We live and breathe language. We take it so for granted that we often don’t realise how amazing it is. Even someone who spends most of their time with language, like me, can still be surprised by things that language does.
When I was growing up, language seemed very straight forward, almost boring.
If I wanted an apple, I could just say “I want an apple”. But as I grew up I began to realise how much is actually packed into this.
Each word is refering to a specific idea that is in the collective understanding of the speech community you are in.
“I” refers to the person speaking. But it doesn’t really. It actually refers to the core of the person, the ego (in the psychologist sense). You can say something like “I want it, but my brain is saying no”. This sentence makes sense because we instinctively understand that there is a difference between someone’s consciousness, and their brain which is the biological part of them that runs their body. If “I” and “brain” were synonymous, then using “I” and “brain” in the same sentence would make no sense.
For instance, “The sky is full of clouds but the atmosphere is not”. This sentences makes no sense because “sky” and “atmosphere” refer to the same thing.
The point I want to make here is that language is symbolic. It is not a direct medium of exchange. It merely points to common points of reference and people, for the most part, understand the message you are trying to send.
We, as humans, guess what the speaker is trying to communicate whenever they use words. Sometimes that fails, and misunderstanding and arguments ensue, but in every day life these attempts at communication normally succeed because they are using common points of reference. People talk about the weather, their lives and the comings and goings.
It’s not actually the words that carry the meaning. People carry the meaning in their minds and the words just point to those meanings. These conversations are successful because people are connecting to commonly held meanings.
A turning point in my understanding of language was realising that words are merely symbolic. I was watching Star Trek with a friend and we were watching the German version to improve our German. We had on the subtitles in English just to give us a bit of a boost. Knowing what they were saying helped us understand the German.
I realised it was because the German and the English were both trying to communicate the same thing. The intended message existed in the head of the writer of the episode of Star Trek, and German and English are just two different ways of communicating that message.
At the beginning I started with a question about delivering information. Well, maybe now you see the problem. How do you deliver information if the language is merely a pointer towards an intended meaning and not a holder of meaning itself?
While language is symbolic, we can use that mechanism to point to certain things which we can then define more precisely. “1 metre” points to the concept a metre and includes a count of 1. While “1 metre” is symbolic, it points to a very real thing.
Language can be used to point to general things like “animal” or to something like the mathematical constant of pi.
People throughout the centuries have thought about language and wondered if we could make language specific at a fundamental level.
Many have tried and the results were mostly failures. One language tried to organise the world into categories. The first letter was the major category, like animals, objects, ideas. The second letter was the subgroup like invertebrates, vertebrates.
The problem is that if you give each category a letter, sometimes a word could come out at xdfokjg. On the page this might be useful if you have already memorised the categorisation scheme, but it is not pronouncable. The creators of this language tried to get around this by shifting consonants around but ultimately that defeats the purpose.
There are other languages like Lojban that build logic directly into the language. This means that it is impossible to be ambiguous in Lojban. You know exactly what each part of the sentence is doing.
But people aren’t robots and no one would ever be able to use this efficiently because the human brain is just not set up to think like that.
So let’s look at another attempt at creating a language that tries to get around the ambiguity of natural languages (those that developed naturally over time in the real world).
It is renowned amongst language geeks as being the language with one of the most complex grammars. The language seeks to allow efficient yet precise expression of complex ideas.
Here is a sentence in Ithkuil
Translated into English this is
On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point
Itkuil packs a lot into a small space. John Quijada, the creator of this language, says the language was not intended to be used in everyday conversation but rather used for fields where precision and clear expression were needed.
Let’s look back at the original question. Well, Ithkuil certainly sounds very weird. You can hear a sample at this link
Does it deliver information? Certainly
But I still come away from Ithkuil feeling a bit funny. If you are a native English speaker, you would have more luck becoming a native speaker of Navajo or Ainu than you are of becoming a native speaker of Ithkuil.
The language simplies goes against the way natural languages work. The more I look into natural languages the more I realise how much they are a reflection of who we all are as humans. We react to the world around us and come up with words to describe our surroundings. We of amble around in our lives without knowing exactly where we are going. Natural languages seem to follow this pattern.
They are messy, ambiguous and full of exceptions.
But they are useful. They allow us to communicate ideas with those around us, and thanks to technology, with the rest of the world. The world has changed beyond recognition since the dawn of language roughly 50 000 years ago, but I can be fairly certain that one of the first languages would also be a communication system extremely similar in function and operation to our modern languages.
People 50 000 years ago talked about birds, animals and fruits. Now we talk about countries, politicians, internet videos, smartphones and blogs. But then as we do now, we are talking about them with language. This remarkable system may be messy and amibiguous sometimes, but it is flexible and able to adapt to the changing world and changing requirements of modern life.
While a world where everyone spoke Ithkuil might be interesting, I wouldn’t give up my native language for the world.