I celebrated Thanksgiving for the first time after I moved from Spain to the US as a young adult, and quickly embraced the concept of a holiday centred on gratitude. Even though I didn’t grow up with the tradition, I told myself the act of giving thanks is universal.
I was wrong.
If you watch Game of Thrones, you may recall that Dothraki speakers are unusual in that they have no word for ‘thank you.’ It turns out, many languages around the world also lack a way to say ‘thanks,’ according to a study published earlier this year in Royal Society Open Science.
I reached out to David J. Peterson, who created the Dothraki language for the HBO show, to get his take on this study—and what it might reveal about Dothraki culture.
The interview below is edited for clarity and conciseness.
Illusion Chasers: A recent study about gratitude expression has found that many human languages have no word for thanks. Were you surprised when you learned about this?
Peterson: Absolutely. Yes. Very surprising. The way this all started, I created the Dothraki language when they were going to film the pilot of Game of Thrones, and this was going to be an internal pilot that was just showed to HBO, and then HBO would decide if they were going to turn this show into a series or not. I had produced over 300 pages of material to show to the producers to help to distinguish my proposal from everybody else's. I [also] made a one-page sheet of fun facts about the language. I mentioned what the longest word of Dothraki was, and I also mentioned that Dothraki had three words for push, three words for pull, three words for carry, and fourteen words for horse, but it didn't have a word for please. So at the time, Dothraki did have a word for thank you because it just seemed like it should, and so I created one. After they chose [my proposal], they revised the pilot script. And of their own accord, without consulting me, they added the line about Dothraki not having a word for thank you. This came from my idea that Dothraki didn't have a word for please [but] I never said anything about thank you. And in fact, Dothraki did have one [word for thank you].
Illusion Chasers: What did you think of the decision to not have a way to say ‘thanks’ in Dothraki?
Peterson: I was always kind of unhappy with the situation. I thought it was unrealistic that a language wouldn't have a word for thank you.
Illusion Chasers: But now researchers say that it is realistic not having a word for ‘thanks.’
Peterson: Yeah. When I read the study and looked at it, it kind of hit me, and I was struck, and it made absolute sense. I think my instinct was right that there would be no culture where you couldn't or wouldn't express gratitude. But where I was wrong, where I was using my English brain, is thinking that you had to have a word to express gratitude and then, furthermore, that you would express gratitude in all of the same places from culture to culture.
Illusion Chasers: According to this study, we express our gratitude more reliably to strangers than to our family and friends, because we are implicitly aware of our rights and duties with regards to people close to us. Is it fair to speculate that there is no need to say thanks in Dothraki society because of an implicit understanding of rights and obligations?
Peterson: [Dothraki] society, such as it is, is quite spread out. It's very rule governed, but it's not as if everybody knows everybody. They have one major city where few people live year-round. Different bands that come back to the city, maybe once a year, maybe once every two years, and then branch out in many, many different directions, and then just they're constantly on the move. Certainly amongst their Khalasar, which is the word for their tribe or band, everybody is going to know everybody. But much of their existence is spent interacting with strangers, and not just strangers that don't speak Dothraki, but strangers that are Dothraki that they'll meet from time to time either on their trail or back in their city.
Illusion Chasers: Without a word for thanks, how do the Dothraki express appreciation?
Peterson: In the books, what kind of replaces [thanking somebody] is gifts. When Dothraki respect somebody, whether it's an individual or a society, they will bring them gifts unannounced. They will exchange gifts, not on any preordained day or for any custom that's been settled upon, but it will just be one day the Dothraki arrive and they will give you a gift, and you should give them gifts as well. I don't think this is in the show, it’s just mentioned by George R. R. Martin in the books. What we don't really see is very small interactions between one band of Dothraki on an ordinary day where nobody's riding off or going to war and where there isn't a foreigner present. Basically, any time we see Dothraki culture in the books, it's through the eyes of a foreigner, and so there's always that layer between us and their society. In my opinion, there is some form of reciprocity that doesn't seem to be based on gratitude, but it's more based on respect and the estimation of the strength of their friend or adversary.
Illusion Chasers: This same study mentions that people can find it awkward or even rude in some cultures when others thank them. Would the Dothraki feel that way?
Peterson: It would depend on the social structure. If they viewed them as somebody that was not a martial threat, they would find it silly and a sign of weakness. If it was somebody that was far more powerful than they were, I think that they would find it incredibly awkward and wouldn't know how to react to that.
Illusion Chasers: Again based on this study, even though saying thanks is fairly unusual around the globe, what seems to be universal is the willingness to comply with small requests, such as sharing a snack. How do the Dothraki respond to requests for small favors?
Peterson: For the most part, if they need something, they’ll go and take it. If the person they take it from respects them or they're a close friend or a family member, then that's it. And then that's fine. So I would say, they should fall into the universal normal range of allowing and complying with requests.
The only thing that I would add is that, much like, I think, everybody else who reads the books, I really am just kind of a researcher, in terms of Dothraki culture. In creating the language and fleshing it out, I'm not the ultimate authority on everything having to do with the Dothraki. That's certainly George R. R. Martin. So everything I said, take it with that level of authority. It's not absolute. It's based on what I've studied.