People keep sending me links to Joshua Foer’s New Yorker piece “Utopian for Beginners” (“An amateur linguist loses control of the language he invented”), and having read it I can certainly understand why. It’s one of the best language-oriented things I’ve read in a mainstream publication; not only is it about an artificial language and the man who created it, John Quijada, but Foer takes the trouble to get the facts right and talks to or references all the people whose names popped into my head as I started reading it (including Arika Okrent—see this LH post). Furthermore, it gets into the murky waters of the real world in ways that I won’t spoil for you but that make it start to read like a thriller. If I didn’t already subscribe to the magazine, this would make me want to (just as that damn Joan Acocella piece made me doubt the wisdom of subscribing). Here’s a tidbit to get you started:
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.”
It wasn’t long after he released his manuscript on the Internet that a small community of language enthusiasts began to recognize what Quijada, a civil servant without an advanced degree, had accomplished. Ithkuil, one Web site declared, “is a monument to human ingenuity and design.” It may be the most complete realization of a quixotic dream that has entranced philosophers for centuries: the creation of a more perfect language.
Thanks, everyone who told me to go read it!