Monday, December 17, 2012

Everything is delightful about Joshua Foer's profile of John Quijada, who invented a "precise" and "concise" language called Ithkuil. The language attracts the attention of some very strange Russians and a Ukranian right-wing terrorist, who initially think Foer is a spy from the Pentagon. The language is quite complex, requiring a very long time to formulate sentences, even for Quijada, making it challenging for daily use.
In the original version of Ithkuil, the word Ithkuil literally means “hypothetical representation of a language,” which reflects the fact that it was never meant to be casually spoken. It was an attempt to demonstrate what language could be, not what it should be. “The idea of Ithkuil is to convey deeper levels of human cognition than are usually conveyed in human language,” Quijada told me. For example, the phrase “characteristic of a single component among the synergistic amalgamation of things” is a single adjective: oicaštik’.

If that word looks as though it required extreme acts of tonsillar gymnastics to produce, it is because no sound or syllable is wasted in Ithkuil. Every language has its own phonemic inventory, or library of sounds, from which a speaker can string together words. Consonant-poor Hawaiian has just thirteen phonemes. English has around forty-two, depending on dialect. In order to pack as much meaning as possible into each word, Ithkuil has fifty-eight phonemes. The original version of the language included a repertoire of grunts, wheezes, and hacks that are borrowed from some of the world’s most obscure tongues. One particular hard-to-make clicklike sound, a voiceless uvular ejective affricate, has been found in only a few other languages, including the Caucasian language Ubykh, whose last native speaker died in 1992.

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