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Ithkuil
December 17, 2012 11:24 AM   Subscribe

An amateur linguist loses control of the language he invented

“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."
posted by boygeorge (49 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
Isn't that a success?
posted by thelonius at 11:27 AM on December 17, 2012


I'm glad that languages are big bloody mess that require us to find common ground despite the imprecision.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:29 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


The random New Yorker cartoon which was embedded in the page when I loaded it was strangely a propos: several fish are emerging from the ocean in the classic 'evolution' trope. The lead one is already up on his hind fins and is saying 'Walk, hell: I gotta dance!"
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:31 AM on December 17, 2012


(Also, as soon as I read the lede I instantly thought of Heinlein's exceedingly odd novella 'Gulf', so I was pleased to see the article make that connection as well.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:34 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Isn't that a success?

It was at a conference in Kiev where he met a group of ultra-nationalists aimed at utilizing his language to a create a new "race" of fast-thinking superhumans that he realized it wasn't the success he was hoping for.
posted by boygeorge at 11:41 AM on December 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


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.
Ow. Not quite.
posted by Jehan at 11:42 AM on December 17, 2012


Aukkras êqutta ogvëuļa tnou’elkwa pal-lši augwaikštülnàmbu

Oh, please, that's just a Perl one-liner in Klingon.
posted by alex_skazat at 11:48 AM on December 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wouldn't it be more efficient to spell "Ithkuil" with a single character that represents the 'th' sound, rather than the 't' and the 'h' which already represent other sounds? Unless it's pronounced something like [ithkuil], which is rather inefficient to pronounce due to the articulatory gestures required to make that happen.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:53 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


chicken chicken chicken chicken chicken.
posted by atbash at 11:59 AM on December 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


An objection raised by a linguist near the end of the article may be crucial to the question of whether the use of a language like this can ever be 'natural' to us:
“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.
I suspect we arrive at an understanding of what it is we're thinking by a series of approximations based on a kind of metaphoric, experiential symbology. Our spoken words fall out of that process. It seems like in order to speak Ithkuil you will always be translating from an internal process into it; that you're not really ever going to be thinking in it. But it would be amazing (if possibly unethical) to raise children in it and see how true that turns out to be.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:02 PM on December 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


The description of the “SingEngineering: Ithkuil & Psychonetica” meeting is disturbingly like a real-life version of Foucault's Pendulum.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:04 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't it be more efficient to spell "Ithkuil" with a single character that represents the 'th' sound, rather than the 't' and the 'h' which already represent other sounds? Unless it's pronounced something like [ithkuil], which is rather inefficient to pronounce due to the articulatory gestures required to make that happen.
Ithkuil has its own script, so I'm guessing that this is just transcription. But given that, even the transcription has some fairly exotic letters.
posted by Jehan at 12:04 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I ran across another invented language when I saw Incubus. Esperanto. Do these relate?
I enjoyed seeing Shatner pre Star Trek.
posted by JohnR at 12:12 PM on December 17, 2012


I think most people, most of the time, do not use language they possess now in this construction-set manner; they tack together memorized phrases without internally referencing the base meanings of their components, and even that not always correctly: this is where eggcorns come from.

Nobody who says "for all intensive purposes" is really going to be an expressive originalist in Ithkuil -- they're just going to use the words that other people do.

Eventually I suspect a vulgar language would emerge that contained habituated (and probably profoundly sociallly-signiicant) vocabulary: approximations and contractions that diverged from their precise etymological sources. In other words, it would spawn the kind of language we use now.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:27 PM on December 17, 2012 [8 favorites]


My favorite part of the article: "In 1997, when Quijada ran his first Web search for invented languages, he discovered that his strange passion was in fact shared by others. He found a newsgroup that was populated by amateur linguists from all over the world, who were excitedly conversing about new ways of conversing. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m not alone!’ ” he recalled."

Ah, those '90s were heady times for nerds online.
posted by resurrexit at 12:27 PM on December 17, 2012 [14 favorites]


I wanted to use Ithkuil to show how you would discuss philosophy and emotional states transparently. It’s the ideal language for political and philosophical debate—any forum where people hide their intent or obfuscate behind language. Ithkuil makes you say what you mean and mean what you say.

I can't help but imagine that the prospective users of this language are going to ditch this requirement first.
posted by wobh at 12:31 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've read somewhere, though I can't recall where it was now, that Quijada was well aware of the limitations of Ithkuil as a spoken language. He says that Ithkuil is terribly unlikely to ever be actually spoken by anyone. It takes too long to construct a sentence in your head. Instead, he thought that it would be better used as a written language in places where the sort of specificity it provides would be useful, such as legal briefs or philosophy papers.
posted by Inkoate at 12:33 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yay conlangers!

The article repeats the misconception that George Soros is a native speaker of Esperanto. He did not acquire it as a native/first language but rather learned it as an older child through lessons etc.
posted by gubo at 12:34 PM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Man, someone should make this into a black comedy with Paul Giamatti ASAP. I mean, just, all the crazy stuff in that story and the human yearning on so many levels and adventures and linguistics and pseudo-intellectual mishmash--wow.
posted by resurrexit at 12:46 PM on December 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


Oh, Brithenig! I was introduced to Brithenig by this marvelous gentleman, John Cowan (his site is full of fun conlang/programming/Usenet stuff) -- and I met Cowan because I was asking around for someone who could guest lecture about Lojban for a class in New York. (Lojban being a beautifully intricate logical language with a six-hundred-plus-page grammar -- it can specify things like a tense logic that can elegantly account for time travel. You know, just in case that comes in handy.)

Hanging out with Cowan suggested to me that was some kind of transitive property of conlang nerd-dom ... You know the way that there are some conspiracy theories such that one meets people who hold that theory but are otherwise fairly consensus-reality? (JFK assassination conspiracies might be a good instance.) But then there are theories for which holding one often implies holding many, many others -- someone who's deep into Reptilians seems (in my experience) to also be into free energy, colloidal silver, Nazi UFOs, orgone, Illuminati satanists and magnetic pole reversal and overunity and 19.5° and drinking vortex water and and and. Similarly there are ways of being a nerd that can be discrete: someone who digs superhero comics but is otherwise largely non-nerdy. The beauty of conlangers, speaking as someone lurking on the fringes, is that they are the Reptilians of deep, rich nerdery. Though there are many conlangers who are only into languages, I'm sure, most that I've met do conlang stuff as one facet of being interested in invented universes, alternate histories, hand-forging SCA armor, translating declassified cosmonaut manuals, building custom puzzle boxes, and figuring out how best to communicate with a silicon-based sentient organism so the players can have a meaningful exchange in their ongoing multi-decade tabletop RPG, in which someone plays a robot built at Hogwarts and somebody else plays a giant space kraken. God bless them and long may they be super-weird.

(For real, though, Lojban is fun.)
posted by finnb at 1:10 PM on December 17, 2012 [17 favorites]


Such is the amazing genius and awesomeness of this language that IT MAKES PUNNING IMPOSSIBLE.
posted by JHarris at 1:10 PM on December 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


But in Ithkuil ambiguity is quashed in the interest of making all that is implicit explicit. An ironic statement is tagged with the verbal affix ’kçç.

Oh, that should work great. {\}
posted by chrchr at 1:22 PM on December 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Not entirely true about the pun thing, the root s-ŠL- ‘HUMOR/WIT/JEST’ (from the Ithkuil homepage) provides ample derivational affixes and has pun a an "SSD derivative," so everything's fine!
posted by Earthtopus at 1:23 PM on December 17, 2012


“At the conference, there was one person . . . with an interpreter,” he wrote on his blog. “To put it simply: he had Pentagon written all over him. I don’t know, it was plain and simple, a stereotypical caricature of the face of a government agent. . . . When he took the initiative and asked a question, it was always exactly the thing that a government agent would bluntly ask about.”

Garkavenko had also noticed the moment when my translator and I realized who he was. “He changed right before our eyes. . . . It became clear that he had met me on the Internet. Afterward, I found out whom fate had brought. Joshua Foer . . . the well-known journalist . . . a descendant of Odessa Jews who had once fled to the West, at an inopportune time for them. Of course, they were confident in their intuitions. And how could they over there ignore a phenomenon like Oleg Bakhtiyarov’s project?”
Pynchon/Calvino in real life. I love it. And yes, this should totally be a film. Philip Seymour Hoffman as indisposed "Why did you come to me?" Lakoff, Paul Dano as the quiet-evil Slavic Nazi, I can see it.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 1:27 PM on December 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


"Ithkuil has its own script, so I'm guessing that this is just transcription. But given that, even the transcription has some fairly exotic letters."

Thanks, I missed that. But like you say, lots of exotic letters in the transliteration. Which, exotic or not, if they're anything like corresponding IPA sounds, then you've got a language that may be super efficient in it's agglutinative morphology (the way it chunks bits of meaning together into semantic strings, i.e., long words), but completely fails in ease of pronunciation. If people have to navigate unnatural hurdles with their tongues when speaking, then something will get lost...either speakers will simplify the sound system (through basic, natural principles of sound change, such as assimilation, deletion, epenthesis, etc.), which introduces variability. Or certain meanings, combinations, structures will be avoided so as to circumvent the inefficiencies of actually speaking the language. Or any number of other things that can (and do) happen, as their speakers want to do them.

But the point is, once any of these types of things start happening you wind up with a conceptual layer of the language that has to do with what social knowledge speakers have about how the language is actually and practically used, and what its variability is all about. Which, in a natural language, is its own form of efficiency. "How are you feeling today?" might be the most formal and straightforward way of expressing that sentiment according to English grammar, but "'sup?" can be the most unmarked and efficient way to achieve the same effect in many contexts. We LIKE having those options. Logic be dammed, it's what makes communicating fun. Meaning, it's not illogical from the perspective of the very reasons we bother doing it at all.

And so I am left feeling like this particular conlang goes out of its way to reject the idea of what language truly is, and what it is used for. I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with George Lakoff's point,
"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, but if you think of it as a conceptual-art project I think it’s fascinating."
And to agree with George Lakoff to such a degree...well, I it find irritating in a way I can't quite describe. Other than something akin to being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Other random thoughts while reading this looong article...
"Quijada, who had been wearing a pair of Coke-bottle glasses and toting a cane to compensate for a leg injury, sized up her metallic silver boots and figure-hugging bluejeans and seemed taken aback. “What is a beautiful woman like you doing teaching Ithkuil?” he asked."
I would just LOVE to see the English translation of this question in Ithkuil.
"Bakhtiyarov explained. “This is the same goal as Ithkuil. Human beings have a linguistic essence, but we are in a transitional stage to some other essence. We can defeat and conquer language.” He sees Ithkuil as a tool to bring all of one’s unconscious thoughts and feelings under conscious control."
If this were to happen, I think I would cease to be an efficiently functioning human on many levels.

Sorry for the ridiculously long comment here. I couldn't help myself...I found the FPP article wildly interesting and very well written. If you want to talk about efficiency though, I think the subhead "An amateur linguist loses control of the language he invented." really says it all ...there's a subtle and smart point there. It conveys something deeper about the essence of language; especially for a constructed one that seeks to be understood as such, and what has to happen to get it at that level. Just brill.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:29 PM on December 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


um iamkimiam, you might want to read the FAQ on ithkuil.net. You basically just rephrased Quijada's own stated goals and caveats about Ithkuil, but with added handwringing.
posted by lastobelus at 1:44 PM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Amazing. I would go to see this story as a movie.

The Wikipedia article on Ithkuil (Iţkuîl) has a spoken example. The language doesn't seem to be designed for spoken communication at all.
posted by ikalliom at 1:47 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


If people have to navigate unnatural hurdles with their tongues when speaking, then something will get lost...either speakers will simplify the sound system (through basic, natural principles of sound change, such as assimilation, deletion, epenthesis, etc.), which introduces variability.
"Is that an accent, or do you usually frame every sentence in the subjunctive?"
posted by Jehan at 2:02 PM on December 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


lastobelus, thanks for pointing me to the FAQ. I read it, and I disagree with you that I've rephrased Quijada's goals – I think his FAQ addresses different points, with very little overlap with what I'm trying to express. As for the handwringing, don't worry about me...I'm not that bothered by making long comments and I very much enjoyed the article, as I said previously.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:12 PM on December 17, 2012


For me, the most interesting part about this article was the psychonetics movement in Russia. A cursory search didn't really give me any information that wasn't found in the article, which is disappointing because I've always been fascinated by how modern religions, cults, and spiritual movements or whatever appropriate concepts from cutting-edge studies like neuroscience and quantum physics and run wild with them. The description of the psychonetics conference and the convicted terrorist studying Joshua Foer was unexpectedly lurid and chilling, given that this was supposed to be one of those meandering New Yorker articles. It makes me wonder if Roddenberry-esque depictions of a world without religion could ever be possible, or if religions of the future only become more efficient and seductive by adapting to our ever-changing understanding of the universe.
posted by brainkim at 2:32 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


He should have called it Marain (unless that's copyright (but I'm sure Mr Banks wouldn't have minded)).
posted by wilful at 2:59 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Such is the amazing genius and awesomeness of this language that IT MAKES PUNNING IMPOSSIBLE.

Then I'm going to have to learn it and make it happen.

Language is a Lego set; puns are used by people who are tired of following the 'and this is how you build it' instruction page.
posted by mephron at 3:34 PM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Languages are created by children.

Two cultures intersect. One wins, one loses, but people need to eat. To eat, they need to trade, and to trade, they need to speak. So they come up with a workable tongue -- a pidgin language.

These languages are terrible, but they're enough for people to communicate in rough tones.

Eventually pidgin speakers have kids. Their kids immediately clean up the pidgin language into something much more conforming to universal grammar. We call this a creole, and if enough people start speaking it, it becomes a dialect or a language.

That's actually how it works.
posted by effugas at 5:07 PM on December 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


Wow, according to the New Yorker, George Soros' first language is Esperanto. I really hope that fact is somehow a crucial part of Glenn Beck's intricate conspiracy theory about him.
posted by compartment at 5:10 PM on December 17, 2012


Now that's how you write an article. What a story!

And the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis sounds fascinating.
posted by Kevin Street at 5:18 PM on December 17, 2012


As someone who's spent many hours reading Wikipedia articles about obscure languages and at one point considered pursuing an academic career in linguistics, I have to say Quijada sounds like one of My People. The whole being born to first-generation immigrants and working in a drab civil services office while having all these intellectual pursuits on the side...it's like someone got their Chomsky into my Bukowski...and I like it!!

The description of Ithkuil reminded me of the alien language in Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life. For a language like Ithkuil where it takes the creator minutes to formulate a single expression and is clearly not intended for verbal discourse, I wonder if a pictographic writing system would not have been more suitable. From reading the article I wasn't clear on if his aim was to create a purely logical, ambiguity-free language or to cram as many bizarre features into one language as possible, but if the former, I'd think there's no reason to bother with coming up with a phonology. But consonant clusters and glottal stops are very cool, so I can understand why he did.
posted by pravit at 6:30 PM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


“Originally, I was going to get a Ph.D., when I was bright-eyed and full of dreams, but reality set in. I was too poor to go to grad school,” he told me. “I’d never heard of Pell grants or any other kind of grant, nor did the idea of the government giving people money to go to grad school ever cross my mind as something consistent with reality.”

Ron Swanson?

Thanks for posting. Great story, and great article.
posted by vidur at 8:23 PM on December 17, 2012


If you enjoyed this article and you haven't read In the Land of Invented Languages (which, to give credit, is also mentioned in the article), you really owe it to yourself to get hold of a copy. It's a fun read and you'll learn more about conlangs than you ever thought there was to know.
posted by librarylis at 9:41 PM on December 17, 2012


When I met him, Quijada was preparing to deliver a talk on the topic of phonoaesthetics, that hard-to-pin-down quality which gives a language its personality and makes even the most argumentative Italian sound operatic, the most romantic German sound angry, and Yankee English sound like a honking horn.

I assume this is either free indirect discourse or the author has never heard argumentative Italian or romantic German.

"It has an assumption of efficiency that really isn’t efficient, given how the brain works"

I wish otherwise smart people weren't compelled to couch their otherwise reasonable points in terms of "how the brain works".
posted by kenko at 10:44 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is also simply not possible to relegate irony to sentences in which some particular thing appears. That just increases the ways you can be ironic: it might be important to be ironic about something and not include it, or to be ironic about something and include it, or to include it and be ironic about that, too. (Just as you can't have a general-purpose assertion sign, since people would use it to pretend to assert.)
posted by kenko at 10:50 PM on December 17, 2012


Wow, what a tale, thanks for sharing. The following was the highlight for me:

She spoke through a translator, as neither she nor Quijada was yet fluent in their shared language.
posted by the cydonian at 11:12 PM on December 17, 2012


Bit of an aside, but is "argument is war" an idiom? I've never heard it before and most Google hits just pull up references to the book mentioned in the article.
posted by 23 at 12:04 AM on December 18, 2012


The article repeats the misconception that George Soros is a native speaker of Esperanto.

I dunno, seems corroborated well enough by Soros himself. I'm sure there is an insistence here on the definition of "native" and/or "first language" that breaks down when you have a home situation like his own (or even a conlang like Esperanto). The point is that for many, Esperanto is something they learn on their own, but he had the opportunity to grow up in a household with other fluent speakers.

I really hope that fact is somehow a crucial part of Glenn Beck's intricate conspiracy theory about him.

On a platter, baby:

Esperanza [sic] was developed in the ’80s [sic] as the world’s first international language. It was the language of peace, like the UN is the house of peace. And it was developed so everyone could speak the same language. And no one would have to come by their old tribal language. We’d all have a new language. His father was big in Esperanza. And Soviets I think first embraced Esperanza then no they realized this guys are global government in a different way. The Chinese did the same. So did Hitler.
posted by dhartung at 1:34 AM on December 18, 2012


Bit of an aside, but is "argument is war" an idiom? I've never heard it before and most Google hits just pull up references to the book mentioned in the article.

ARGUMENT IS WAR is a conceptual metaphor -- a systematic, structured association between two concepts -- that is behind multiple idioms and metaphorical expressions about arguments in English. We talk of attacking and defending, weak and strong points, winning and losing arguments, but there's no inherent militarism in an argument itself, a two-person discussion with different perspectives on an issue. George Lakoff's point is that we don't just know a large random collection of arbitrary idioms like "I'm getting ahead of myself here" or "prices are coming down" -- there are underlying ways of thinking involved, in which two domains are connected. MORE IS UP motivates "prices are coming down" and "gas is really high right now." Behind the "ahead of myself" idiom is a truly general Event Structure Metaphor (discovered by three Berkeley students, Sharon Fischler, Karin Myhre, and Jane Espenson) which interprets Time as Space in a far-reaching system of interlocking mappings. A great introduction to Lakoff's metaphor theory, better (and shorter!) than Metaphors We Live By, is the article "The Contemporary Theory Of Metaphor" [PDF] which explains everything I have tried to say here, but with more paragraph breaks and less sleep-deprivation.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 3:49 AM on December 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


I dunno, seems corroborated well enough by Soros himself.

I have seen that NYT report but it's hard to imagine Soros actually claimed to be a native speaker. Here's an interview with Humphrey Tonkin, the organizer of the Soros event described in that NYT piece (the interview took place after that event). Tonkin, former president of the World Esperanto Association (Universala Esperanto-Asocio), has met George Soros and his family and translated the memoirs of George Soros's father. He asserts that Soros is not a native speaker of Esperanto. (It may of course turn out to be a matter of definitions, as you describe.)
posted by gubo at 10:52 AM on December 18, 2012


A really fascinating article, indeed.I love the amount of sheer weird that shines through in all of these characters, from our really-reasonable-sounding Sacramentoan to the Slavic supremacists. There's a certain normative quality to large civilizations: living around lots of people tends to take the edge off of the weird, as everyone kind of regresses towards a mean and the sheer frequency of contact keeps too much deviation from happening. For the most part. The internet has been normative in a similar fashion; we have millions of brains wired together, and somehow the thoughts that come out tend not to be all that surprising. We get the memes and whatnot, which are all things of a kind, but there tends to be relatively little genuine weirdness. Sure, you can find the weird side of the web with a little bit of looking around, but it tends not to penetrate the mainstream of the web that much.

And it wasn't always such. The article makes a nice point about the early 90's, where all of the sudden all of the real oddballs were in contact with each other for the first time. Have the freaks become more low-key since then? Or are there fewer of them due to the normative processes of the expanded degree of contact with the rest of the world? Or has the web just evolved to ignore or exclude them?

I also found fascinating the strong Sapir-Whorf hHypothesis, which has been mainly cast aside by the academic community, but, as a beautiful idea, clung to by the amateur community. It doesn't strike me that either side there is necessarily wrong; the strong hypothesis isn't obviously true, and the conlangers, even were they to build a more 'efficient' language, a la Heinlein, would never be likely to see adoption on a scale at which fluency would convey real advantages. (It's interesting that they're developing language to purify thought, disregarding the quality of communication. How thick is the line between communication and thought? Thicker, maybe, if you're a reclusive geek with a secret hobby.)
posted by kaibutsu at 3:38 PM on December 18, 2012


Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 5:02 PM on December 18, 2012


There is also reference to a hyper-efficient invented language in HELSTROM'S HIVE, which is the first book Frank Herbert published after DUNE.
posted by newdaddy at 8:13 PM on December 18, 2012


The following was the highlight for me:

> She spoke through a translator, as neither she nor Quijada was yet fluent in their shared language.


There's a joke about that, though it assumes you're familiar with Yiddish and overweening Jewish intellectual pride:
Before the war, there was a great international Esperanto convention in Geneva. Esperanto scholars came from all over the world to give papers about and to praise the idea of an international language. Every country on earth was represented at the convention, and all the papers were given in Esperanto.
After the long meeting was finally concluded, the great scholars wandered amiably along the corridors, and at last they felt free to talk casually among themselves in their international language: "Nu, vos macht a yid?"*

* Yiddish for "How are you doing (my fellow Jew)?"
posted by benito.strauss at 8:15 PM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


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