With the new season of Game of Thrones starting, I have been thinking about writing and literacy in the world of the show.
NB This post contains NO SPOILERS FOR SEASON 7! Please note also that copyright for the books belongs to George R R Martin, for the show to HBO and for the created languages to David J Peterson.
Image from HERE.
The novels in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R R Martin give lots of hints at linguistic diversity in both Westeros and Essos. In the books, very occasionally a word or short phrase appears from one of the other languages (i.e. ones other than the ‘Common Tongue’, represented by English in the show). Probably most famous is valar morghulis, meaning “all men must die” in High Valyrian. But for the most part the books only signal the existence of the languages without giving any details. The show, made by HBO under the direction of David Benioff and D B Weiss (see the official website), takes the languages of Essos a great deal further. They employed a linguist, David J Peterson (see more HERE), to develop George R R Martin’s hints into fully fledged, constructed languages that could be used in the show with subtitles to show us what the characters are saying.
This post, however, is going to focus not on languages specifically but on writing. I hope these thoughts on various aspects of writing and literacy, drawn from my watching of Game of Thrones over the last few years, will prove interesting!
Literacy in Westeros
Most of the writing we see in Westeros (i.e. the western continent, where the Starks, Lannisters, et al live) is in bound books, which we know can be collected in libraries; we have seen a library at Castle Black, for instance, as well as the huge one at the Citadel in Oldtown. Short messages are also frequently written on small, sealed scrolls to be sent by raven. Both these kinds of writing are on what we could call ‘perishable’ materials. I don’t know of any examples of ‘monumental’ inscriptions, for example the sort that might be written on large pieces of stone and displayed in public. This in itself might suggest that writing is the preserve of an educated elite, and that the masses are not thought of as a suitable target audience for written messages.
Although there are some hints at linguistic diversity in Westeros, especially north of the wall (Mance Rayder’s army contained speakers of several languages, for example), the Common Tongue is the only one that we tend to hear spoken or see in writing. The attitude to literacy in Westeros generally looks quite similar to what we might expect of late medieval England, the historical period that provided general inspiration for George R R Martin in writing the books. High-borns are highly educated and can read well, while those at the lower end of the social scale are less likely to be able to read at all.
Image from HERE.
We’ve seen two examples of people being taught to read as adults in the show – first Davos (who grew up as a crabber’s son in King’s Landing), and then Gilly (who grew up in her father’s keep north of the wall), both taught by Stannis Baratheon’s daughter Shireen. They clearly had different degrees of exposure to literacy to start with, however. Davos had for a long time been pestered by his son – who was literate himself – to learn to read, and eventually he realised that he would make a better Hand if he could. For wildling Gilly, however, writing was almost completely unknown to her until she met Sam. In fact, in Season 3 when Sam told Gilly of his knowledge of the Wall, learnt from reading books, she at first thought he was like a wizard – and she only later began to learn to read herself with Shireen’s help.
One thing that has always puzzled me surrounds an episode in Season 2, which may give us another clue about literacy. When Tyrion and Bronn are preparing for the Battle of Blackwater, one scene finds them sitting together while Tyrion reads books about famous sieges. One of the books is written by an Archmaester whose name Tyrion has trouble pronouncing: Ch’Vyalthan (which Varys confirms is pronounced Shavyalthan). But what is interesting is that Bronn looks at the name and guesses it is pronounced something like Shavalteesh – how on earth could he think the last part of the word, -than, could be pronounced -teesh?
Image from HERE.
The answer surely has to be that Bronn cannot read, and is making a guess that sounds a bit different from what he has just heard Tyrion say. If Bronn were literate such a mistake seems impossible, unless there could be some very strange orthographic rules at play! If this were the ancient Mediterranean, we might expect a mercenary soldier like Bronn to be literate, if only because we have a lot of informal writing surviving from literate mercenaries (who, for example, wrote their names all over Egyptian monuments – there are even ancient graffiti on the blocks of the Great Pyramid). In Game of Thrones, however, we may be dealing with a completely different situation with regard to literacy.
Languages and writing in Essos
Moving on now to Essos, the eastern continent, there is a great deal more evidence for different languages and occasionally for writing. In the show we hear a lot of High Valyrian, especially from Season 3 onwards. In Essos this is evidently a language that has a high degree of prestige, being seen for example as a language fit for poetry and literature (akin to the prestige of medieval Latin, perhaps?) – though it is evidently something that is also widely spoken. We very rarely see it written, but there is one scene in Season 3 when Talisa Stark writes a letter to her mother in Valyrian. The glimpse we have shows flowing penmanship written in ink on something that looks like parchment or a similar medium: see HERE on the Making of Game of Thrones blog.
Image from HERE.
Although it has some distinctive features, this Valyrian writing (which we could label ‘cursive’) looks quite close to the Roman alphabet. Again we never seem to see Valyrian written in more monumental contexts, for example on stone – a situation similar to what we saw in Westeros, which means we can again probably think in terms of restricted literacy.
In Meereen, we do see graffiti a couple of times, but they always written in English in the normal Roman alphabet. This has sometimes been remarked on as strange (e.g. see HERE) but I suppose we should assume they are translated for convenience as it seems unlikely they would have been written originally in the Common Tongue (which seems to be Westerosi in origin) by the people of Meereen.There is another possibility, however. It seems unlikely that most of the people of Meereen, especially the ex-slaves, would have been able to write. However, we saw in Season 4 an example of an ex-slave who had been a teacher, and who had taught languages (and we might think also writing) to the children of a noble family. This rather reminds me of the presence of Greek slaves in ancient Rome, individuals with low social standing but a high degree of education. Is it possible that these graffiti are deliberately written in the Common Tongue by educated ex-slaves?
Image from HERE.
A brief excursus here: In one of the graffiti the word mhysa (the word for“mother”, referring to Daenerys) is transliterated but not translated into the Common Tongue. In fact, one of the first times we hear the word mhysa in Game of Thrones is at the end of Season 3, when the freed slaves of Yunkai first use the term for Daenerys. But what is curious is that Daenerys, who speaks perfect Valyrian, does not recognise the word, and is told be the translator Missandei that it is the Old Ghiscari (another local language) word for “mother”. However, we do hear it in Valyrian at other times – perhaps it is an Old Ghiscari loanword that has been adopted in Valyrian?
Other languages in Essos seem not to be written down. It looks to me as though Dothraki is never written (which I think is supported in what I have read in David J. Peterson’s book Living Language Dothraki). As far as I can find out, Valyrian may be the only language of Essos that has any kind of developed writing tradition at all. But I just want to finish with a completely different type of writing system – if you can call it that – which turns up in Volantis.
Image from HERE.
Volantis is a slave city, where the nobles disdain to talk to slaves unless they have to. Slaves are tattooed with a symbol denoting their profession, with for example fish for fishermen, flies for dung shovellers and most famously tears for prostitutes. You could perhaps only call this writing in the loosest sense, but there is a clear correlation between the sign and the profession denoted, which could be seen as a kind of pictography – plus this is clearly a widely used and understood system. In the study of writing, however, this opens up something of a can of worms and it all depends on how we define writing to begin with! No doubt this is a question we will come back to in the future…
Next time we’ll be moving back to the ancient world, but for now I hope you have enjoyed these musings on writing in the world of Game of Thrones. Although there is not very much we can say on writing systems in Westeros and Essos, the context in which writing appears is itself very important – and actually, as our research shows, the social context of literacy is absolutely key to understanding writing and writing systems themselves. So next time you watch Game of Thrones, keep an eye out for signs of writing, and if you see any then please do share them with us here or via Twitter (@crewproject).
EDIT: Images of some written material from Game of Thrones Season 7 (specifically episodes 2 and 6) have been released HERE, HERE and HERE on the Making of Game of Thrones blog. Beware of season 7 spoilers right up to the end if you click through – some of the letters are related to important plot points! (Some season 6 letters can also be found under the ‘Letters’ tag).
~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)
Disclaimer: I am not in any way affiliated with Game of Thrones, and write this only as an interested fan of the books and show.