World Savvy: What we can learn from invented languages

We all have probably traveled and worked where people have invented their own language, or at least their own words. I had dealings once with a very religious Jewish family in Spain who had emigrated from Morocco. In their office they spoke this amalgamation of Arabic, Hebrew, French, Spanish and English with a hint of Yiddish thrown in. I could only understand a few words of all this, but they knew what everything meant; it was a perfect language for that office, as each snippet of spoken word had some characteristic not found in another language.

In the same way that people in the localization industry are striving to create the perfect way to localize, linguists have been hard at work to create the perfect international language. Thus wiping out the need to localize altogether. Not!

Even if this is not true, no individual language is as precise as the sum total of human languages, and you frequently have to borrow from another language to get the precise meaning you want to convey. One Latvian poem points this out:

Cik tukš ir pilnums

Cik pilns ir tukšums

This means “how empty is fullness (wealth), and how full (wealthy) is emptiness.” But that’s a pretty clunky translation. To overcome the chunkiness from one language to the next, many linguists over the years have sought to invent a new language. And remarkably, in the current world, a fellow by the name of John Quijada, instead of having hobbies like electric trains or classic cars like I have, decided to invent a whole new language, Ithkuil, over a span of three decades. The language is designed to express human cognition very briefly, striving to minimize the ambiguities and semantic vagueness found in natural human languages. The sentence “On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point” becomes Tram-ml, öi hhâsmarˇpt,  ukt ôx. It accomplishes this through grammatical complexity and extensive phoneme inventory. No person, including Quijada, so far is known to be able to speak Ithkuil fluently, although it has a strong following in Russia.

In a recent interview, Quijada said “I had this realization that every individual language does at least one thing better than every other language.” For example, among the Wakashan Indians of the Pacific Northwest, a sentence can’t be formed without first inflecting the verb to indicate whether the person speaks from direct experience, inference, conjecture or hearsay. This is what linguists call evidentiality, building in the evidence inherent in a claim. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to put this condition on everything political commentators such as Rush Limbaugh say?

Inspired by all the languages he learned about as a student linguist, Quijada began constructing his own grammar. This would go on to include evidentiality and many other complex grammatical structures. Ithkuil has 11 cases with case endings for nouns — among them ergative case, identifying the agent of a sentence (such as John in John threw the ball and the ball was thrown by John), and the derivative case, identifying some causal inanimate force of nature (such as the wind in the wind blew the ball across the yard).

Even though the Oxford English dictionary has some one million words in English, Quijada says there are words by the millions to describe concepts that he has never encountered and that have probably never existed in any language. He was asked by an interviewer if he could “come up with an entirely new concept on the spot, one for which there was no word in any existing language.” He responded that “no language, as far as I know, has a single word for that chin-stroking moment you get, often accompanied by a frown on your face, when someone expresses an idea that you’ve never thought of and you have a moment of suddenly seeing possibilities you never saw before.” After a pause in which he reflected on the philosophical shades of meaning he would need for this word, he added “In Ithkuil, it’s ašt,  al.”

There are over 6,000 natural spoken languages today and most are pretty quirky. However, in his book Physics of the Future, Michio Kaku notes that most of them are expected to become extinct. He notes that a handful of languages, among them English and Chinese, will be the languages of the future.

All of these natural languages have philosophical shortcomings and ambiguities, so a passion over the centuries has been to invent a “perfect” language. One of the first recorded was the Lingua Ignota, which was created by the twelfth-century German nun Hildegard von Bingen. Since then more than 900 languages have been “invented.” However, Arika Okrent, the author of In the Land of Invented Languages, notes that the history of invented languages is mostly a history of failure.

But the real spurt to develop a language came in the 1500s when Jesuit missionaries to China came back to Europe with the first accounts of how the Chinese language was structured. In “Utopian for Beginners” Joshua Foer, writing in the December 24, 2012 New Yorker about invented languages, noted that during the Enlightenment, many philosophers were taken with the notion that Chinese characters “signified concepts rather than sounds, and that a single ideogram could have the same meaning to people all over East Asia, despite sounding completely different in each tongue. What if, they wondered, you could create a universal written language that could be understood by anyone,” that expressed what Arabic numerals expressed in counting? “This writing will be a kind of general algebra and calculus of reason, so that, instead of disputing, we can say that ‘we calculate,’ ” philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz wrote in 1679.

One of the most creative invented languages was Soresol, invented by Jean-François Sudre, which had only seven syllables: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La and Si. The words could be spoken or played with a violin, and the language could also be translated into the seven colors of a rainbow and a sentence could be woven in fabric using these colors. Now that’s creative!

The one invented language that rapidly took off in the late 1880s and is still around, and even has annual conferences, is of course Esperanto, developed by opthalmologist Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof. It is the most widely spoken constructed language in the world, and was created to be politically neutral and easy to learn, thus fostering worldwide peace. Zamenhof stated in a letter that he got the idea from where he grew up: “The place where I was born and spent my childhood gave direction to all my future struggles . . . the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies.” At its peak, Esperanto was spoken by some two million people and today can be found on Google Translate (Figure 1).

We can learn a lot from the invented languages of idealists, not least of which is that language does not have to be dividing.