Dothraki and other sub-cultural languages – the focus of a unique PhD study

Marelize Santana -- Fri, 06/23/2017 - 11:53

Dothraki and other sub-cultural languages – the focus of a unique PhD study

“Me zisosh disse”. It is just a flesh wound. This would certainly be good news if you were wounded and one of the native speakers of the language used in this sentence. It is Dothraki and it is the fantasy language that was created for the television series Game of Thrones. Today, the language is spoken by a significant number of people who belong to a sub-cultural group in society.

This is the kind of language that interests North-West University (NWU) PhD student, Natasha Ravyse. Natasha’s study is entitled “Revisiting ethno linguistic vitality: The case of subcultural repertoires within a super diverse world”. It focuses on the languages used by sub-cultural groups in society. These are groups in the broader society that have different beliefs and values, and do things differently from the mainstream or general society. In the Southern African context, for example, the mineworkers who use a language like Fanagalo view themselves as a special group because of their job.

Fanagalo is the specific language that this group uses, but it is not officially recognised as a language by general society. Similarly, there is a group of people across the world who use Klingon, a constructed language spoken by the fictional characters of Klingon descent in the Star Trek series of feature films. Natasha is interested in understanding how unofficial languages like Fanagalo and Klingon are used in these groups that do not typically form part of the mainstream society.

To boldly explore new (language) ground
Her search for data has proved to be quite daunting. “In the beginning I got a huge response”, she says, “especially from Klingon speakers. The Klingon language has an entire language institute dedicated to it”. She managed to reach an administrator of the institute who helped her data gathering process immensely.  

The Dothraki, Valerian and New Valerian languages from the Game of Thrones franchise are still very new. While gathering data for her study, Natasha came across a list detailing speakers of these languages and categorising them as novice, intermediate or fluent!  

This discovery put her into contact with many speakers of sub-cultural languages, mainly from the North American continent. In European countries, especially France and Germany, the sub-cultural language Esperanto is widely spoken. Natasha also managed to contact a fair number of respondents who speak Esperanto. Her main struggle however, was on home soil.

Speakers of Fanagalo, Flaaitaal and Tsotsitaal are quite hard to find and not very keen on taking part in the research. “The fact that these languages are not formally recognised means there are no exact statistics available about them.  We don’t know how many people speak each of these languages and this certainly complicates things,” she says.

Challenges are part of data gathering
Although the process of data gathering was quite stressful, this was not her first time at the rodeo – so to speak. Her master’s study, which looked specifically at Fanagalo, saw Natasha gathering data at a very volatile time in South African history, shortly after the Marikana shooting.  

It took her six months to gain permission to interview respondents at the mine where she did her research. The day after she concluded it, violence erupted again. Her efforts were rewarded with the NWU Chancellor’s medal for research.  

Natasha says her love for research started at the NWU when she enrolled for an honours degree in 2013. Her academic career took flight, and exploring, discovering and understanding became her passion. “If, at the end of my life, my research has brought insight into things that were previously not well understood, that will be enough for me. I will be happy”, she humbly says. 

Natasha Ravyse studies languages used by sub-cultural groups in society.