A while ago, I read an article [mirror] about John Quijada, a Californian guy, that had been working for 30 years in his free time on a (rather theoretical) 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."
When I was at a bar a couple of weekends later, someone brought this up again. He had read the same article, and described -- while he himself was stroking his beard -- how the guy came up with the 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" (ašţal), and so I thought about putting it here on my blog, as I thought it was rather interesting.
The article first mentions the merits of such an effort: combine maximal precision (i.e. allow every thought to be declared precisily and unambiguous) and conciseness (with as few sounds as possible). Natural languages grew organically, and usually miss one or both of these traits.
The concept of artificial languages can be traced back to the twelfth century, when the German nun Hildegard von Bingen wrote down the grammar to the Lingua Ignota. The concept of the Chinese characters representing not sounds but words and concepts was very intriguiging to the western world, and made philosophers dream of a universal language, like Arabic ciphers had done to math, such that "instead of disputing, we can say that 'we calculate'," as Leibniz wrote in 1679.
Many constructed languages (conlangs) have seen the light since then, as there are John Wilkins' Philosophical Language (where the root of a word was the concept, and was specialized by adding suffixes), François Sudre's Solresol (whose words consisted of a sequence of one of the seven syllables of its alphabet, that could be represented by notes, colors, symbols), L. L. Zamenhof's Esperanto. More recent and known conlangs are Klingon and those constructed for Lord of the Rings (Tolkien maintained he even created the universe to develop his own languages). (many more)[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_constructed_languages].
The article goes on about how suddenly John's new language got more attention: the Russian popular-science magazine Computerra brought an article "The Speed of Thought" which compared Ithkuil to Speedtalk, another conlang created for the science-fiction book "Gulf". In this book the language was created to allow for faster and more precise thinking.
This comparison raised a lot of interest from Russians (who proposed changes, and even translated the English grammar to Russian), and later on of a Ukrainian university who invited John to come and give lectures on Ithkuil.
John Quijada planned to become a linguistic anthropologist, knowing everything of the most exotic languages. One day he had an epiphany: every language does at least one thing better than every other language. For example, Aboriginals always use absolute directions, rather than indications relative to a person, and the Wakashan Indians had the concept of evidentiality, where what one says indicates the source, like personal experience, inference, conjecture, hearsay etc. And these ideas from other languages formed a basis for his own language, which he constructed after he wasn't able to get a PhD. So he became a truck driver and later worked for DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) while working in his spare time refining his language.
When he picked up the Metaphors We Live By, which argues that our thinking is structured by conceptual systems that are largely metaphorical in nature, and made a link with how his languages might force its speakers to precisely identify what they mean to say, an idea that the book disputed.
This leads to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, of which there are several version. The weak one argues that the language we speak shapes our experience of reality. Thus, speakers of different languages view the world and think differently. The strong hypothesis and suggests that language constrains the thoughts we can have.
The latter one has been disregarded by "respectable linguists", when sociologist and science-fiction writer James Cooke Brown tried to render people more logical by his Loglan conlang, and failed.
The weak version, however, still gets support. For example, speakers of languages with only masculine or feminine words (Spanish, French), think differently about objects even in a non-gendered, second language (English).
The goal of the language is to be able to express things so clearly as to remove any doubt, and in the process create new concepts and words that are the result of joining words. An example he gave, a word no other language probably has a word for, was "ašţal" (just look in the intro for the meaning :p)
Then, one day, he got invited to speak in Kalmykia, in the Ural Mountains in Russia, known for being the only region in the European part where Buddhism is the major religion and former President, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov who turned the state into the chess capital of the world.
Once there, they told him some people had been studying his language for two years already, part of a psychonetics training program. His presentation included a description in Itkhuil of Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2: Aukkras êqutta ogvëuļa tnou’elkwa pal-lši augwaikštülnàmbu, all the while he had no clue what it was all about that made it so interesting to them.
Then some time later, he got invited again to a conference, now in Kiev. It was there, psychonetics finally unfolded itself a bit. It was about hiding nothing from your unconsciousness: “A psychoneticist must have nothing unconscious. Everything must be conscious”. Every thought, every uttered word must've been because of deliberate action. Ithkuil, in this regard, was perfect, as every nuance had to be decided upon meticulously.
This conference, however, wasn't full of language geeks, but most of them were big strong men with shaved heads. At one point, a gaunt man who has been recording the whole time, gets up and delivers a speech. At the end it is clear that the guy is one of the top terrorists in Ukraine. After some research they discover that their main interest is not the linguistic part en se, but rather develop "intellectual special forces" that can "give birth to a new race that can really be called superhuman", as they believe that learning Ithkuil "has the potential to reshape human consciousness and help them “solve problems faster."
What happened thereafter, we don't know ... yet
After these adventures, QUijada decided that after 34 years, his project was completed, and self-published a definitive, four-hundred-and-thirty-nine-page description of the language.
Quijada summarizes his journey of him and his language as follows: "Eipkalindhöll te uvölîlpa ípçatörza üxt rî’ekçuöbös abzeikhouxhtoù eqarpaň dhai’eickòbüm öt eužmackûnáň xhai’ékc’oxtîmmalt te qhoec îtyatuithaň.", or translated: "I am privileged to have had the rare experience of having what I think of as a hobby propel me to faraway places where one encounters new ideas along with new cultures and new peoples generous in their hospitality and respect, leading me to humble introspection and a new appreciation for the human spirit and the wonders of the world."
I haven't studied the grammar of Ithkuil, but the unambiguity seems to come from an extensive coverage of cases rather than a mathematical system which allows one to construct things previously unthought of, which I hoped to see.
For example, one of the 200 categories is the Degree Of Discretion, which ranges from public to confidential. One of them is semi-public, and can be interpreted quite broadly: is semi-public limited to the family