Ithkuil and Ambiguity

This morning Jessica brought to my attention a certain New Yorker article by Joshua Foer about amateur linguist John Quijada and Ithkuil, his astonishing constructed language. Over the course of more than three decades, Quijada has built a language designed simultaneously for optimal precision and concision. The creator set out:
"to attempt the creation of what human beings, left to their own devices, would never create naturally, but rather only by conscious intellectual 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."
I'd like to preface my comments by saying that I am not a professional linguist and that I have a great deal of admiration for conlang crafters, especially those who get so far into Tolkein's "sub-creation" as Quijada has done. (My three youthful creations Pelmanaresh, Övere Ättan, and Khejhedváh, intended for fictional races of idillic nymphs, Germanic humans, and gruesome demons, respectively, sadly did not make it far past the phoneme selection step.) Also my thoughts in all likelihood work contrary to Quijada's hypothetical premise, as outlined in his massively comprehensive website, which I have not had the time to read.

A sample Ithkuil sentence.

Regardless, this morning's article sparked a number of ideas that I am eager to pursue, even if (especially if) they leave Quijada's Ithkuil and veer off into my own ideas about language in general. What stood out to me in this article was the assumed emphasis on the profitability of a highly logical language that features a minimum of "overall arbitrariness," implying that language (read: thought, read: life) without ambiguity would be a positive, "Utopian" step. (Again, I am aware that the more I write, the more I reveal about my lack of knowledge in this area. I've definitely demonstrated my own vagueness, illogic, and redundancy with flying colors!)

What would it really look like to minimize humanity's natural predilection for ambiguity? Would it just be less confusion and more societal harmony? Or would we end up loosing something important, something precious, indeed, something essential to our very humanness? I would argue the latter. And it's not just because I speak one of the most ridiculous hodgepodge of a language that there is. I think it goes beyond my respect for and dependance on English and touches the core of human imagination: in a word, Fantasy.

Greater writers than I have explored, and better yet demonstrated, the mysteries of Fantasy and I am bolstered that those who were not outright philologists (Tolkien, die Brüder Grimm) were staggeringly good at both living and dead languages (MacDonald, Lewis, Novalis). In them, I see a strong case made for the human necessity of linguistic anomalies. Tolkien's On Fairy-Stories maintains that:
"Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make... So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen."
Jessie M. King

Linguistic ambiguity in Fantasy therefore demonstrates a human awareness of reality by pushing our minds to its outer limits and beyond, only to come back to Earth with a keener sense of sight. In defense of the musical ambiguity of language (something I am particularly amenable to), George MacDonald in The Fantastic Imagination says:
"It is very seldom that [words] carry the exact meaning of any user of them! And if they can be so used as to convey definite meaning, it does not follow that they ought never to carry anything else... Is the music of them to go for nothing? It can hardly help the definiteness of a meaning: is it therefore to be disregarded? They have length, and breadth, and outline: Have they nothing to do with depth? Have they only to describe, never to impress?"
(I sometimes wonder whether George MacDonald's laborious sentences are intentionally convoluted to demonstrate this very idea.) Obviously he views words as possessing multiplicities of meaning and interpretation. One could argue that by eliminating the linguistic possibility of multiple interpretations could result in a world where everyone said exactly what they meant and no more. There go disagreements, misunderstandings, unfounded prejudices, maybe even war—ordered harmoniousness for all! But what else is lost by the the lack of vagueness? I would say that such a loss would also see the weakening of our ability to practice courageous compassion in the midst of nearly debilitating mystery and uncertainty. (Thanks so much to Brené Brown and her The Gifts of Imperfection. You should all read it.) If someone says something potentially confusing, it seems to me that the solution is, rather than developing a language in which this couldn't happen, to seek clarification, a highly risky enterprise. Yet isn't that what communication is all about? The ability to co-seek meaning, both as a giver and a receiver, through that long difficult road between our inward intent and the outward manifestation of that intent incarnated in messy words?

MacDonald continues and calls up our human need for otherness, for the beyond:
"If a writer's aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains, not merely to be understood, but to escape being misunderstood; where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it."
Language alone has not the sole responsibility of meaning. Words require that the human soul explores and interprets them, and good words continually challenge our assumptions and prompt us to consideration and imagination and the idea of "otherness". I would much rather have words that asked me to grow up and wrestle and pursue and explore. (Note the potential pun on the word "sole/soul"? Could you make a Ithkuil pun?)

Virgiania F. Sterrett - And they walked hand in hand...

I'd like to end in a very open-ended way. Again, I haven't explored Quijada's invention enough to be critical in any sort of accurate way. In fact I'm most grateful that the very existence of Ithkuil has prompted me to explore my own ideas on the subject of linguistics and ambiguity. I'm very interested in any other thoughts concerning any of the many topics that I touched upon in this post and welcome your comments.

I sign off with a ridiculous example of ambiguity in my own Övere Ättan:
"Zvonik gela överi do tjonni..." trans. "We are old or young..."
May you have a week of head scratching, questing, and compassion!


  1. As always, I love your insight.

    1. Thanks, Jess. Can't tell you how happy I am that you showed me this and so I can engage in current events for a change. :)


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