Nice essay in the New Yorker by Joshua Foer about a guy who invented a language in his spare time while working for the DMV. John Quijada created the new language Ithkuil which attempts to maximize clarity in human communication. A few favorite passages and a little commentary:
1. Quijada’s idea to create a language was inspired Magma, french progressive rock band.
Quijada’s entry into artificial languages was inspired by the utopian politics of Esperanto as well as by the import bin at his local record store, where as a teen-ager, in the nineteen-seventies, he discovered a concept album by the French prog-rock band Magma. All the songs were sung in Kobaïan, a melodic alien language made up by the group’s eccentric lead singer, Christian Vander.
2. Quijada’s research drew on the multiple ways human’s language suggests dramatically different ways of being.
“I had this realization that every individual language does at least one thing better than every other language,” he said. For example, the Australian Aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t use egocentric coördinates like “left,” “right,” “in front of,” or “behind.” Instead, speakers use only the cardinal directions. They don’t have left and right legs but north and south legs, which become east and west legs upon turning ninety degrees. Among the Wakashan Indians of the Pacific Northwest, a grammatically correct sentence can’t be formed without providing what linguists refer to as “evidentiality,” inflecting the verb to indicate whether you are speaking from direct experience, inference, conjecture, or hearsay.
Inspired by all the unorthodox grammars he had been studying, Quijada began wondering, “What if there were one single language that combined the coolest features from all the world’s languages?” Back in his room in his parents’ house, he started scribbling notes on an entirely new grammar that would eventually incorporate not only Wakashan evidentiality and Guugu Yimithirr coördinates but also Niger-Kordofanian aspectual systems, the nominal cases of Basque, the fourth-person referent found in several nearly extinct Native American languages, and a dozen other wild ways of forming sentences.
3. Joshua Foer, the author of the article, seems as intrigued by the potential of “constructed languages” (conlanging) to point toward innovative approaches to existence.
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.”
I have to wonder what my life would be like if I spoke only the one hundred twenty three word language! I bet those little zen kids don’t even need grammar classes!
4. John Quijada’s representation of the clarity suggests a certain dislike in linguistic ambiguity. What an interesting desire — to desire to write verbal play out of existence. I suspect that Quijada would respond that the debate about the meaning would come down to difference in pronunciation of words!
“I wanted to use Ithkuil to show how you would discuss philosophy and emotional states transparently,” Quijada said. To attempt to translate a thought into Ithkuil requires investigating a spectrum of subtle variations in meaning that are not recorded in any natural language. You cannot express a thought without first considering all the neighboring thoughts that it is not. Though words in Ithkuil may sound like a hacking cough, they have an inherent and unavoidable depth. “It’s the ideal language for political and philosophical debate—any forum where people hide their intent or obfuscate behind language,” Quijada continued. “Ithkuil makes you say what you mean and mean what you say.”
5. Foer’s story of the trip to Kiev where he and Quijada meet some of the most fervent fans of Ithkuil is pretty intense.
6. Quijada meets George Lakoff, the thinker whose analysis of the power of metaphors propelled Quijada to create Ithkuil, in essence, to destroy the metaphoric by grounding every concept in a written/spoken concrete expression.
“There are a whole lot of questions I have about this,” he told Quijada, and then explained how he felt Quijada had misread his work on metaphor. “Metaphors don’t just show up in language,” he said. “The metaphor isn’t in the word, it’s in the idea,” and it can’t be wished away with grammar.
“For me, as a linguist looking at this, I have to say, ‘O.K., this isn’t going to be used.’ It has an assumption of efficiency that really isn’t efficient, given how the brain works. It misses the metaphor stuff. But the parts that are successful are really nontrivial. This may be an impossible language,” he said. “But if you think of it as a conceptual-art project I think it’s fascinating.”