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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

Steven Pinker: Words and Rules

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Cover of Words and Rules The kind of wordplay Pinker sometimes engages in is mindblowing (read to the end):

A governor-general is a general governor, namely, one who has several governors under him. The puzzle is, why didn’t they simply call him a general governor? After all, the adjective comes before the head noun in English, not after it. The answer is that these words, together with many other terms related to government, were borrowed from French when England was ruled by the Normans in the centuries after the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066. In French, the adjective can come after the head noun, as in États-Unis (United States) and chaise longue (long chair, garbled into the English chaise lounge). The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1292: “Tous attorneyz general purrount lever fins et cirrographer” (All general attorneys may levy fines and make legal documents). Anyone who insists that we eternally analyze (hence pluralize) these words as they were analyzed in the minds of the original speakers of Norman French also should insist that we refer to more than one major general as majors general, because a major-general was once a general major (from the French major-général). Long ago our linguistic foreparents forgot the French connection and reanalyzed general from a modifying adjective to a modified noun. So if you are ever challenged for saying attorney-generals, mother-in-laws, passerbys, RBIs, or hole-in-ones, you can reply, “They are the very model of the modern major general.”

(If reading that was not a profound, life-changing moment for you, then perhaps you are unaware of the “Major-General’s Song”, in which case you should look it up. It is widely parodied; for example in this xkcd.) I can only wish he were still at MIT.

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Written by leonxlin

July 20, 2012 at 8:14 pm