A “more perfect language”?

The Foers know what they’re talking about. You are probably familiar with Jonathan Safran Foer, and perhaps you know his brother Franklin Foer. But this post is about his other brother, Joshua Foer—in particular about a long non-fiction piece he published in The New Yorker. (I suppose “long” goes without saying when it’s in the New Yorker.) So sit down in a comfortable chair with a cup of tea in your hand, with a cat on your lap, and settle in for a fascinating read.

Foer’s fascinating New Yorker article, though broadly titled “Utopian for Beginners,” is mostly about Ithkuil, a constructed (i.e., artificial) language—or conlang for short, as we insiders refer to any constructed language. The article is also about Ithkuil’s constructor, John Quijada.

It’s remarkably thorough. Every time that I said to myself “Why doesn’t Foer mention X?”, it turned out that he discusses X a few paragraphs later on! So, among other things, the article would be a good source for you to learn about constructed languages and the culture surrounding their creators.

But why Ithkuil as opposed to any of the other dozens of conlangs? This paragraph may help:

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’.

“I wanted to use Ithkuil to show how you would discuss philosophy and emotional states transparently,” Quijada said. To attempt to translate a thought into Ithkuil requires investigating a spectrum of subtle variations in meaning that are not recorded in any natural language. You cannot express a thought without first considering all the neighboring thoughts that it is not. Though words in Ithkuil may sound like a hacking cough, they have an inherent and unavoidable depth. “It’s the ideal language for political and philosophical debate—any forum where people hide their intent or obfuscate behind language,” Quijada continued. “Ithkuil makes you say what you mean and mean what you say.”

I’m not sure why I recently came across this ten-year-old New Yorker article. But it has new resonance today, since the second half includes a whole bunch of geopolitical material, mostly centering on Russia and Ukraine. So go read it!

Categories: Linguistics