Ithkuil?

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.”

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About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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13 Responses to Ithkuil?

  1. Bill Chapman says:

    I’m not too worried by the Gormogons’ dislike of Esperanto, which I have used for many years and in 16 countries.. It’s a shame that all the time and energy invested in conlangs is not dedicated to Esperanto which has demonstrated its usefulness over many years.

    • profmondo says:

      Fine, but when the Tcho-tchos show up at your door, don’t say you weren’t warned! (And of course, Heinlein suggests that it becomes the Terran language in some of the Future History stories, such as “Green Hills of Earth.”)

  2. Idioglossia sounds like an interesting idea – if Magma can have Kobaian, why not?

  3. nightfly says:

    The Okrents, Akira and Daniel, are very big Star Trek enthusiasts, writing the show’s official Future Chronology and several tech manuals.

  4. Brian Barker says:

    The biggest challenge to Esperanto as the international language is certainly American English or Mandarin Chinese. rather than a dead conlang like Klingon.

    There are even those who think that Klingon should be the international language, rather than Esperanto.
    Pretty useless to compare Klingon with Esperanto. Especially because Esperanto is designed to be an international language, whereas Klingon is not.

    Probably less than 10 percent of all educated people have even heard of Esperanto so do not know that, for example, the Esperanto Wikipedia has about 150,000 articles, (which get about 400,000 views per day). By contrast the total number of articles about Klingon in Wikipedia total only 189, and nothing has been added since 2006.

    The World Esperanto Association enjoys consultative relations with both the United Nations and the Council of Europe. Does Klingon ?

    A pity also that it is not generally known that you may find Esperanto speakers in more than 130 countries. Or that more people in Burundi per head of the population speak Esperanto than in any other country. Thirty schools in Burundi teach Esperanto ; how many teach Klingon?

    For those who think Klingon should be the future international language please see

    • profmondo says:

      Thanks for the info — I think I was in junior high school when I first heard of Esperanto, where someone suggested it was the world’s easiest language to learn. All I know of the language is the beginning of the Bible: “En la komenko Dio”, and I may have messed that up.

      I remain neutral in any Klingon-Esperanto conflicts, but thanks for dropping by!

  5. Javahead says:

    I think the biggest barrier to constructed languages is a simple one: utility. An old friend of mine was fascinated with Esperanto; I’ve lost touch with him, but in the nearly two decades I knew him he was always working on improving his Esperanto, and attempting to convert others to the cause.

    But he could never clearly make a case why Esperanto – rather than English, or Mandarin – should be the international language of choice other than “fairness”. That is, that since nearly everyone needed to learn Esperanto as a second language it offered less advantage to native speakers.

    For those of us that use language as tool to express our thoughts and communicate with others, rather than make an ideological point about how languages *should* be constructed, this kind of “fairness” is a bug, not a feature. Can I easily express the concept I wish to communicate? Can my intended audience easily understand what I say? Despite all their flaws and irregularities, a given area’s native languages have a nearly insurmountable advantage. If the object is better communication between people with different native languages, although constructed languages have less comparative disadvantage the most widely-spoken “international” languages have usually started with base of widely distributed native speakers. (English, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Russian), even if over time they become a second language for most (Latin, or possibly the role of English in India).

    Plus,I’d argue that the extreme concision/precision of languages like Speedtalk or Ithkuil actually works against the way people actually communicate: much of the time, we use standardized words or phrases precisely because no additional though or parsing is required by either speaker or listener. (“Good Morning” “Hello” “Fine, and you?”), because urgency overwhelms precision (“Ouch” vs “I am experiencing pain in my left earlobe due to a wasp sting”), or because (some of the best prose and poetry) ambiguity and layered shades of meaning is part of the intended message. Stopping to parse every communication for precise shades of meaning would slow, rather than speed, communication.

    And finally, constructed languages fall on the far extreme of the prescriptive vs descriptive debate. Though I admit to a bit of a prescriptivist bias at times (I hate text-message shorthand, and greatly prefer “proper” English in most contexts), I’d argue that any attempt to rigidly enforce how a language “should” be used rather than document how it “is” used is foredoomed to failure for any genuinely living language. I suspect that if Esperanto, or Loglan, or Ithkuil ever become widely spoken first languages that they will evolve in ways that would amaze, distress, and possibly outrage their creators.

    • profmondo says:

      That’s apparently part of what crippled Volapuk — its creator decided that he was the only one with authority to expand the lexicon.

      • Javahead says:

        I don’t know if you’re familiar with S M Stirling’s “Change” novels, but a minor strand in the later books was the the ways that that spoken “Elvish” had evolved in the self-selected would-be Dunedin group to cover situations Tolkein either never envisioned or preferred not to discuss (insults, biological necessity, or how to pick up a date).

        And how the group seemed split between the “this is joke we’re all in together” and the “the Histories are REAL” people. The books aren’t for everyone – the background is pretty bleak – but a large part of the overall theme appears to be how social groups solidify around their founders, and how personal bias and strong personalities at a critical time can become received truth, or “how things are” within an isolated society.

      • profmondo says:

        Haven’t read those — thanks for the tip!

  6. Keresth says:

    This is the closest translation I could think of for idioglossia after about 20 minutes of tranlsation. It translates more-or-less to “private language” but doesn’t include the nuance that it is created by a child or a twin which would take several more minutes.

    elartkʰoq’a
    [ˌɛlaɾtˈkʰɔ.qʼa˥˩]
    e-l-a-rtkʰ-oq’-a
    [P1/S2-STA]-“language”-[OBL]-[RPV-DEL-M-COA-CST]-[V1q’/7]-[EXS]-[IFL]

    Ithkuil Facebook group: http://www.facebook.com/groups/298793876903856/

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