than either is to Meereenese Valyrian.

    Each of the dialects (and I would characterize them as dialects of a kind of “Ghiscari Valyrian”) would be grammatically very similar. They have a common culture, and seem to exist in a kind of symbiotic way, with each city having something the others don’t. Since Meereen is the largest, it likely also has the largest lower class. This is where I saw the most distinct form of the language emerging. This is why it made sense to me that Meereen could support a Valyrian variant that’s quite different in sound from the other two. It’s the same language, but it’s developed its own distinct character.

    ...

    As for Yunkish, I put don’t put it in the middle of the two dialects. Rather, it’s all but identical to Astapori. Truth be told, I haven’t had to do anything specific for Yunkish, but if I did, the variation would be minor.

  9. Martin, George R.R. (2000). A Storm of Swords. Bantam Dell. p. 258. ISBN 0-553-38170-9. 

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