Ithkuil: A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language

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Frequently Asked Questions

 

Below are some questions I’ve been asked over the years relating to my work. For those questions that are generic and not specific to Ithkuil, I’ve taken the liberty (i.e., the lazy person’s approach) of linking elsewhere to someone who’s already answered the question better than I could.

 

What is a constructed language or “conlang”?

See here for an explanation of constructed languages.

 

Why would anyone want to create their own language?

Please refer to David Peterson’s “Conlang Manifesto.”

 

How fluent are you in Ithkuil? Can you speak/read/understand it?

The only portion of Ithkuil in which I am “fluent” is the morphology. I have never tried to memorize the lexicon. I am fairly proficient in knowing the characters of the script but still need to look up the rules when writing it.

 

Are you a professional linguist? How many languages do you speak or understand?

I have a bachelor’s (undergraduate) degree in linguistics. Poverty and circumstances prevented me from attending graduate school. Nevertheless, I have continued to study linguistics as a personal hobby my entire adult life. I am not a linguist professionally. Besides my native language English, I speak French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese sufficiently well to converse with natives as long as the conversation doesn’t get too technical or specialized. I speak enough fractured German to get myself in trouble. I also read Catalan and the auxiliary language Interlingua fairly well, although I do not speak them.

 

Is Ithkuil an attempt to create a working version of Robert Heinlein’s Speedtalk language? Is conciseness the primary purpose of Ithkuil?

Many persons have compared Ithkuil to the “Speedtalk” language in Robert Heinlein’s novella Gulf, in which every morpheme (meaningful word-part) is apparently represented by a single phoneme (sound). However, Heinlein’s Speedtalk appears to focus only on the morpho-phonological component of language (i.e., the correspondence between sound and individual grammatical components) without any corresponding focus on the logical redesign of a language’s morphology, lexico-morphology, or lexico-semantics to provide an equally “compressed” morpho-syntactical and lexical component. Ithkuil has been designed with an equal focus on these latter linguistic components. Additionally, the apparent purpose of Heinlein’s language is simple rapidity/brevity of speech and thought, while Ithkuil is focused on maximal communication of cognitive intent in the most efficient manner, a somewhat different purpose, in which brevity per se is irrelevant.

Most descriptions of Ithkuil that I’ve read misrepresent the purpose of the language to be this sort of morpho-phonological conciseness, i.e., the “Speedtalk” factor. In fact, Ithkuil’s primary purpose is to demonstrate how human language could be used to convey much deeper levels of human cognition and semantic nuance/exactitude than are found in natural human languages. As for morpho-phonological conciseness, it is merely a secondary goal to ensure that the greater amount of morpho-semantic information conveyed by the language (as compared to natural languages) does not cause phrases and sentences to become long-winded.

 

How did the idea of Ithkuil come to you? Have you worked on the language on a regular basis? 

At university, I studied linguistics, and it was there that I gained the knowledge and tools for understanding how languages are structured. However, the more languages I read about and studied, the more I came to realize how inefficiently most languages function in terms of conveying thought in both a precise and a concise manner. I also noticed that certain languages were subjectively “better” than others in the manner that they were able to convey a specific task. For example, I noticed how elegant and efficient the three-letter root structure of Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew were as a means of building words compared to European languages. I noticed how the perfective versus imperfective verbal aspect of Slavonic languages like Russian were able to convey certain verbal distinctions easily which languages like English had to use whole phrases to convey. In other cases, I found certain languages that grammaticalized thoughts that most other languages did not (such as the “4th person” distinction of certain American Indian languages). I also fell in love with all the exotic and difficult-topronounce consonant sounds of Caucasian languages like Abkhaz and Ubykh, as well as the numerous vowels of Uralic and Altaic languages.

Anyway, the idea came to me that I might try to create a language which “combined” the most efficient and interesting features of all the languages I was familiar with. And so the seed of the language which eventually evolved into Ithkuil was born. The more I worked on it over the years, the more of my own ideas went into it, as opposed to simply borrowing ideas from existing languages. Then, during the 1980s, I discovered the new cognitive school of linguistics that was beginning to arise in the United States (specifically the writings of George Lakoff and Ronald Langacker). These writings opened up a whole new level of understanding regarding the relationship between human thought and language which led to a major overhaul and expansion of the language I was working on in my spare time. It was at this point that I got the idea that I would try to accomplish the seemingly incompatible goals of creating a language capable of conveying much more information than natural human languages do, while simultaneously being more brief and concise than natural human languages (previously, all versions of the language were very long-winded).

The work was slow, painstaking, and often frustrating. Between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, I abandoned the work at least a dozen times out of frustration (aggravated by the fact that every time I thought I was getting nearly finished, I would decide to scrap about 75% of what I had and start over with better ideas). Sometimes several months would go by before I would pick up where I left off. The breakthrough came around 1996 when my interest was re-ignited by discovery of the writings of two other cognitive linguists, Gilles Fauconnier and Len Talmy. Their research and findings on the structure of human thought and language renewed my interest in wanting to finish the project. By 1999, the grammar was about 95% finished and it was time to start finalizing the script and the lexicon. Incidentally, it was at this point that I discovered Robert Heinlein’s description of “Speedtalk” from his novella “Gulf.” At first I was surprised and mildly disappointed that someone had already thought of doing what I was working on, but then I realized that Speedtalk was only a shallow attempt which worked at the morpho-phonological level of language only, while the language I was creating took the same principles and applied them to all the different structural levels of language. It took me another four years to reach the point where I felt the work was complete enough to show the world, then it took me another year to write it all up formally on the computer (the language was developed entirely using pencil and paper) and create a website.

 

Some people have claimed that using Ithkuil, a person would be able to think five times faster. Do you believe this?

This oft-repeated claim apparently started with Stanislav Kozlovskiy in his 2004 article “The Speed of Thought” published in the Russian-language science magazine Kompyuterra. The question presupposes that thought is linguistic in nature, which is certainly debatable. Personally, I believe only complex conceptual thought is linguistic, not simple conceptual thought and certainly not thought at the perceptual level (i.e., I certainly don’t mentally say to myself “I’m in pain” when I stub my toe). At any rate, even if we grant that thought is linguistic, any supposed “speeding up” of thought using the concise morpho-phonology of Ithkuil would most likely be offset by the sheer volume of morphological information which Ithkuil requires one to express (and therefore mentally consider when formulating a sentence). For example, merely saying (or thinking) that it’s raining outside would require a hypothetical Ithkuil speaker to consider the evidential source of the information (direct observation? hearsay? inference?) and its reliability (Validation), the pattern and timing of the raindrops (Phase), the purpose/intent of the utterance (Sanction), whether the rainfall is being considered as a gestalt versus a sequence of discrete componential events (Configuration), whether the context of the thought/utterance is descriptive, purposefully important, metaphorical, or a component of a holistic situation (Context), and so on.

For these reasons, I believe use of Ithkuil would probably allow one to think more deeply, critically, and analytically; but think faster? I doubt it.

 

Assuming Ithkuil were to be used in the real world, wouldn’t its complexity cause it to break down within one or two generations into a vulgar form which operates like natural languages, undermining the whole point of ithkuil’s construction?

As for a hypothetical community of Ithkuil-speakers, I do not think Ithkuil would serve the purpose of being the primary day-to-day language, as I agree the language would quickly degenerate into a “vulgar” form due to its complexity. I see Ithkuil’s hypothetical usage as being a specialized language for specific purposes where exactitude and clarity of cognitive intention is called for, and to make deliberate obfuscation difficult, e.g., political debate, the teaching and discussion of scientific disciplines, the discussion of philosophy, the written presentation and preservation of history. As such, it would be a “learned” language (like learning a computer programming language or the predicate calculus) whose structure would be consciously preserved by its speakers. An analogy might be the way that Classical Latin continued to be used for over a milennium after the death of its last native spearker for academic and religious purposes. A similar analogy is the use of Modern Standard Arabic (essentially a modernized version of Classical Arabic) in official and academic contexts.

 

Most Ithkuil morphemes (i.e., units of meaning) are only a single syllable, even a single phoneme, in length. Doesn’t this lack of morpho-phonological redundancy create a problem given that ambient noise or mispronunciation could easily prevent comprehension or change the meaning of a word or sentence?

Other than the difficulty of pronunciation, the issues of signal-to-noise ratio and non-redundancy are the most frequent criticisms of the language. I don’t consider these to really be a problem for the following reasons:

(1) As stated in the answer to the previous question, I see the contexts in which a hypothetical Ithkuil-speaking community would utilize the language as very limited and highly specialized, in which there would be little, if any ambient, noise;

(2) the issue of mispronunciation is no different than for any learner of a foreign language, and Ithkuil’s inventory of 58 phonemes pales in comparison to the number of phonemes in several Caucasian languagues or Khoi-San languages of Africa—if a person can pronounce Chechen or Abkhaz or !Xóõ, they can likely pronounce Ithkuil;

(3) the precedent for a low signal-to-noise ratio and lack of morpho-phonological redundancy is well established in natural languages, e.g., the phonetic difference between English I can do it versus I can’t do it, or He’s a natural versus He’s unnatural, or I got him first versus I got in first, or a neurotic's mothering versus an erotic smothering. And many languages (e.g., the Northwest Caucasian languages) are replete with single-phoneme morphemes, e.g., the Ubykh single-word sentence wantwaan they give you to him, which contains six phonemes, each of which is a separate morpheme:

If such single-phoneme morphemes are good enough for real-world natural languages, they’re good enough for Ithkuil.

 

How long and how hard have you practiced to pronounce Ithkuil sentences ?

The old version of the language would take me about three or four attempts to be able to speak an entire Ithkuil sentence without making a mistake, as often due to the tones as due to the “exotic” consonants. The problem with pronouncing tones correctly was especially acute for Ilaksh, which utilized tone shifts much more prominently than Ithkuil. The new version of the language is much easier to pronounce for me than either of its predecessors.

 

How long does it take for you to make an Ithkuil sentence?

It takes me up to ten minutes to translate a simple sentence if the necessary word-roots/stems already exist; much longer if new word-roots/stems are required, as the creation of roots takes careful thinking and planning (see the next question below). Long complex sentences can take up to half an hour. It then takes another five to fifteen minutes to look up the rules for writing the sentence in the script depending on the length of the sentence.

 

What is your criteria for choosing word roots ? How do you build the taxonomy of concepts ?

There are essentially two criteria: (1) adaptability to the derivational structures of the morphology and (2) consideration for what cognitive psychologists and cognitive linguists call “base-level” categorization.

The first criterion can basically be explained by performing the following analysis: say I need an Ithkuil translation for the English word X. Before I simply create a root meaning X, is there any way I can use Ithkuil morphological categories or the 150 or so suffix categories to derive this word from a more general or primary word? If so, can that more general or primary word in turn be derived from another? And so, before one goes and create an Ithkuil root for “book” one first remembers that a book is a collection or pages of writing bound together in a coherent fashion by which to convey a superset of information beyond the content of any specific page of the book. Well, Ithkuil morphology has all sorts of categories for designating coherent gestalt entities formed from interconnected subcomponents, so we realize we don’t need a word for book. Instead, all we need is the root for “writing/written message” declined into appropriate Configuraton and Affiliation categories, with consideration for the Context category given that the resulting entity only functions within the context of human social structures, with consideration for an additional suffix indicating that the entity has a container-like covering, etc., etc.

As for the second criterion, base-level categorization, this is best explained by example. Let’s take animals. First of all, identifying animals means dealing with a hierarchical taxonomy ranging from general to specific, for example:

Another example:

So, how should Ithkuil deal with such hierarchies? Research by cognitive psychologists show that human cognition tends to manifest base-level categorization, where a particular element in the hierarchy is psychologically viewed as being the most easy concept to grasp and understand, and is usually the first concept of the hierarchy learned by children, and usually represents the shortest, most common word in the speaker’s language of all the elements in the hierarchy. This base-level category (what psychologists call the most cognitively “salient” category level) usually appears in the middle of the range from general to specific. In the examples above, it would be the words “horse” and “monkey.” Therefore, a person is far more likely to spontaneously say “Hey, there’s a horse in my yard!” rather than “Hey, there’s an equine in my yard” or “There’s an Arabian thoroughbred.” Likewise, a child at the zoo is more likely to say either “I want to see the monkeys!” or “I want to see the snakes!” than “I want to see the primates” or “I want to see the rattlesnakes and the pythons!”

Secondly, one of the purposes of Ithkuil is efficiency in communication (you might think of this simplistically as the “Speedtalk” factor). Since base-level cognition implies that the concept “dog” or “spider” is going to be used by people more often and in more contexts than “canine” or “arachnid” it doesn’t make sense for Ithkuil to only have roots for “canine” and “arachnid” with the words for “dog” and “spider” being simply derivations of these roots. It defeats the purpose of morpho-phonological efficiency if to say “I fear spiders”, an Ithkuil speaker has to say literally “I fear the-most-common-arachnid-example.”

Now, the reader may think that surely Ithkuil’s 3600 roots do not allow for base-level naming all of the animals in the world. No, of course not. But there is no need. Despite the thousands of different names of animal species, only about fifty or so are common enough to qualify for such base-level naming. Other animals are simply not sufficienlty common or well-known to require such. Therefore, it makes sense that Ithkuil have a root for “bear” but it can probably do without a separate root for “wolverine” which it can name by derivational means from another root (quite possibly “bear”). We see this in English with names of animals that are derivations or compounds such as “polar bear” and “sea lion” (the latter having nothing at all to do with a lion!). There simply aren’t any base-level single-word names for these animals in English. Finally, by establishing this base-level category at the level of the root in Ithkuil (instead of the stem), it allows me to use the stems to refer to contextual and omplementary manifestations of the root, i.e., male versus female, wild versus domesticated, the animal itself versus its function as food/prey/resource. In turn, I can use the SSD derivational suffix to generate words for associated concepts and products such as eggs, oil, fat, fur/feathers, flesh/meat, etc.

 

Have you invented other languages?

Prior to beginning the language which eventually evolved into Ithkuil, I invented several sketches of other languages mostly for fun. They were not serious efforts to address the purposes which Ithkuil addresses. Since 1978, all my conlanging efforts have been oriented toward creating the language which eventually became Ithkuil.


Is the 2011 version of the language the final version of the language?

To the extent that I can foresee, yes, this new version for 2011 will be the final version of the language. I have neither the desire nor intention to redesign it again, especially given that I am finally pleased with this new revision (unlike the revision into Ilaksh, which I was never satisfied with).

 

Will you continue to work on the language?

I intend to continue adding more examples, enhance the explanations, and add new entries to the Lexicon on an ongoing (albeit perhaps infrequent) basis. I also plan on eventually developing a section on how Ithkuil handles mathematical concepts and equations.

Additionally, I will be adding longer texts to the Texts page of the site, as time and interest permit. This Texts chapter will eventually showcase original Ithkuil poetry that I envision composing in the next few years; it is my belief that the morpho-semantic flexibility, richness and conciseness of the language would allow for a kind of poetry not possible in other languages, and I am looking forward to exploring this.

 

What’s with the clowns?

Just indulging my warped sense of humor. I am fascinated by all aspects of life that have a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction quality, and I consider the phenomenon of clowns to fall into this category. I mean, think about it ... really....

Anyway, I have peppered the Ithkuil grammar with their ridiculous and ghastly visages plus clown-related example sentences as a reminder not to take anything, including myself, too seriously.

 

Is your work on Ithkuil available in book form?

Funny you should mention it....

Cover of Ithkuil Grammar book For those who would like a copy of the Ithkuil Grammar
in book form, it is now available!

 

And while you’re at it, you can check out the novel I co-
wrote
with my twin brother Paul, also now available!

(It’s a political thriller/science fiction story that explores the
philosophical implications of quantum physics, and features
Ithkuil as a “para-linguistic” interface to a quantum computer.)

Cover of "Beyond Antimony" by John & Paul Quijada

 

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