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Game of Thrones Fan Meets Sociolinguistic-Teacher-Nerd

Spoiler Alert – may contain spoiler references through episode 2 of Season 6.

Sticky-note doodle by Olivia Mulcahy.

I just finished powering through an intensive re-watching of the first 5 seasons of Game of Thrones (GoT) in preparation for Season 6 and I must say, watching the series again from the beginning has revealed a lot. And I mean, beyond all the fully-frontally nude bodies.

Watching episodes over again while knowing what the future held for each character helped me glimpse the level of planning and layers of crafting that went into reaching the crescendo to which every season builds. The seasons are linked through an intricate collection of seemingly unrelated and minor details that later intersect and catalyze key events. For example, the first time through season 4, I had zero recollection of the character who was drunkenly stalking Sansa to thank her for kindly saving his life. (When asked “Don’t you know me?” Sansa pauses for a sec but REALLY quickly remembers his name and how they met— and I’m thinking, WHO in the blazes is Ser Dontos and WHEN did she save him from WHAT??) But of course, in re-watching season 2, I tune in in a whole new way to a short scene in which Sansa deftly manipulates Joffrey’s ego and convinces him to make a knight who has vexed him (by enjoying too much wine at his Name Day celebration) into a fool rather than execute him for his inebriate infractions. Originally I had written it off as a scene that was simply illustrative of the dynamic between Sansa and Joffrey. Ser Dontos’s continued existence, it seemed to me at the time, was just the byproduct of providing Sansa’s character an opportunity to demonstrate her emerging strategic edginess. But lo, in season 4 we find he has a significant role to play – after the aforementioned stalking, Ser Dontos is the guy who whisks Sansa from the chaos of the Purple Wedding and saves her life, for the time being. The point is: There are no throw-away moments. We are meant to see everything, however subtle, that the camera shows us though we may not be aware of a given detail’s future import. There is intention in every scene – sometimes it seems, in every frame.

So instead of just enjoying all the new, previously unnoticed things to notice and speculating about what’s to come in Season 6, the teacher-nerd in me automatically starts contemplating how much the creation of an artfully-done TV show parallels the process of artfully-done curriculum development. The collaborative effort required throughout planning and execution (no pun intended!); achieving a coherent balance of overt themes and nuanced motifs; the thoughtful consideration of pacing and engagement of its audience (students); the deliberate progression of experiences to lead the audience (students) to reach certain specific understandings that build on each other in elegant, interconnected ways while leaving room to develop and explore individual theories and reflections.

NOT that I’m suggesting HBO should branch out into K-12 curriculum development. Just saying, my curriculum-designing-teacher-self was nerding out. And THEN, my inner sociolinguistic-nerd emerged…

Because as I watched it all unfold again what REALLY struck me like a Valyrian steel sword to the skull, like a dragonglass dagger in the back of a White Walker, like the bolt of a crossbow to an “indisposed” Lannister, (too much?)…were the languages!

I realized that I was trying to listen more carefully while I read the subtitles for dialogue in Dothraki to see if I could isolate specific words or decipher patterns in the syntax.

AND found myself speculating about the efforts that went into constructing the various distinct languages in the GoT world, whether or not they were grammatically viable, and how they might stack up as compared to those of say, Middle-earth or, a certain galaxy far, far away.

THEN I started pondering random cynical questions like: I wonder if the sci-fi fantasy fiction entertainment business is providing invented languages at a higher or lower rate than the real world is losing actual indigenous languages forever. [Sinking feeling in pit of stomach.]

On a more positive note, I noticed what a bad-ass interpreter Messandei is (19 languages!) and how her facility for languages and her keen intercultural awareness was her way out of otherwise grim circumstances – kind of like a savvier and sexier C3PO.

I giggled with empathetic recognition when Tyrion, in self-consciously apologizing for his level of proficiency in Valyrian, used the wrong word when speaking to the Queen/Khaleesi—who would decide either to take him on as an advisor or have him beheaded (a relatively high affective filter moment). And I found myself wondering at the imaginary root in High Valyrian that the word for “rusty” and the word for “nostril” must share.

Speaking of the Queen/Khaleesi, I vibed with Daenerys several times when she allowed others to carry on speaking carelessly in front of her (indulging their assumptions about her identity and knowledge of their language), only to reveal at a carefully chosen moment that she had understood their insults all along. I’ve been there–except with much lower stakes and much less vile commentary.

I recognized in the fantasy societies of Westeros, Essos, and Sothoryos an all too familiar parallel to the sociolinguistic hegemony that exists in our own un-fantastic reality; both are worlds in which the “high born” are highly literate in many languages while the “low born” speak a “low” form of one language or a regional dialect and have few opportunities for formal literacy instruction, never mind multiple literacies.

Ultimately I wondered: In which cases and to what degree are George R.R. or the producers of Game of Thrones unconsciously mirroring our actual flawed realities or reflecting them back at us on purpose to make a point? This “art imitating life” type of question could be asked, and is asked, about the violence, gender roles, sexuality, and political dynamics in GoT, but let’s think about the language aspect and how it intersects with all of these other aspects.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, what messages about language is Game of Thrones sending us? What does GoT tell us about our current sociolinguistic dysfunctions? About the sociolinguistic goals to which as individuals and as a society we should aspire?

Let’s ruminate on that as we watch the next seasons. But whatever other insights we gather, let’s just take a minute right now to notice and acknowledge the role of language as an integral part of what our societies are and what they can become. Our languages, how we use them and who gets to use them, as tools to both express ourselves and shape ourselves, have great power.

Me nem nesa. (It is known.)

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