The 2008 Smiley Award Winner: Ithkuil

The 2008 Smiley Award is presented to Ithkuil, a philosophical language created by John Quijada. Congratulations to John and the many fans of Ithkuil!

Smiley Award 2008

What Is Ithkuil?

If you're a conlanger, then you've probably heard of Ithkuil and visited its website. For those who aren't and haven't, Ithkuil is an a priori philosophical language developed by John Quijada over a period of more than 25 years. John's goal in creating it was to develop "an idealized language whose aim is the highest possible degree of logic, efficiency, detail, and accuracy in cognitive expression via spoken human language, while minimizing the ambiguity, vagueness, illogic, redundancy, polysemy (multiple meanings) and overall arbitrariness that is seemingly ubiquitous in natural human language" (from the Ithkuil website). John was not the first, and, I'm sure, won't be the last, to attempt such a feat, but few have—or, I'm sure, ever will—produce anything as complete and compelling as Ithkuil.

The Ithkuil Language

One of the things that has always impressed me about the Ithkuil language is its ability to surprise even the most seasoned language creator. For example, if you look only at the language's phonology—in fact, just the phonemic inventory—the casual observer will scoff. A language that contrasts voiceless unaspirated, voiceless aspirated, voiced, and ejective stops as well as voiced and voiceless fricatives in the dental, alveolar, alveolar-retroflex, post-alveolar, palatal, velar and uvular* positions?! It sounds like something a beginner would do: list every sound they've encountered, utilizing every point and manner of articulation under the sun. As you go further, though, you see that John has produced sound clips of every sound: he is able to faithfully produce all the sounds of Ithkuil (something the novice usually can't pull off) both in isolation and in words. Then, once you step back and take a look at the language as a whole, you notice something else: what the novice might produce arbitrarily, John has produced as a result of careful, meticulous planning. There is a reason Ithkuil has the sounds it does. Indeed, there is sound reasoning and careful planning behind every aspect of Ithkuil. It's that planning that makes the language so remarkable—and, for the fellow conlanger, so intimidating.

To give the uninitiated a sense of what Ithkuil is like, here's a sample sentence from the Ithkuil website:

In order to fully appreciate how this example works, let me break it down bit by bit. Let's start with the verb: tul. I chose this example because the verb is bare, and is less work to describe (and, personally, when it comes to expertise with language [and that's all language, natural or constructed], I'm much better with nouns than verbs. Verbs to me are like cars that only run backwards through time, and not forwards on roads). Ithkuil employs a kind of templatic morphology not unlike Arabic. In Arabic, you have a triconsonantal (or, occasionally, biconsonantal or tetraconsonantal) root which is combined with vowels to form words. Consider the following Arabic words (the consonants are underlined):

  • kaatib "writer"
  • maktab "office"
  • maktaba "library"
  • yaktub "I write"
  • katabat "she wrote"
  • kitaab "book"
  • kutub "books"

Notice that all the words above contain the consonants k-t-b in that order, and that they all have something to do with writing. Further, if you look at other triconsonantal roots from Arabic, you'll notice that vowel patterns (sometimes) bear semantic similarities. For example, bearing in mind that kaatib is "writer", waalid is "father"; daabit is "soldier"; taalib is "student", etc. In other words, chances are if you have the vowel pattern -aa-i-, the word will describe a human. Of course, as Arabic is a natural human language, this doesn't always pan out: there are words describing humans that don't fall into the -aa-i- pattern (rajul, "man", comes to mind), and words in the -aa-i- pattern that don't describe humans (e.g., waasi', "wide" [that one's not even a noun!]). Oh well.

Ithkuil takes the same idea that Arabic employs and regularizes it. In Ithkuil, roots are biconsonantal, and the verb templates that fill them are regular. So, for example, taking our word tul, the root T-L has to do with writing (like Arabic k-t-b), and the verb template -u- (Form I, stem 2, instantiating Pattern 1 of the Primary Mode) is a kind of subset of the general semantic category mapped out by stem 1. So while the basic concept refers to inscription (to produce a written symbol), stem 2 refers to writing a message. By looking at the sentence, even though tul doesn't bear any other morphological markers, we see that it's in final position, which tells us that it's the verb of the sentence (though word order is more complex, if we had to pound Ithkuil into one of the traditional six word order patterns, it'd be SOV).

Moving on to the second word (I don't know why I started from the right side), there actually is no root: the word is comprised entirely of affixes—a rather unique characteristic of Ithkuil I've always found quite fascinating. This word contains three important pieces of information. First, the -äu suffix (to start from the back again) adds the "like" element to the sentence. It's associated with the divertive mode, which has to do with liking to do something (here we're talking about a verb), to enjoy something, etc. On the front of this is a valence marker denoting reciprocality: o-, which becomes onń- when used in a word. Further, the fact that we're using o, and not, for example, wo or yo or oi or io or woi indicates that the type of action we have is processual, i.e. the action is an end in itself and doesn't anticipate a specific end, or tell us anything about how successful the action is, etc. For that, you use one of the other five forms of the reciprocal. Add to that thirteen other valence markers, and you can begin to see why, for example, Ithkuil has so many vowels. This is a great example of what I was talking about before: what, at first blush, seems haphazard is intentional and functional—necessary, even.

Getting back on track, what we have, then, is the word onńäu, a kind of adverbial adjunct which lets us know the subject of the sentence likes to write letters (with no strings attached) and that reciprocality is involved (foreshadowing a non-singular subject!).

Finally, let us discuss big, bad word number one. This one's a bit tricky if you're not paying attention. First, the root is a pronoun. Pronouns in Ithkuil are monoconsonantal. The proform refers to an unbounded animate third person entity (i.e., it's human, and, given the context, most likely non-singular). To that must be added the specific number, which, in this case is dual (or duplex, using Ithkuil terminology). Proforms have special versions of the various affixes associated with them, and the form of the duplex prefix in the consolidative (indicating that the group or individuals in discussion have no external reason to be associated with one another; they're just existing) is ä-. Next are the final two suffixes. First, we have the long form of the special proform version of the activative case, which is -üw-. The activative case indicates that whatever it's attached to is associated with an as yet unrealized action. Compare, for example, the sentences "David is eating ice cream" and "David wants to be eating ice cream". Only in one of these sentences is David actually doing something worthwhile. Yet, in English, both Davids are marked with the same case (well, of course, we don't have case in English, but you get the idea). According to the grammar, the two Davids are identical. But, lo, it isn't so! Ithkuil notes this difference overtly by use of the activative case, which would be attached to the poor David of the second sentence. And so it appears in our sentence here. Finally, the suffix -a indicates that the activity in this sentence is being brought to our attention for no other reason than to bring it to our attention. (After all, one might reveal information for other nefarious purposes, mightn't one?)

So, there you have it! Two animate beings are of a particular mood whereby what they enjoy doing is engaging in written communication with each other. One can say this precisely in English, but it sure does take a lot of effort. Enter Ithkuil, where what is written in three short words takes several long paragraphs to describe.

The Effect of Ithkuil

After taking a look at the above description of a relatively simple three word sentence of Ithkuil, one might wonder, "What's the point?", or, "What torture!" If the point of language is to communicate, how or why would a human use such a language when saying something like, "They like corresponding" is so much easier, albeit imprecise?

Well, while we're on the subject, it's worth noting that John has been approached by folks who do, in fact, want to learn to speak and use Ithkuil (ah, the wonders of the internet! Someone should translate this page into Russian for them [or is it Ukrainian (or both?)?]).

  • [Hey, if I can call a timeout briefly, I've just been made aware of a Russian translation of the entire Ithkuil website! Take a look here. I mean, that's just incredible! To give you a small example of the work that went into this translation, take a look at the first graphic below from John's site, and then the corresponding graphic from the Russian site to the right of it. Having: (a) taken Russian; (b) read and reviewed the Ithkuil site numerous times; (c) translated material from English to various languages; and (d) done text graphics, I have to say, this translation was quite an achievement! Kudos to the translator, Lexa Samons!]

  • An example of boustrophedon style text in English.                         An example of boustrophedon style text in Russian.
  • [Now back to the task at hand...]

Can it be done? Can Ithkuil be used for actual communication? In this writer's opinion, yes, it can. I haven't found many languages that a human couldn't use (some notable exceptions being binary and Jeffrey Henning's Fith). At the end of the day, Ithkuil is a collection of a bunch of atoms that need to be memorized and combined, and I'm sure a human would be able to do it. However, I know humans. And I'm sure that if an actual human community started using Ithkuil as its primary means of communication (not merely as a scholarly language like Latin in the middle ages, which, given its status, was preserved rather well), they'd do to it what they did to Arabic.

As I showed above, Arabic uses a unique templatic morphological system which allows a speaker to take semantic roots and produce usable words. The key word here is "allows". If the speakers of Arabic were perfect, there would be no irregularities. A given speaker, knowing the semantic domain of a specific root, would be able instantly to predict all the words that could be derived using the template, and what each word would mean. Furthermore, every speaker would produce the exact same list. Unfortunately, this isn't the case. As time has worn on, different speakers have used the system differently; borrowing has introduced impurities into the system; phonological change has made certain regular relationships opaque; and so, nowadays, when a child learns Arabic, they learn words, not a system.

Were a group of humans to start using Ithkuil, I believe it would suffer the same fate. What should be specific would become general; what should be general would become specific; those with less dextrous tongues would erode the complex phonology, producing irregularities and masking important pieces of information... In short, it would become a language, as opposed to an ideal, which, I believe, would destroy the language—or, more accurately, the experiment.

I say "experiment", because I actually look at Ithkuil as a kind of psycho-linguistic therapy. Humans are capable of precision in all things some of the time, but more often than not, we're comfortable merely getting by. Margarine, butter, oil-based spread; what's the difference? The human brain is resilient, and can utilize context and statistics like, well, nothing else I've ever encountered. We're so good at getting by—at making the best of what we have, that it's a wonder we're capable of precision at all. But, the truth is, we are, we just don't do it. It's inconvenient. Ostentatious. But when you cease to think of exactly why you do what you do, you've lost something important. After all, if we can't step back and reevaluate our methods, from whom in this world will innovation come?

Using Ithkuil—trying to read or write a sentence of it—forces the reader/user to think. True, all languages force one to think about certain things, but no language I know forces you to think about everything the way Ithkuil does. Take the ice cream eating example (David eating ice cream versus David wanting to eat ice cream). English doesn't force its user to think about the difference between the two Davids in those sentences. True, one might think of it, if one devoted time to it, but if one isn't a language enthusiast, or a language creator, chances are one won't. And thus we all go about most of the time: not thinking about what we're actually saying. In this way, sitting down and composing a sentence in Ithkuil can be rather therapeutic. It forces you to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. And this is why I personally look at Ithkuil not so much as a language intended for communication like a natural language or something similar, but as a kind of form of meditation. If you haven't tried dissecting an Ithkuil sentence or writing in it, I strongly encourage you to give it a try!

A Philosophical Aside

Precision is kind of a double-edged sword. One interesting aspect of Ithkuil is that it forces the user to be precise. That means that even if a user is going to be lazy (perhaps there are too many validation affixes to keep track of, so a given user will just remember one and use it everywhere), they will be lazily producing very precise language. If what they've produced doesn't match up with their intention, it's clear where the fault lies, for within the language itself, there is no room for ambiguity: what is said is what it is. Perhaps this isn't ideal for sitting down and having a chat with a friend about the weekend, but it's not hard to imagine a context where this level of precision would not only be useful, but a welcome change from the norm. What about political debates, for example? Consider the amount of verbiage that has been built up over the years that actually makes its own arguments (what George Lakoff calls "frames"). In a debate over a new "tax relief" program, the outcome is virtually decided already. After all, "relief" is a good thing; something we all could use. Who would listen to someone who was trying to argue that we don't need tax relief? Maybe he doesn't need relief, but we sure do, right?!

One of the greatest strengths and weaknesses of a natural language like English is its history. The very same language that can be used to call forth images and associations both cherished and novel in a literary work can be used to manipulate an unsuspecting listener in a philosophical, religious, political or pedagogical context. How can there be any real discussion or debate about anything if one party has the power to manipulate the other? At best, what you get is not discussion, but verbal warfare, each side relying on linguistic tactics to win the day, as opposed to examining the issue objectively to come to a rational solution. A language like Ithkuil might help to level the playing field—not, mind you, because users would magnanimously try to be impartial all of the sudden, but because any attempt at trickery or deception or manipulation would be apparent, as all aspects of expression are made explicit in the grammar of the language. Such, at least, is the goal—and an admirable one, at that.

How Ithkuil Has Made Me Smile

Ithkuil isn't so much a language as it is a monument to human ingenuity and design. Over a quarter century in the making, Ithkuil is a complete language (a daunting task, as any conlanger knows), and a remarkable achievement. It's the outcome of a specific set of design goals that have been satisfactorily realized. I mean, wow! That's pretty incredible in and of itself. But beyond that, something must be said about the Ithkuil website. The website that John has created for Ithkuil is a model for all language creators to follow, and a gift to the language creation community. It's clear, readable, organized well, filled with examples (each with an orthographic, romanized, schematic and translated variant—and many with an audio file attached. It's funny: when you tell someone else that you've created a language, the first thing they want to hear is what it sounds like, and yet many of us create, essentially, written languages that sound alien to their creators when spoken with gusto!), and is appropriately redundant. It really allows the uninitiated to fully grasp what Ithkuil is, which is something that many of our websites (I can think of an example or two) fail to do.

Just to take one quick example (I don't want to get stuck on the website, but this is good), John has come up with a triliteral codification system for every grammatical term used on his site. Grammatical terms are all introduced in the same way everywhere on the website, regardless of the section, along with their three letter code. As a result, when you see the name of a grammatical term anywhere on the site, you know the code is unique, and so all you have to do is find the code to get an appropriate explanation. (In fact, if you wanted to go crazy, John, you could link every usage of every code on the site to its description!) How many of us have seen D.O., D.Obj., Obj., OB., O, and Acc. all used to refer to a "direct object in the accusative case" on the same site about the same language? I know I've been guilty of it. Anyway, this attention to detail for the purpose of exposition is something I really appreciate and admire.

And, of course, I can't get out of an article on Ithkuil without mentioning the script. The script is just cool! I've always dug it. It, along with the rest of the language, is incredibly complex and well thought-out (I don't have time to go into it here, but I entreat you to go to John's site to read up on it [chapter 11]), but aside from that, I find it fascinating to stare at. It directly inspired the orthography of Sidaan. Compare the following samples (the first Ithkuil, the second Sidaan):

Example of the Ithkuil script.

Example of the Sidaan script.

Not identical, of course (I couldn't do something as cool as the Ithkuil script), but it has a similar aura to it, I think.

And finally, how could one possibly discuss Ithkuil without discussing John's bizarre obsession with clowns. Images of the surreal, grease-painted fellows like the one pictured below litter the Ithkuil website:

An Ithkuil clown.

I mean, if I see that in a dark alley, I run the other way! But, of course, a page full of nothing but text can be rather overwhelming, so why not? It adds a little something, and reminds us not to take things too seriously. Ultimately, most of us do this for fun. We're not getting paid; there is no glory in language creation. Why not have fun? Life's too short, and the days are too long.

The Smiley Award is given to a language, not a language creator, but I have to say that I couldn't be happier to give the award to a language created by such a great guy. I've been fortunate enough to spend time with John at the first and second LCC's, and he's a lot of fun to be around. He exudes a kind of quiet exuberance for language creation and life that's infectious. Plus, he's been an inspiration to many of us within the greater language creation community; a positive force, and a real irie ite.

And so it's with pride and joy that I award the 2008 Smiley Award to Ithkuil. Congratulations, John! Thanks for giving us the gift of Ithkuil.

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