The drama and the invented language

Fascinating read in the New Yorker about invented languages – most of which fail -and the other dramas surrounding them. The main focus is Ithkuil, a language invented by John Quijada, but broadly describes conlangs (constructed languages) and their inventors and adherents, sprinkled with interesting linguistic or language facts (George Soros is a native speaker of Esperanto!)

Unlike earlier philosophers and idealists, who believed that their languages could perfect humanity, modern conlangers tend to create their languages primarily as a hobby and a form of self-expression. Jim Henry, a retired software developer from Stockbridge, Georgia, keeps a diary and prays in his constructed language, gjâ-zym-byn. If there is a god paying attention, he is the language’s only other speaker.

Many conlanging projects begin with a simple premise that violates the inherited conventions of linguistics in some new way. Aeo uses only vowels. Kēlen has no verbs. Toki Pona, a language inspired by Taoist ideals, was designed to test how simple a language could be. It has just a hundred and twenty-three words and fourteen basic sound units. Brithenig is an answer to the question of what English might have sounded like as a Romance language, if vulgar Latin had taken root on the British Isles. Láadan, a feminist language developed in the early nineteen-eighties, includes words like radíidin, defined as a “non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help.”

The underlying structure of the language is largely glossed over, although the broad brush strokes are compelling. Most languages have cool tools, little aspects that make it more interesting than other languages, be it situational or grammatical or in lexicon. In Ithkuil Quijada attempted to bring together all of these linguistic wonders into a single language – and then, having read the cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s “Metaphors We Live By,” attempted to make a language precise, to remove the need for metaphor.

Quijada opened his presentation the next morning by showing an image of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2,” a seminal work of Cubist painting, which captures a figure in motion with abstract lines and planes. It’s not an easy work to describe in any language, but Quijada wanted to demonstrate how one would attempt the task in Ithkuil.

He began with several of the language’s root words: -QV- for person, -GV- for clothing, -TN- for an implement that counters gravity, and -GW- for ambulation, and showed how to transform those roots through each of the language’s twenty-two grammatical categories to arrive at the six-word sentence “Aukkras êqutta ogvëuļa tnou’elkwa pal-lši augwaikštülnàmbu,” which translates roughly to “An imaginary representation of a nude woman in the midst of descending a staircase in a step-by-step series of tightly integrated ambulatory bodily movements which combine into a three-dimensional wake behind her, forming a timeless, emergent whole to be considered intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically.”

When Quijada is invited to the conference “Creative Technology: Perspectives and Means of Development,” to speak on Ithkuil, he discovers that it is now being used by an odd sect of quasi intellectuals based in a Buddhist state, influential on anti Semitic Ukrainian terrorists and using Ithkuil to literally think different.

“We think that when a person learns Ithkuil his brain works faster,” Vishneva told him, in Russian. She spoke through a translator, as neither she nor Quijada was yet fluent in their shared language. “With Ithkuil, you always have to be reflecting on yourself. Using Ithkuil, we can see things that exist but don’t have names, in the same way that Mendeleyev’s periodic table showed gaps where we knew elements should be that had yet to be discovered.”

Really makes Esperanto seem so run of the mill, doesn’t it?

You can read Quijada’s text online Ithkuil: A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language or purchase the 450 page book from the same site.

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