The invented languages of Ithkuil and Blissymbols

Joshua Foer has a long and interesting article at the New Yorker on Ithkuil, an original language with “two seemingly incompatible ambitions”: to be both maximally precise and maximally concise, so it can convey “nearly every thought that a human being could have while doing so in as few sounds as possible”.

As you might expect, sentences in Ithkuil are very information-rich and rather intimidating; for example, Ai’tilafxup embuliëqtuqh means “All the people of the land spoke the same language.” That’s Ithkuil with our familiar Roman letters – it has its own script too, shown in this translation of the opening line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:

John Quijada - Ithkuil script for Tolstoy line, 'All families are happy in the same way...'

Ithkuil was constructed over several decades by John Quijada, whose official Ithkuil website says it’s not intended as a usable language but as a hypothetical exercise exploring how languages could function. Ithkuil’s primary purpose, Quijada says, is:

to demonstrate how human language could be used to convey much deeper levels of human cognition and semantic nuance/exactitude than are found in natural human languages.

Ithkuil’s grammatical characteristics are listed in Arika Okrent’s (highly recommended) book In the Land of Invented Languages. She quotes Quijada speaking at a conlang conference, where he describes his language’s influences as:

[the] consonantal phonology and verbal morphology of Ubykh and Abkhaz, certain Amerindian verbal moods, Niger-Kordofanian aspectual systems, Basque and Dagestanian nominal case systems, Wakashan enclitic systems, the Tzeltal and Guugu Yimidhirr positional orientation systems, the Semitic triliteral root morphology, the evidential and possessive categories of Suzette Elgin’s Láadan, and the schematic word-formation principles of Wilkins’ Analytic Language and Sudré’s Solresol.

This gives a sense of what conlangers often do: take appealing features from different languages, and fuse them into something new. It’s usually a creative labour of linguistic love rather than a political or utopian project, but the latter sometimes occurs too, and indeed Ithkuil almost became ideologically repurposed. You can read its remarkable story here.

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From the deeply complex to the comparatively simple. In a links post last year I included an introduction to Blissymbols, an ideographic writing system invented by Charles Bliss (formerly Karl Blitz) in the 1940s and still taught in a few schools. Bliss sought to create an auxiliary communication system independent of words.

Here’s I want to go to the cinema in Blisswords:

Blissymbol - I want to go to the cinema

The first symbol means person, and the 1 indicates first person, i.e., I. The circumflex over symbols 2 and 3 just turns an idea into a verb. And so on. Once you have the basics (PDF), it’s quite logical and intuitive – up to a point.

The history of Blissymbols, and of Bliss himself, is a strange, sad, and in some ways inspiring tale, well documented in Okrent’s book. It also features in a recent Radiolab episode, which I listened to yesterday. The programme has commentary, interviews, and recordings of Bliss himself, and is well worth a listen if you have an hour to spare.

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Previous posts on conlangs looked at J.R.R. Tolkien’s “secret vice” of language construction, how Klingon was invented, and the Na’vi language in James Cameron’s film Avatar.

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7 Responses to The invented languages of Ithkuil and Blissymbols

  1. Shaun Downey says:

    Fascinating stuff as ever Stan!

  2. John Cowan says:

    I still remember what I said on the conlang list when Ithkuil was posted there for the first time: that, with the utmost respect, Mr. Quijada’s work was eminently worthy of his famous ancestor. I look forward to reading the article to see what’s happened since then.

  3. Stan says:

    Shaun: There’s endless fascination in hypothetical grammar!

    John: Ithkuil was an audacious undertaking, and its fate took more twists than I think Quijada ever anticipated.

  4. John Cowan says:

    Now that I’ve read the article, indeed it did. I trust you know who I meant by the “famous ancestor”: Don Alonso Quijada ["jawbone"] or Quesada [by folk etymology "cheese-y"] or Quejana [Basque: "smoky"], but by any name the ingenious gentleman of La Mancha.

  5. Keresth says:

    I’ve been learning Ithkuil since the 2004 version and it’s been interesting to see the revisions as well as Quijada’s (mis)adventures in Western Europe. Fortunately, they aren’t the only Ithkuil-enthusiasts; there’s a Facebook group (linked below) dedicated to the language for anyone interested:

    http://www.facebook.com/groups/298793876903856/

  6. Stan says:

    John: Indeed I did.

    Keresth: I imagine it has been. Thanks for the Facebook link.

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