Bethesda games have always had a strong internal consistency. Dragonborn and the shouts they employ stand at the center of the Skyrim game experience, so there needed to be a rich background to make the system feel authentic. The answer lay in the creation of a language – the ancient tongue spoken and written by the dragons. The mammoth task of tackling such a project fell largely on senior designer Emil Pagliarulo.

“The first thing I worked on when I came to Bethesda was the Bloodmoon expansion to Morrowind,” Pagliarulo tells us. “And back then, I started really entrenching myself in all this Viking culture stuff. One of the things I listened to back then that I was able to find again recently was a reading of Beowulf in Old English. That was always my inspiration. What would an epic sound like? So I knew what I wanted it to sound like.”

But where to start? In the case of Skyrim, Pagliarulo had a distinct goal in mind. He knew there would be these scattered walls across Skyrim from which the dragonborn would learn the shouts. Here was a chance to create a whole new branch of mythology and legend for the world of Tamriel, writ large upon the ancient ruins of the land for players to discover. The team also wanted to have the language work into other elements of the game, including as a song that could be integrated into the main Elder Scrolls musical theme – the music that gamers would eventually hear in Skyrim’s teaser trailer.

“It had to rhyme in English and the dragon language. It had to tell this epic story,” Pagliarulo explains about the challenge of creating the stanzas that would populate the Skyrim theme. “But I also knew we wanted to use it for the game. It was sort of interesting, because we knew we wanted to have this language as a game device, because we have these gameplay mechanics built around it. So, you’re not developing it as an actual language. It’s much more word based or hieroglyphic based.”

Almost immediately, the challenges of creating a new language began to appear. How do you handle past, present, and future tense? Do verbs conjugate? What is the alphabet like? All of these were issues that needed to be addressed if the language was going to be useable in the game. “We started off making specific rules for the way words would work together,” Pagliarulo says. “So the way you would do ‘king’ would be the word for ‘son’ and the word for ‘leader,’ except you take off this one letter. And then we realized that it had started to collapse under its own weight. The more rules we wanted to keep track of, and the more complex it became, we knew the more complicated it would be for the designers to use, and the more mistakes we would make. So we really tried to keep it much more simple.”

The language concept that emerged abandoned tense, conjugation, and even upper and lower case letters, preferring that the context imply those ideas. For instance, in the translation of Game Informer’s back cover, the word “fundein” translates to “unfurled,” but it could mean either unfurl or unfurled, depending on where the word is used. Similarly, the word “prodah” could mean either foretell or foretold.

“Once we established the baseline, and the designers started using it, I was glad we kept it simple,” Pagliarulo says. “Because, boy, can it get out from under you. You’ll be like, ‘I need a word for “thunder,” I’ll do this.’ And you’ll realize you already have a word for that, and it was spelled differently. Then you have to go back through and fix all those instances. It’s a remarkable lesson in why the word ‘dear’ [or ‘deer’] means so many things in English.”

Not everything had to be such a tremendous challenge. Because Bethesda was designing the dragon language from scratch, they could shape the way it sounded to the vibe they wanted to express in the game. “You can choose the words for a concept that sound the best. The ones that feel more epic. The ones that roll together well,” Pagliarulo declares. “Like the word ‘dovahkiin.’ ‘Dova’ means dragon. ‘Kiin’ means child. So we did a lot of that. We played with the words. How did it all flow together?”

The sound of the dragon language when you hear it spoken or sung has a vaguely Germanic or Scandinavian sound to it. It’s a harsh but oddly beautiful sound that feels right at home in the rugged landscape of Skyrim. And you’ll hear it in plenty of places. Not only do the dragons and the Greybeards recall this long-dead language, but many other creatures in the world do as well. Included among them are the undead draugr, ancient Nord warriors who will call out in dragon language from their skeletal frames, threatening to pull you down to join them.

Next up: The secret to the written language of the dragons, and some of the specific dragon shouts that will appear in the final game