The 2012-12-24 issue of The New Yorker
carries an extensive article by Joshua Foer
that describes the decades-long project of a Mexican-American amateur linguist, John Quijada, to invent and develop a synthetic language, which he calls Ithkuil, that is intended to be simultaneously maximally concise and maximally precise.
The construction of this language involved an extensive examination of the grammatical structures and conceptual assumptions embodied in a large number of the world's existing languages; from each of them, Quijada derived those features that he felt could contribute a unique capability to his invented language:
“I had this realization that every individual language does at least one thing better than every other language,” he said. For example, the Australian Aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t use egocentric coördinates like “left,” “right,” “in front of,” or “behind.” Instead, speakers use only the cardinal directions. They don’t have left and right legs but north and south legs, which become east and west legs upon turning ninety degrees. Among the Wakashan Indians of the Pacific Northwest, a grammatically correct sentence can’t be formed without providing what linguists refer to as “evidentiality,” inflecting the verb to indicate whether you are speaking from direct experience, inference, conjecture, or hearsay.
Quijada's impetus sprang, among other things, from a wish to transcend the limitations of humanity's organically-evolving natural languages by forcing the users of his
language to say exactly what they mean and to mean exactly what they say -- an objective that is as much philosophical -- specifically, epistemological -- as it is linguistic. His language also attempts to break free of the inherent tendency (described in the weak Sapir-Whorf theory) of all natural languages to shape and limit the ways in which its users not only speak, but think: Ithkuil is intended to be capable of expressing any thought or concept that any human could possibly generate or might wish to describe, thanks to the way it forces them to systematically analyse and express every possible dimension of what they are saying.
Quijada was also influenced by
“[...] Metaphors We Live By, a seminal book, published in 1980, by the cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, which argues that the way we think is structured by conceptual systems that are largely metaphorical in nature.”
After presenting a brief overview of the history of other invented languages, including some of their innovations and (usually) their eventual failure, Foer's article goes on to describe the remarkable level of interest in Ithkuil in certain parts of the former Soviet Union, particularly in Kalmykia, the small majority-Buddhist republic of Russia situated on the western shores of the Caspian Sea. In 2010, Quijada found himself taking time off from his day job in the DMV (= Department of Motor Vehicles) to address a conlang (= 'constructed language') conference in Elista, Kalmykia's capital, as a much-admired and important figure in the work that many of the attenders regarded as vital to the development of their 'psychonetics' project, which concerns itself with retraining the human brain to think consistently and systematically in a logical and orderly manner, and to make explicit those things that otherwise reside in the unconscious mind:
If you imagine all the possible notions, ideas, beliefs, and statements that a human mind could ever express, Ithkuil provides a precise set of coördinates for pinpointing any of those thoughts. The final version of Ithkuil, which Quijada published in 2011, has twenty-two grammatical categories for verbs, compared with the six—tense, aspect, person, number, mood, and voice—that exist in English. Eighteen hundred distinct suffixes further refine a speaker’s intent. Through a process of laborious conjugation that would befuddle even the most competent Latin grammarian, Ithkuil requires a speaker to home in on the exact idea he means to express, and attempts to remove any possibility for vagueness.
However, Quijada eventually discovered, to his dismay, that his new language was also being used by certain politically extreme groups in the countries of the former USSR in the service of their anti-semitic and pan-Slavic ideology, including by the person who had invited him to speak at the conference:
Though he denies that psychonetics is a political project, it’s hard to uncouple Bakhtiyarov’s dream of creating a Slavic superstate from his dream of creating a Slavic superman—perhaps one who speaks a disciplined, transparent language such as Ithkuil.
But despite having to distance himself from this application of his language, Quijada felt that he had achieved his personal goal: “It was a twenty-five-year itch that I needed to scratch. I scratched it.”