Ever had that sudden, delayed sinking feeling that you were doing something horribly destructive in a relationship, and there was no way to stop it? An inkling of that “emotional and psychological impact that one has in realizing too late that one’s actions and consequences of those actions have gradually killed the hopes that your lover had that this was going to become a long term monogamous relationship”?
Well now there’s a word for that. Òňxeizvakcîspourboi, to be exact.
Or at least there is in Ithkuil, a “hypothetical language” of semantic succinctness that has been fascinating everyone from locals Joshua Foer and Natalie Elicker to Slavic Nationalists in Kiev over the past two to three years.
On Tuesday evening, lingual engineer and Ithkuil inventor John Quijada arrived at the Institute Library’s September installment of its “Amateur Hour” series to discuss the language , as well as its myriad meanings and uses, in detail.
In conversation with longtime “Amateur Hour” host Joshua Foer, Quijada described Ithkuil to a packed house as “a grand matrix of grammatical concepts, lexical components, word stems and a morphology,” adding that “I basically created a systematic way of taking semantic components. I’m able to mix and match them synergistically to create a way of describing reality that ... instead of it just being linear ...is very holistic.”
And in practice, it is. Born out of a desire to convert intellectual concepts into crisp eloquence – and on a wider level, to eradicate scholarly obfuscation – Ithkuil can handle ideas like gestalt and aesthetics very transparently, boiling entire concepts or strings of concepts and their accompanying intellectual and emotional baggage into just a few words. A lecture Quijada gave in the Russian town of Kalmykia, for instance, centered on Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, which might be described in six words of Ithkuil instead of sixty or six hundred in English.
“In English it would take a whole paragraph to try to convey what you’re looking at in this painting ... You can convey what you’re seeing in six words in the Ithkuil language. I picked words apart ... to describe how this collection of planes and lines and shapes was being used to describe a nude descending a staircase, including the act of descent, the fact that there were stairs and incremental elements going on through time that gives rise to a gestalt that in turn gives rise to an aesthetic reaction on the part of the viewer, an intellectual response, and an emotional one. And all that was contained in these six words.”
Which is to say, Quijada has thought Ithkuil through for the better part of 30 years. But he isn’t a stuffy academic. Not even close. His story, the subject of a 2012 New Yorker essay by Foer, takes a far different route, at times as confounding and quirky as language itself. After tabling plans for graduate school and taking a civil service exam after college, the amateur linguist accepted a job at the DMV, where he has remained since. Inventing a language promised to keep him engaged where his job could not.
“Grad school just slipped from the back burner ... right off the stove. But my brain’s always going all the time. Well I didn’t get a chance to exercise that at work ... my work [at the DMV] was just drudgery. If I had had an interesting career, one that was mentally stimulating, I’m sure I would not have been spending my off hours creating a language. I would have been off at a bar watching the ballgame or shooting pool with the guys ... but I needed to keep my brain alive. So instead I spent my evenings and weekends working on this just as a hobby.”
Foer suggested that with the discovery and popularization of Ithkuil, Quijada’s dream had come true. Quijada corrected him. “To say it was a dream come true implies that I was hoping I would be discovered. That was never my motive. This was just an intellectual experiment,” he said.
And one he is proud of, precisely the magic of “Amateur Hour.” As Institute Library President Natalie Elicker said at the beginning of the evening, Quijada was there in part to “continue the conversation” that the institution’s founders had started in the19th Century, a quest for the expansion of knowledge that fosters, in turn, fruitful discussion and a chance for education on the broader community level.
Which it does, if you think about it. While Ithkuil is a language – or at the very least, a concept-language – capable of harnessing entire intellectual constellations, there is also something deeply human about it. How many times have you wanted to explain that the person on your arm or in your bed is your current companion, but not specifically the one you want to be with forever (Lebensabschnittspartner)? Or to describe the look of scattered light falling through the trees on your first hike of the fall (komorebi, 木漏れ日)? Or that you were the cramped and scowling person on the L train this morning, on that long commute to work (Kaapshljmurslis)?
And how much more emotion did you wish to infuse into each?
You’d have to crisscross several languages (German, Japanese, Latvian) to do it. Bring your English-Ithkuil dictionary, though, and these thoughts become complex, weighty things, with glittering webs of emotion spun into them.
“The key thing about the language that differentiates it from other languages is the degree of expressiveness ... semantic expressiveness. You can very succinctly create words on the fly for concepts that you had no idea were even possible to lexicalize,” Quijada said.
At its core, this layered language was even simpler than that, he added.
“Languages open up ideas, right?”
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