David J. Peterson is the award-winning creator of Dothraki and High Valyrian in “Game of Thrones,” the multiple languages and dialects of “Defiance” and “The 100,” and has now created the rich languages of Tarsem Singh’s new NBC epic fantasy, “Emerald City.” We got him to tell us a little bit about this fascinating occupation, and were able to glean a lot more about the worldbuilding of this anticipated drama.
As a kid I devoured all fourteen original Oz books by L. Frank Baum, and as a teenager I read and loved Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked,” so I was ecstatic to be able to work on David Schulner’s reimagining of the Oz books, “Emerald City.”
I was also a little curious at first as to where I would fit in (after all, in “The Marvelous Land of Oz,” it’s revealed by Jellia Jamb that “in all the land of Oz but one language is spoken”). But when I heard that Tarsem Singh (writer and director of literally — not figuratively — the greatest movie ever made, “The Fall”) would be directing all ten episodes of the first season, I realized this was going to be something special — something big.
“Emerald City” required two new language projects, each quite different in character. The first, Munja’kin, was a bit easier for me to conceptualize. The Munja’kin are “Emerald City’s” analog of Baum’s Munchkins. I inherited three words from the original pilot script: Munja’kin, the name of the language and the people; simoa, their word for “witch”; and toto, their word for “dog” (I wish I could take credit for that one).
The first thing I had to contend with was the word Munja’kin itself. Language creators are not fans of the spurious — often decorative — apostrophes that show up in fantasy and sci-fi names, so I had to give it some substance. Thus the apostrophe has the same pronunciation as the backwards apostrophe (or ‘okina) in the native pronunciations of Hawai‘i and Kaua‘i.
With that, plus input from the names of some of the Munja’kin characters, I came up with the sound system and syllable structure of the language.
The grammar is a little bit of a throwback to an earlier language of mine, Kamakawi. In particular, I wanted the language to lack personal agreement (e.g. I eat vs. she eats), but also didn’t want a lot of pronoun repetition, so I gave it a switch reference system. In successive clauses, a switch reference system tells the listener if the subject of the second clause is the same or different from the subject of the first clause.
I’ll show you. It shows up in one of the first Munja’kin lines of the first episode (word-for-word gloss below; SS stands for “same subject”):
Hio si’o ki hi Munja’kin lanú inju hio monala.
Speak you by the Munja’kin [SS] not speak or.
“You speak Munja’kin or you don’t speak.”
In this case, the word lanú indicates that the next subject will be the same as in the previous sentence. The different subject marker, la, would be used to indicate the subject is different. Here it just saves a word (the repetition of the pronoun si’o) — but considering that a subject can be as long as a full sentence, it saves quite a bit of space over time. Plus, it’s fun to use!
The second Oz language was a unique challenge for me. Ordinarily I’m called upon to create naturalistic languages — languages that function more or less like human languages. Inha, the language of the witches, is something quite different. All witches in Oz are born with the ability to speak and understand Inha. That means the language doesn’t spread the way languages ordinarily spread: With children learning the language, making it their own, and eventually passing it on to their children in a slightly altered form. A language like that evolves over time; this one does not.
For the sound of the language, I was encouraged to take inspiration from Romanian. I loved the plethora of diphthongs and triphthongs you get in Romanian, so I kind of ran with it. You can see it in this scripted line from Jinjur:
“Mistress of the North?”
For the structure of the language, though, I was really at a bit of a loss. The origin of the language is a mystery — how might a magical language, that doesn’t evolve, organize itself? I had one idea, that was actually galvanized by an early meeting with Ana Ularu, who plays West (and whose command of the language is flawless).
The land of Oz is divided into four sections (north, south, east, and west), with the Emerald City in the center. Each section is a country; each country is ruled by a witch; and in the show, each witch is associated with a particular primary element. The language, then, is also divided into four variants. Each variant falls into one of the four cardinal directions, each associated with one of the four elements, and a color.
Each witch is born speaking one variety, with the ability to understand all of them. The result is four slightly different grammatical systems. Here’s an example of the phrase “The girls are sleeping” in all four variants:
Fire: Poeliu geriis.
Stone: Poelnun gernis.
Wind: Poelhu gerhis.
Water: Poelua geraias.
My favorite is Water, but the standard, when one is required (e.g. when speaking in unison), is Stone. This is Glinda’s variant, and the one which gets the most air time.
There’s just a bit of Ozian dialogue in the first two episodes, but there’s much more to come. It was an absolute joy to be able to add some linguistic texture to the world of “Emerald City,” and I hope both new and old Oz fans will enjoy it.
“Emerald City” airs Fridays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.