Dothraki and the Proto-Indo-Europeans: Martin’s Horse People are the Real Deal

dothraki-khal-moro

On George RR Martin’s blog, he writes that the Dothraki are a blend of a “number of steppe and plains cultures” including Mongols and Huns, certainly, but also Alans, Sioux, Cheyenne, and various other Amerindian tribes… seasoned with a dash of pure fantasy.”

Martin doesn’t say how far back he draws on history for “horse people,” but it doesn’t seem inconceivable that he has a nodding acquaintance with Proto-Indo-European societies given what he writes next: “So any resemblance to Arabs or Turks is coincidental. Well, except to the extent that the Turks were also originally horsemen of the steppes, not unlike the Alans, Huns, and the rest.”

Rohirrim

The Rohirrim. (Image: LOTR: The Two Towers. (c) New Line Cinema)

Martin certainly appears to know about the Steppe people — and research on the Proto-Indo-Europeans was all the rage in the nineteenth-century. Back then, they were called Aryans. Such research likely influenced Tolkien, one of his favorite authors.

In some ways, the Dothraki fit into the same nineteenth-century tradition of romanticizing horse and pagan culture that J.R.R. Tolkien employed with his Rohirrim, the horse lords of Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien’s horse people resemble the Anglo-Saxons and the nineteenth-century conception of horse people as blue-eyed “Aryans.” Martin’s horse people are the real deal. Nineteenth-century linguists referred to Proto-Indo-Europeans as Aryans, a name that has taken on a dark legacy.

To me at least, Martin appears to draw on the true Proto-Indo-Europeans, the ones that have emerged from more recent research. And, not the blonde Aryan-esque the ones that were appropriated by elite Europeans who envisioned blonde in their image — and especially, not when coupled with some idealized version of the Anglo-Saxon past.

Proto-Indo-Europeans share more than a few traits with the Dothraki. They both lived or live in the Steppe (flatlands covered with grass and shrubs) — one in Eurasia and Essos. They are both male-centered societies who “worship” power. And, they both may have conquered on horseback. The Proto-Indo-Europeans may have been the original “horse people.”

But who were the Proto-Indo-Europeans?

Before Christ, Cleopatra and the Roman Empire, it’s possible that the first horse lords, known as Proto-Indo-Europeans, may have lived in the Great Steppe and spread their language and culture by conquering Eurasia on the horses they domesticated. Using historical and comparative linguistic techniques, scholars postulate that these nomadic tribes spoke a common tongue – the mother of all of the roughly 439 Indo-European languages and dialects.

eurasian-steppe

The Great Steppe of Eurasia extends from the Danube in Hungary to nearly the Pacific. The Eurasian steppe contains several “sub-steppes,” which are shown on this map. Image: (c) Encyclopaedia Britannica 1998.

Proto-Indo-Europeans may have roamed the western Pontic-Caspian area of the Great Steppe from roughly 4500 to 2500 BCE. The Great Steppe belts Eurasia with 5,000 kilometers (3106 miles) of grasses and shrubs not unlike the North American prairies.

russian-steppe-

An example of the “sea of grass” in the Eurasian Steppe. Image: Wikimedia.

Flatlands-dothraki-steppe

Dany and the Dothraki horde walk through the grasslands of Essos. (c) HBO.

The Steppe’s dry summer heat soars to 110-120F (43-49C). The only relief comes from frequent light breezes. Unlike what we’ve seen so far in Game of Thrones, winter in the real-world Steppe is harsh and snowy, with icy winds like North Dakota that drive temperatures down to -35F (-37 C).1. Survival in Steppe winters was tough.

Silk_Road

Centuries after the Proto-Indo-Europeans, caravans of traders ferried spices, silks, jewels, and other Asian luxuries across the Steppe to Europe.  (Source: Wikimedia.)

Proto-Indo-European societies raised cattle, sheep and, most important of all, horses. They measured wealth by a man’s head of cattle or horses. Proto-Indo-European societies wove wool and their oxen drew wagons. They sang or recited tales of heroes with “imperishable fame.”

For the Proto-Indo-Europeans, marriage by abduction was legal2 , which doesn’t feel very different than the Dothraki attitude towards sex and rape.

Jon_Arryn_funeral_bier

Jon Arryn fostered Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark. Here is shown on his funeral bier. (c) HBO.

Like with medieval nobles – or Ned and Robert whom Jon Arryn “fostered” – the Proto-Indo-Europeans almost certainly practiced fosterage.

Fosterage is the formal term to describe the child outsourcing we see on Game of Thrones. As Wikipedia so aptly puts it:

“In many pre-modern societies fosterage was a form of patronage, whereby influential families cemented political relationships by bringing up each other’s children, similar to arranged marriages, also based on dynastic or alliance calculations.”

We know that some Proto-Indo-European people were closer to their foster-father and foster-mother because Old Irish inherited the terms mathair, athai for biological mother and father and the affectionate baby-talk words like muimme and aite for foster-mother and –father3.

The Proto-Indo-Europeans typically chose foster-parents from the mother’s kin, often the maternal uncle.

In what is perhaps the faintest echo of medieval estates, Proto-Indo-European society had hierarchies or functions.

  • The first function kept religious and sovereign order and included the priests and kings.
  • The second function was martial force and included the warriors.
  • The third function was that of fertility, which included the shepherds and producers of goods (artisans)4 .

The Proto-Indo-Europeans also enslaved those whom they captured in war or who fell into debt 5 .

Reconstructed Proto-Indo-European Language vs. Constructed Dothraki

While doing a little research on Proto-Indo-European (Proto-Indo-European) societies, I stumbled across a sound clip of a linguist who has attempted to recreate what Proto-Indo-European sounded like. Does it sound like Dothraki?

[include as caption: Centuries after the Proto-Indo-Europeans died, caravans of traders ferried spices, silks, jewels, and other Asian luxuries across this sea of grass to Europe.]

Pontic-Caspian steppe in modern-day Eastern Ukraine and Southern Russia, near the Black Sea. Source: Wikimedia.

Researchers believe that, from 3rd millennium BCE onward, the nomadic Indo-Europeans who lived on the Pontic-Caspian steppe spread Proto-Indo-European language and culture across Eurasia, either through conquest or by sharing agricultural techniques.

Proto-Indo-European is a hypothetical culture, one inferred from archeological evidence and two centuries of linguistic analysis of modern languages. They didn’t leave any written records.

Linguists believe that, most of Europe and Asia spoke the same language, known as Proto-Indo-European. Proto-Indo-European is the “mother” language of all modern Indo-European languages, including English.

Rarely do we think about what our collective past was like before the time of written records. Although archeologists have found symbol systems dating back to the seventh millennium BCE, the first signs of what is truly considered writing only date back to the Sumerians, Ancient Iran, and the Egyptians in roughly 3400 BCE. The earliest coherent texts don’t emerge until 2600 BCE.

Other cultures didn’t develop writing until later (China in 1200 BCE, Mesoamerica 600 BCE) – and some cultures, like Proto-Indo-European (and Dothraki), never developed a writing system.

Consequently, scholars infer the history of these cultures through archeology and by trying to detect similar words across “daughter” languages. These daughter languages inherited words with parallel roots from Proto-Indo-European that captured in modern-languages or their ancestors.

indo-european-language-map

This linguistic map shows a tree model of Romance languages based on the comparative linguistic method. The comparative method is a technique for studying the development of languages by performing a feature-by-feature comparison of two or more languages with common descent from a shared ancestor. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In both Irish and Gothic (Ancient East German), for example, the word “witness” comes from the root of the verbs “see” or “know.” A similar metaphor is found in the etymology of the Italic (Latin’s predecessor) for testimony and testify. The word “testis” means a “third person standing by.” The ancient Hittite language (from Anatolia or modern-day Turkey) leverages a similar metaphor: the verb meaning “stand over” can also mean bear witness.6 .

indo-european-expansion-waves

Map of Indo-European migrations from ca. 4000 to 1000 BCE, assuming conquest by warfare (the Kurgan hypothesis). Indo-European-speaking peoples may have settled in the red area up to roughly 2500 BCE and in the orange area up to 1000 BCE. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Historical linguists also studied sounds and phonetic rules to find similarities among words and the roots of words. They can determine, for example, that the word for hundred in Latin (kentum) and Lithuanian (shimtas) descended from the same word7 .

What did our ancestors sound like? Proto-Indo-European Reconstruction

sheep-horses-text-proto-indo-europeanDr. Andrew Byrd, an expert in Indo-European phonology, recorded his own approximation of Proto-Indo-European language for Archaeology magazine.

Byrd gives voice to “The Sheep and the Horses,” a story of a shorn sheep that encounters an unfriendly horse herd.

Before making the recording Byrd updated the tale with more recent research about the sounds of Proto-Indo-European. (German linguist August Schleicher wrote the original tale in a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary in 1868.)

To figure out how Proto-Indo-European should sound, Byrd analyzed ancient Indo-European languages like Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit.

 

 

What does Dothraki sound like?

Game of Thrones showrunners wanted to flesh out the Dothraki language when they began filming the show. Linguist David Peterson created Dothraki  based on George RR Martin’s description of the language. He also drew inspiration from Turkish, Russian, Estonian, Inuktitut and Swahili.

In Peterson’s own words, Dothraki sounds a bit like a “a mix between Arabic (minus the distinctive pharyngeals) and Spanish, due to the dental consonants.” But, he acknowledges that most people probably think it sounds like Arabic. This is especially true since “most people probably don’t really know what Arabic actually sounds like, so to an untrained ear, it might sound like Arabic.”

To me, Dothraki sounds guttural, which makes sense if it is partially based on Arabic. (According to Quora user Orin Hargraves, “Most English sounds are produced from mid-palate to the lips. Arabic, on the other hand, has half a dozen consonants that are produced in the pharynx, larynx, or the rear of the oral cavity.”)

But, does Dothraki sound like Proto-Indo-European? To my very untrained ear, I think it does. To me, both languages sound guttural. Dothraki certainly has some of the right roots. Russian and Spanish are daughter languages of Proto-Indo-European.

In truth, I just like the idea that HBO and David Peterson might have drawn from a language hypothesized from such an influential linguistic theory.

  1. See David Anthony 2540 []
  2. Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, 2nd edition, by Benjamin W. Forston IV p. 21 []
  3. Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, 2nd edition, by Benjamin W. Forston IV p. 21 []
  4. Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, 2nd edition, by Benjamin W. Forston IV p. 20 []
  5. Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction p. 19 []
  6. Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, 2nd edition, by Benjamin W. Forston IV p. 24 []
  7. The Horse, Wheel, and Language Loc 339 []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

10 Comments

  • Reply May 24, 2016

    WATCHER ON THE COUCH

    You’ve certainly done your homework for this article, Jamie. At senior school I remember our teacher (well our English grammar textbook) touching on modern languages being descended from an Indo-European ancestor language albeit briefly. I must confess I thought of the very obvious suspects for the inspiration of the Dothraki e.g. Genghis Khan and the Mongols (well as you mention above GRRM did blend the Mongols into the mix). Is it possible that romanies (gypsies) fitted in there anywhere at all. In the 1950s and early 1960s some of the local (to where I live) gypsies used to roll up with their horses and caravans to park for a while just down the road from where I live (that site has since been built on and there is another housing estate being built a little further out and yet another one scheduled to be built on the other side of the road – there just isn’t as much open land in a small country like the UK as there used to be). Then they’d move on after about 6 or 8 weeks. I’m posting a link to a site referring to the late Ewan McColl’s song “The Travelling People” if anyone is interested. http://www.irish-folk-songs.com/the-travelling-people-lyrics-and-guitar-chords.html

    I’m also linking to a Guardian article (from quite some time ago – 2003) which mentions some research which suggests that Genghis Khan left many descendants (in Asia at least). http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/mar/02/science.research

    In the late James A Mitchener’s “Poland” it was mentioned that there were descendants of the Mongols in the Polish population. (James A Mitchener as people may know continued writing into his 90s which gives me heart when people mumble about GRRM being in his 60s and not having finished ASOIAF, though I’d rather not have to wait till I’m in my 90s to know the end!)

    • Reply May 25, 2016

      Jamie Adair

      Hey Watcher,
      re: Genghis Khan, the Mongols, etc.
      So, I wrote this article primarily because of the article I’m about to publish about horse sacrifice. (This article grew out of the horse sacrifice article.) A friend of mine showed me the section to horse sacrifice in a book about linguistics & Proto-Indo-Europeans. So my starting point for research may have led me on to the wrong track a little bit. Meaning GRRM may have never intended for the Dothraki to be like reconstructed Proto-Indo-Europeans, etc. I don’t know. I’m only just begun looking into this and have a few more books I want to read.

      So what I’m trying to say in a very awkward way is that I may be wrong about there being a Proto-Indo-European influence in addition to the Huns, etc. I read GRRM say something about Genghis Khan once — that he either was or wasn’t an influence. But I don’t remember offhand which it was.
      But, the point of this site, although it doesn’t always come across like this is, is to use ASOIAF/GoT to springboard into history. (So I’m okay with kind of going out on a limb about PIE societies… :>) )

      By the way, the article about horse sacrifice is really disgusting. I don’t necessarily recommend that everyone read it – and I won’t be offended if people don’t read it. I’m going to put a violence warning on it because it will make some people sick to their stomach. (I seriously can’t believe I write such gory stuff sometimes, but I don’t believe in whitewashing things or drowning them in euphemisms. I want people to feel what the event was like.) In fact, I might put a second violence warning in the article, so people can read it up until the really awful parts if they want.

    • Reply May 25, 2016

      Jamie Adair

      Also, thanks for the links. I don’t know much about the romanies, but (of course) I know I would find their history interesting. 🙂
      re: the Genghis Khan article
      Wow!!! This is mind blowing: “Warlord Khan has 16m male relatives alive now, says study” and another stunning quote: “That now appears to account for around 8% of the men in central Asia.'” Can you imagine being able to say your a descendent of Genghis Khan??

  • Reply May 24, 2016

    Jun

    Jamie, this is very fascinating. I have to re-read it and look up some stuff to comment intelligently about the subject. Great work!

    It’s indeed unfortunate what the Nazis have done to Aryan history, which had been a part of the identity of people in Iran and India for millennia.

    • Reply May 24, 2016

      Jamie Adair

      Thanks! This is the first part of a series actually. I ended up doing a lot of research so once I started writing, I realized that I needed to break it up into 2-3 articles. I actually think I might write something about the term Aryan and India and Iran….

      • Reply May 25, 2016

        Jun

        Great! I’d love to learn more about the proto-Indo-European people. It was only recently, with my interest in Mahabharata, that I learned a little of the history of India and the origin of the Aryan. How sad and twisted that the cultural history of an ancient civilization was perverted by Nazis, who appropriated the Vedas and the swastika for their racist purposes. And to claim that the darker people from whom they steal all this are inferior and less “pure” than the blond, blue-eyed Northern Europeans … how delusional and in denial did they have to be? Yet people believed it nevertheless. There’s a popular saying in Chinese, “You can’t wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.” Willful ignorance cannot be cured by reason and logic.

  • Reply May 27, 2016

    Alayne Stone

    Marriage by abduction was legal? Sounds like the wildlings.

    • Reply May 27, 2016

      WATCHER ON THE COUCH

      Alayne, have you ever read the Edward II blogspot. This link leads to an account of an abduction and marriage http://edwardthesecond.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/the-abduction-of-margaret-audley-1336.html You can find a sprinkling of accounts of other abductions if you do a search on “abduction” on that site and that’s just during one English king’s reign. Unfortunately marriage by abduction took place sometimes in medieval England though I don’t think it was really approved of.

  • Reply May 30, 2016

    Jun

    The history in Watcher’s link is quite shocking. How awful to be a woman in that time.

    Abduction is in fact one of the eight types of marriages recorded in Hindu history. It’s known as Rakshasa marriage and is considered unacceptable for Brahmins but valid for Kshatriyas, ie, the warrior caste.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marriage_in_Hinduism

    Another acceptable marriage type for Kshatriyas only is Gandharva marriage, which is essentially a love marriage of mutual affection without families’ approval.

    In Mahabharata, Rakshasa marriage is described a couple of times, although over time it is no longer clear whether the unions were Rakshasa or Gandharva marriage. Nevertheless, we know that mating by abduction was not uncommon in hunter-gatherer societies and honor-based tribal societies.

    When the PIEs/Aryans migrated into India in 2000 to 1400 BCE, they brought with them the warrior culture that has left an imprint till today. When I first encountered Mahabharata, I was immediately struck by its cultural similarity to ancient Greek myths. Besides the idealization of warriors and death (see Achilles and Arjuna), both Iliad and Mahabharata mention the abduction of women, but in Mahabharata women are not described as a trigger for war.

    To my ears the Dothraki language sounds not so much like Arabic but rather closer to Persian (and Portuguese). Too bad it does not sound like Hindu, which is also descended from Proto-Indo-European language.

  • Reply May 31, 2016

    WATCHER ON THE COUCH

    When I posted before I quite forgot to mention the rape of the Sabine women (though ‘rape’ may mean ‘seizure’ in that context) in the legend that has grown up around the founding of Rome. That’s already a well-known legend so I’ll just give a link to the relevant Wikipedia article rather than retell it. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rape_of_the_Sabine_Women

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