The perfect language

Joshua Foer wrote Moonwalking with Einstein, one of my favorite books of 2012 and one I've promoted on my blog so many times I've lost count. Catching up on issues of the New Yorker piled up from the holidays, I was thoroughly drawn in by an article by Foer titled Utopian for Beginners about one amateur linguist's quest to invent the perfect language.

What is wrong with the natural languages we have now, like English or Mandarin Chinese or French? Many things, as anyone who has tried to explain the vagaries of their language's grammar to a non-speaker could attest. As Foer summarizes:

Languages are something of a mess. They evolve over centuries through an unplanned, democratic process that leaves them teeming with irregularities, quirks, and words like “knight.” No one who set out to design a form of communication would ever end up with anything like English, Mandarin, or any of the more than six thousand languages spoken today.

John Quijada, a former California DMV worker, agreed, and so he set out to construct a language free of these flaws.

Why would this be worth doing? One reason cited by many who have attempted this gargantuan endeavor is that language is the predominant vessel for transmitting information among humans, so the more precise and efficient the language, the more efficiently and precisely we communicate with each other. A second reason is that many people believe language controls thought, and so imperfections in language lead not just to embarrassing grammar mistakes but imperfect thinking, a far more dangerous consequence. Popularly referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the principle of linguistic relativity says that "the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers conceptualize their world, i.e. their world view, or otherwise influences their cognitive processes."

It's important to note that most linguists today believe only in the weak form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which says that the language we speak influences the way we perceive the world rather than outright confining and our thought processes. Still, considering how much we use language, how pervasive it is, any flaws or leaks are in language can compound over time in ways that can be disturbing. The world over, we generally all use the same symbols to do mathematics or read music because those methods have proven superior in so many ways that individual variations make no sense. Couldn't the same be the case with written and spoken language?

Some people aren't even satisfied with how we do math. A while ago I linked to designer Bret Victor's fascinating essay Kill Math in which he argues that math is difficult to learn because the symbolic system we use to teach math abstracts things to a degree that renders it confusing for most people. In a related way, I hear my programming friends discussing the merits of various programming languages all the time. At its most powerful level, those who try to develop new written and spoken languages believe that they can unlock new ways of thinking and comprehension that we don't even know we're missing yet, much in the way that certain things can only be done efficiently in certain programming languages.

John Quijada, consumed by this goal, developed an artificial language (in his spare time, no less) called Ithkuil. Though it's written in English and thus full of the imprecisions of that language, the explanation of Quijada's goals for Ithkuil are difficult to render any more clear:

While I enjoy the idea of inventing fictional languages which mimic natural languages, it is not enough for me to add simply another language to the thousands that already exist or have existed. For me, the greater goal is to attempt the creation of what human beings, left to their own devices, would never create naturally, but rather only by conscious effort — 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. This new version of Ithkuil represents the culmination of over thirty years of personal effort toward creating such a language.

Quijada notes up front that Ithkuil is not a natural language that humans would use in regular spoken or written form. Rather, he intended it as a cross between "an a priori philosophical language and a logical language". The ideal he is striving towards is still inspiring.

I asked him 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 thought about it for a moment.

“Well, 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.” He paused, as if leafing through a mental dictionary. “In Ithkuil, it’s ašţal.”