Sunday, February 10, 2013

The search for a pure language

I just read a long but fascinating article on a modern-day constructed language, Ithkuil, on the New Yorker website.

Its inventor, John Quijada, is quoted as saying that his “greater goal” was “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... and overall arbitrariness that is seemingly ubiquitous in natural human language.”

Like Quijada, I too have dreamt of a ‘philosophically pure’ language. But for a language to be actually used by real people, in real situations, it needs to be more ‘human’ and, I suppose, less ‘pure’. I think that’s why Esperanto, despite many setbacks, has survived over 125 years. It seems not even Quijada can speak his own language off-the-cuff; the required precision means that he has to carefully analyse every nuance of meaning and follow branches of a giant ‘semantic tree’ to arrive at the perfect sentence (or word). So, while it might be useful as a bridge language for machine translation, Ithkuil is not one that could realistically be used directly by people. (Incidentally, even though Esperanto is not philosophically pure like Ithkuil, Google decided to make it one of 65 languages it supports, because its regularity plus its large body of translated texts make it an ideal candidate for use as a bridge language.)

Speaking of Esperanto, one quote from this article I find particularly interesting:
“Like every other attempt to undo the tragedy of Babel, Esperanto was ultimately a failure. And yet, by some estimates, Esperanto still has more speakers than six thousand of the languages spoken around the world today, including approximately a thousand native speakers (among them George Soros) who learned it as their first language.”
That seems like a strange idea of ‘failure’ to me! Maybe the author assumes that a universal language is a failure if it is not used by everyone, or at least the vast majority of the world’s population, every day. But Esperanto was never intended to replace ethnic languages, but rather to be used as a neutral, common language, if required.