ITHKUIL IN THE WILD.

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!

Comments

  1. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you, LH, for pointing the way to it! (Usually I can’t read more than the first page of a New Yorker article online, but I was able to read the whole thing).

  2. “On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point” becomes simply “Tram-mļöi hhâsmařpţuktôx.”
    Hahaha. Is he related to the other Foer?

  3. He’s said to the the brother of the one called Safran, a corruption of sofer, or shofar if you will, the horn blown during some religious services, which suggests that they belongs to the priestly caste.

  4. Oh ho. Interesting. But I don’t think all his books are like the extremely loud one, Sig.

  5. “without an advanced degree”: that certainly made me smile. What proportion of the makers of Western Civilisation had an advanced degree?

  6. He’s said to the the brother of the one called Safran, a corruption of sofer, or shofar if you will, the horn blown during some religious services, which suggests that they belongs to the priestly caste.
    Sofer means ‘scribe’ or ‘author’ (of literature) in Hebrew. See Wiki for elaboration. At a guess, William Safire’s original family name was Sofer.

  7. Jesus didn’t have a degree, hence the carpentry. There was a poster when I was at art school saying “Van Gogh didn’t have A levels”. It was a protest against some balmy legislation to require higher academic qualifications for art-school applicants, but the poster was pretty irrelevant because if there’s anyone who would have passed his A levels it’s Van Gogh.

  8. Even the rhotically-impaired should surely spell it “barmy”?

  9. No. It was very mild legislation.

  10. Sofer means ‘scribe’ or ‘author’ (of literature) in Hebrew
    Yes, Paul, it looks as if I was wrong. On top of it, it seems that the name Safran or Safra has nothing to do with sofer but might only mean “yellow, saffron”. I must tell the person who told me what I wrote above.
     
    But I don’t think all his books are like the extremely loud one
    AJP, I saw that he also wrote a book about the fact that some of us, human beings, eat other animals. I was tempted to buy it, but I’m not too sure anymore.

  11. I’m scared to read it and I don’t feel obliged to, because I gave up eating meat already. I don’t think it’s a very fun book. If you can stand to read it it’s supposed to be very good, but you’d better tell Mrs Sig & the young Sutors in advance that you’re probably going to be giving up meat.

  12. I’m a bit surprised that no one has yet referenced Hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö.

  13. mollymooly says:

    Was this

    the quietly aloof Quijada stuck out like an umlaut in English.

    after this

    Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t use egocentric coördinates

    a sly dig at the editors?
    Although, diaeresis != umlaut.

  14. Even the rhotically-impaired should surely spell it “barmy”?

    I would have thought that too, but ‘balmy’ is apparently the earlier form. The OED entry for ‘barmy’ in the relevant sense cross-references to ‘balmy adj. 7′ ["soft", weak-minded, idiotic], ‘of which it is an altered form, after barm‘ (“the froth that forms on the top of fermenting malt liquors…”). Their earliest citation for ‘balmy’ in this sense is 1851, earliest ‘barmy’ is 1892.
    There seems to have been a question mark over these right back to 1896, judging by the second quotation:

    1896 Westm. Gaz. 30 May 8/1 Should not ‘balmy’ be ‘barmy’? I have known a person of weak intellect called ‘Barmy Billy’… The prisoner..meant to simulate semi-idiocy, or ‘barminess’, not ‘balminess’.

  15. “All that remains of her language is a short passage and a dictionary of a thousand and twelve words listed in hierarchical order, from the most important (Aigonz, God) to the least (Cauiz, cricket).”
    Any writer who can report that without commenting on the eccentricity of rating God above cricket must be a man who’s never bowled a good leg cutter.

  16. Breffni: stone the crows!
    Or as Crown would say, stone the cows.

  17. Láadan…includes words like radíidin, defined as a “non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help.” Why isn’t a name for this in English?
    Dearieme – advanced degrees and uncredentialed amateurs indeed – and may we have Joshua Foer’s qualifications to write this article?

  18. “Láadan…includes words like radíidin, defined as a “non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help.””
    I thought I’d try translating this. These are the closest words (but there are alternatives) I could bother to create in about forty minutes of translation followed by IPA, morpho-phonetic divisions and morphological analysis and (very) approximate translation:
    I’m not sure if it’s obvious but there’s an acute accent over the final i’s.
    ażamokuptí
    [adˌza.mɔ.kʊpˈtɪ˥˩] (ahd-ZAH-moh-koop-TIH) with falling tone
    a-ż-a-m-ok-upt-i[ultimate stress]
    [P1/S1-STA]-”holiday”-[OBL]-[DEL-NRM-M-VAR-UNI][-V1k/7]-[-V1pt/9]-[FNC][FML]
    Not really (contrary to suggestion otherwise) societal holiday
    ażamokirtí
    [adˌza.mɔ.kɪɾˈtɪ˥˩] (ahd-ZAH-moh-kir-TIH) with falling tone
    a-ż-a-m-ok-irt-i[ultimate stress]
    [P1/S1-STA]-”holiday”-[OBL]-[DEL-NRM-M-VAR-UNI][-V1k/7]-[-V1rt/1][FNC][FML]
    Very wasteful societal holiday
    ażamokirţí
    [adˌza.mɔ.kɪɾˈθɪ˥˩] (ahd-ZAH-moh-kir-THIH) with falling tone
    a-ż-a-m-ok-irţ -i[ultimate stress]
    [P1/S1-STA]-”holiday”-[OBL]-[DEL-NRM-M-VAR-UNI][-V1k/7]-[-V1rţ /1][FNC][FML]
    nothing like a holiday
    ażamokelí
    [adˌza.mɔ.kɛˈlɪ˥˩] (ahd-ZAH-moh-keh-LIH) with falling tone
    a-ż-a-m-ok-el-i[ultimate stress]
    [P1/S1-STA]-”holiday”-[OBL]-[DEL-NRM-M-VAR-UNI][-V1k/7]-[-V1rţ /1][FNC][FML]
    not a holiday (relative negation contrary to expectation)
    Ithkuil Facebook group: http://www.facebook.com/groups/298793876903856/

  19. An interesting piece with a great twist. Still, did Foer really need to throw in the hoary cliche that the language of Schiller, Die Zauberflöte and Josef Hader always sounds “angry”? I also strongly resent my native dialect being described as a “honking horn.”
    All languages can sound beautiful in the right context, except Danish.

  20. “All languages can sound beautiful in the right context, except Danish.” Or the American spoken by young women on the US (or do I mean NYC?) TV channels. Why the problem is so specific to women, and young women at that, I do not know. But the contrast between the honking, squawking noises from the women and the euphonious, smoothie-chops noises from the men is very striking.

  21. Still, did Foer really need to throw in the hoary cliche that the language of Schiller, Die Zauberflöte and Josef Hader always sounds “angry”? I also strongly resent my native dialect being described as a “honking horn.”
    Yes, that annoyed me too. Why do people find such cliches irresistible?

  22. des von bladet says:

    All languages can sound beautiful in the right context, except Danish.

    Oddly, I have the opposite problem: I find the sound of Danish charming, I’m just not convinced it’s a language.
    Kamalåså!

  23. I know almost no Swedish; just enough to know that Danish sounds funny.

  24. I agree with Des. Danish is a jolly Norwegian dialect. And if you think it’s ugly look on the bright side: you’re only hearing about one word in five.
    Swedish is very easy. Speaking Norwegian, you emphasise the final syllable of two consecutive words half way through each sentence.

  25. Not that I contend that it’s relevant, but isn’t Quejada one of the possible original names of Don Quijote?

  26. iakon: Indeed, that was the first thing that occurred to me when I first saw Ithkuil.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    isn’t Quejada one of the possible original names of Don Quijote?
    The Don’s real name is Alonso Quijana, sometimes quoted mistakenly (says the author) as Quijada which means ‘jaw’. “Quejada” would be a derivative of the verb quejar ‘to moan or groan (in pain)’ or quejarse ‘to complain’ (= Fr “se plaindre”).

  28. Thanks, marie-lucie.
    I once had the first paragraph, or sentence, memorized, but I couldn’t recall past En un lugar de La Mancha. I was wishing I still had my paperback edition with the Dore (add diacritic) illustrations, and I didn’t have time to do a google.

  29. marie-lucie says:

    iakon: for Doré, if you don’t want to use the Canadian French keyboard you can make the é this way: holding option, press e to get ´, then press e again for é.

  30. “All languages can sound beautiful in the right context, except Danish.”
    Vanya, Danish is beautifully apt in a movie about a stroke victim.

  31. m-l I would like to use the Canadian French keyboard. How do I access it?
    And what do you mean ‘hold option’? Do you mean the Alt key?

  32. marie-lucie says:

    iakon:
    Canadian French keyboard : Your computer should have in its system a list of languages corresponding to different keyboard layouts; you choose the one you want to use and move it to the proper place where it will be added to English and any others already chosen (sorry, I don’t know how to explain the technicalities but someone here should know – I have a Mac, perhaps PC’s are different). You should choose “French (Canadian)”. Unlike the “French” (AZERTY) layout which is fairly different, the French Canadian layout is basically the same as the English one in terms of the location of the letters, with a few differences for diacritics and accessory symbols (punctuation, etc).
    hold option : on the Mac, “option” is on the same key as “Alt” which is written in smaller type on the key. I mean “keep your finger on that key” while you type the letter e the first time.

  33. m-l: When I hold the Alt key and press ‘e’, the list under ‘Edit’ comes up. That method seems to be out.
    I’ll search around for the Canadian French keyboard, and consult the fella who fixes my machine when comething goes wrong.
    Thanks.

  34. On the Ithkuil website (www.ithkuil.net) there is a page on phonology on which, for instance, the following can be read about the letter ž: “A voiced lamino-alveolar dorso-palatal grooved sibilant fricative”. Wow! Can such a thing actually be uttered?
    And the script looks, well, just from outer space. One can wonder about the purpose of such a different writing system. If people are to ever write in this language, Roman script would be infinitely more convenient to use.

  35. I have a Mac, perhaps PC’s are different
    Yes, PC’s are quite different.
    You can type & followed by a vowel followed by acute, grave, circ, or uml followed by a semicolon to get accented vowels; thus & eacute ; gives é when you eliminate the spaces.

  36. Siganus, that description says exactly French j, or what you’d expect ž to be.
    Hat, m-l, let us not be spreading more half-baked information than we can possibly help on the subject of keyboards. Everything you are saying is true for your own usage, but it is false for many other people, and will only mislead them. I know the subject is a vexed one with many ugly details, but bear with me here: this is one of my rare rants.
    On the one hand, every modern computer system is able to give any interpretation whatever to the keys on the keyboard, and this interpretation can always be changed by appropriate configuration of the operating system. On the other hand, the methods for making such changes are completely different among Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and the various other operating systems, and in general are explained to users very badly or not at all, on the assumption that they will never need to know how.
    In addition, unfortunately, what you get on different systems when you request the Canadian or French or German or Buryat keyboard layout is not necessarily the same thing. There are many languages with more than one keyboard layout in use: Cherokee alone has three for the Cherokee script plus the U.S. standard for the Latin script, for example. The standardization of keyboard hardware in the last ten years has been admirable: keyboard software, not so much. What you get by default typically depends on where you bought your computer; if you are using something other than Windows or Mac OS X, you get asked which keyboard layout you want at installation time, and you (or whoever sets up your computer) had better know the answer.
    On the gripping hand, the method that Hat spells out is not at all restricted to (Windows) PCs, nor is it generally applicable to them. Rather, it is part of the conventions of HTML, the markup method used on web sites. If you type “é” in any other program on a PC, you will not get é at all. To make things worse, many websites (but fortunately not good old Language Hat) take special precautions so that in comments the “&” conventions are disabled. This may prevent mojibake, but it also prevents many of us who don’t like changing our keyboards constantly from saying what we want to say.
    I myself when on Windows (which is most of the time) use a variant U.S. keyboard layout that interprets AltGr (the right-side Alt key) plus a character similar to a diacritic, followed by a letter, as being the letter with that diacritic. For example, to get é I hold down AltGr and press “‘”, then let go and type “e”; to get ö I hold down AltGr and press “;”, followed after some delay by “o”. This twists my hand up, and would be intolerably clumsy for someone typing French or Icelandic text, but as a U.S. programmer I actually need all the letter and symbol keys on my keyboard and can’t afford to sacrifice any of them to letters I use rarely, whereas I can give up one of the two Alt keys.
    For Greek and Cyrillic, I keep “on tap” keyboards that map my keystrokes to those letters not according to the conventions of Greek or Russian typewriters, but in a broadly phonetic way: thus with the Greek keyboard on, I type b and get β (though someone actually knowing modern Greek might expect to type v), and with the Russian keyboard on, I type j and get й. Unfortunately, with the Russian keyboard I do have to give up certain symbols, typing [ for ш and ] for щ. Плус И чаже то ремембер то свитцч бацк, er, plus I have to remember to switch back.
    On Linux, I use the standard method of using the Compose key (also AltGr for me) followed by a two-letter abbreviation for what I want; there are a hundred of these abbreviations or so, and it is fairly easy to add more. Thus “(compose)’A” comes out Á and “(compose)th” comes out þ (which on my Windows layout is AltGr+t). Naturally, using two layouts is no picnic; fortunately, using the wrong keystrokes typically produces nothing rather than the wrong thing.
    If I happen to need Devanagari or Arabic or Chinese text, I google for its English equivalent and cut and paste it. Annoying, but less so than setting up a Chinese keyboard with all its even more complex issues; as for Arabic, I can’t even tell where one letter stops and another begins without the most intense scrutiny and constant reference to a chart.
    End of rant; I now return you to your regularly scheduled mild-mannered John Cowan. For more details, see the Wikipedia article, which is both exhaustive and exhausting, but with pictures.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    I guess I am lucky to have a mac, which seems to have the simplest keyboard system.

  38. John, all that mumbo-jumbo for a simple soft -j…

  39. David Marjanović says:

    I guess I am lucky to have a mac, which seems to have the simplest keyboard system.

    It does have a better keyboard driver than Windows.
    However, a lot depends on the keyboard layout. Even in Windows, to get é, I only need to type ´ and then e; all three French accents have keys on the German keyboard layout (` is Shift+´), so all I have to cut & paste from the character map to write French are ç (Mac: Alt+C) and œ (Mac: Alt+ö).

    John, all that mumbo-jumbo for a simple soft -j…

    Yeah, and it’s not even correct: [ʒ] isn’t both alveolar and palatal as described, it’s actually neither. Unfortunately, that place of articulation has no better name than “palatal-alveolar”, though “postalveolar” will do nicely if you’re not dealing with a language like Polish that distinguishes more than one postalveolar place of articulation.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    David, actually there is more than one way to produce a /ʒ/, ranging from post-alveolar to almost velar, often with slight lip rounding. Years ago I noticed that some francophones had an unusual way of saying words like “jour” or “mange”, but at that time I did not try to define it or even reproduce it myself. Later I realized that the tip of the tongue must be almost at the Velar spot, towards the middle of the palate. I think that that pronunciation must have been the source of the true Velar fricatives ([x] and its voiced counterparts) used instead in some French and French Canadian dialects.

  41. David Marjanović says:

    …Wow. So, like the sound shift that happened in Spanish soon after Don Quixote? I had no idea.

  42. marie-lucie says:

    Yes, it must be the same process, which in French only affects a minority of dialects (from the mid-Atlantic coast of France, and in some parts of Canada).
    If you try to pronounce the /ʒ/ by backing the tip of the tongue more and more, at some point it becomes retroflexed and the sound effect is very close to that of Velar [x]. At least that’s how I experience it.

  43. David, Marie-Lucie: actually, this shift to /x/ in some dialects in France and some regions in Canada is certainly a case of what Sapir called “drift”, i.e. convergent and parallel evolution.
    It is quite clear that the French transplanted in Canada in the seventeenth century had not undergone this shift, and the chronology as well as the geographical distibution of the change on both sides of the Atlantic utterly precludes any kind of diffusion scenario.

  44. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne, I did not say anything about the significance (or not) of this pronunciation found on both sides of the Atlantic. On the other hand, at least one place in France (I don’t know of any other, but I am not a dialectologist) where the shift occurred is in the mid-Atlantic shore region where many Acadians came from. It is possible that the intermediary step (a near-retroflex palato-velar) did occur in centuries past but was not noted. After all, it took me a very long time to take conscious notice that not every speaker had the same sound as I and my family did.

  45. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne, perhaps my reference to “the same process” was ambiguous: I meant the same phonetic process, a gradual change in physical articulation such as could theoretically occur in any language or language family.

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