Unabashed Naïveté

Ithkuil: from obscurity to obscurity

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There’s an artificial language called Ithkuil that recently got some attention from The New Yorker. It’s a good story; I recommend it.

Ithkuil is the impressive personal project of John Quijada, amateur linguist and former employee of the California State Department of Motor Vehicles. It’s an attempt at “an idealized language whose aim is the highest possible degree of logic, efficiency, detail, and accuracy in cognitive expression via spoken human language”, according to its homepage. The result is unlearnable — Ithkuil boasts a tough phonemic inventory, a taxanomic lexicon, a geometric writing system, but most notably an absurdly long list of different inflections for its nouns and verbs. While Latin has one possessive (genitive) case, Ithkuil has seven. And while you might be used to adding suffixes on to the ends of verbs to indicate past tense or subjunctive mood, with Ithkuil you’ll also have to geminate consonants to put your verb into, for instance, the stupefactive bias, or switch out a vowel to show a nonrelational valence.

Quijada’s language has had a certain sentimental value for me. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because the language represents hours and hours of careful, useless work. It made an impression on me when I first chanced upon its website five — maybe even seven — years ago. At the time I remember the lexicon wasn’t yet fully developed, and I would check back periodically to see if any more word roots had been added. One time I think I actually had a dream in which I met John Quijada, whose part, my subconscious had decided, was played by a tall, long-faced fellow who liked to dress in black. Those were the days when I used to hang around a mailing list called “conlang” (I think), no doubt a rather peripheral community even by nerd standards. I daren’t go back to see what embarrassing things I wrote. Anyway, Ithkuil has always stuck in my mind more than the rest, even the better-known conlangs like Lojban or Esperanto or Klingon.

I always thought no one would care about Ithkuil, and sort of imagined that a few decades from now all that would be left would be some incomprehensible tattered notes at the bottom of a desk drawer. So it was a bit of a surprise to see it in The New Yorker. Apparently some people in Russia involved in some sort of crackpot movement called “psychonetics” have taken an interest in Ithkuil. After a trip to one of their conferences, Quijada has decided not to associate with them, according to The New Yorker’s article. He’s now published a book on Ithkuil’s grammar and called the three-decade project done.

It’s good to have some closure.


Written by leonxlin

December 23, 2012 at 12:35 am

Posted in language

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