A couple of years ago, I read Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages, which took a look at such linguistic artifacts as Klingon and (apologies to the Gormogons) Esperanto*, and the subcultures that have developed around them, from the formally academic to the casually geeky. I first ran into the notion of invented language as a kid, when my dad told me that Tolkien had created a language as part of his creation of Middle Earth. Later, I encountered the idea of idioglossia, a private language often created by sets of twins (at which point it is also called cryptophasia), and I found that idea striking as well. Indeed, I suggested once to my friend Carl Groves (whose daughters are out of hospital and recovering at home — thanks for the prayers and good wishes!) that we call an album of our musical collaborations Idioglossia. The word also is the title of a play by Mark Handley, although when the play was adapted into a 1994 film, it was retitled Nell.
People still construct languages for various reasons, and a feature by Joshua Foer in The New Yorker looks at the conlang (a portmanteau term used in the linguistic community) known as Ithkuil, which was created by John Quijada, who works at the California DMV. Ithkuil has been created with dual purposes:
Ithkuil has two seemingly incompatible ambitions: to be maximally precise but also maximally concise, capable of capturing nearly every thought that a human being could have while doing so in as few sounds as possible. Ideas that could be expressed only as a clunky circumlocution in English can be collapsed into a single word in Ithkuil. A sentence like “On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point” becomes simply “Tram-mļöi hhâsmařpţuktôx.”**
The idea (as Foer observes) is not unlike that of Speedtalk, the superhuman language in Robert Heinlein’s novella “Gulf.” Quijada himself is simply a man fascinated by language, and in various times might have been known as an independent scholar, an eccentric (in the British sense), an outsider artist, or a crank.
But when one creates a language for supermen (as opposed to a language for Superman, which would be Kryptonian, or if you’re old school, Kryptonese), there’s the risk that it may be adopted by those who would be supermen, and that is one of the things that happened to Ithkuil after Quijada released it “into the wild.” Other things happened as well, and Foer’s article tells us about them. In the process, I would suggest that the article itself becomes a metaphor for what we users of language do: We create vehicles for ideas, but where those vehicles go and how they are received aren’t necessarily what we expected when w built them. Foer’s article is fascinating, and I recommend it highly.
* — I don’t know if there is a direct link between the Gs’ distaste for Esperanto and the fact that George Soros reportedly grew up with it as a first language, but it certainly seems like sufficient justification.
** — The translation above calls to mind a phrase that appears a couple of times in the works of Borges: “Axaxaxas mlö”, which at least one translator has suggested is itself a signifier of “the author’s mocking laughter.”