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A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for December 23rd, 2012

A fascinating constructed language: Ithkuil

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As readers know, I very much like the constructed language Esperanto, which has a very different goal and purpose than Ithkuil. Esperanto was created by Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, a Polish doctor, to serve as a common second language for everyone. You grow up learning your mother tongue, and you learn one additional language—Esperanto—and thus everyone has at least one language in common. As a common second language, some desiderata are that it be simple and easy to learn (phonetic spelling, only 16 grammatical rules, no irregular verbs, an easy way to extend a small number of roots to a large vocabulary through the use of affixes, and so on).

Esperanto’s success was due to several factors:

a. Zamenhof labored over the language, gradually developing it, and then went off to medical school. On his return he asked his father for the notebooks in which Zamenhof had worked out the language, and learned that his father had burned everything because it was a stupid idea. So Zamenhof was, in effect, relieved of version 1.0 and set to work on version 2.0, developing it in the light of everything he had learned to date.

b. Zamehof’s system of affixes for extending vocabulary was an ingenious adaptation of a device found in various evolved languages: e.g., -ery as a suffix denoting a business: bakery, bindery, eatery, and so on. Esperanto generalizes this device so that nonce words are immediately comprehensible. For example, a teacher in a California elementary school that was experimenting with teaching Esperanto expressed to her students the hope that she was not working them too hard. One immediately replied, “Ne, vi ne estas lacigemulino.” = “No, you are not (a) …” and let me break apart the nonce word: lac- from laca = tired; –ig- to cause—e.g., lacigi = to cause to be tired (or the transitive verb “to tire”); –em– = to have a tendency toward; –ul– = an individual or “one who”; –in- feminine ending, female; –o = noun. Thus “lacigemulino” is a woman who has a tendency to make (people) tired. The relatively small collection of affixes quickly become second nature—“ulino”, for example, conveys a single idea, not three ideas loosely bonded. (A better example is found in this post.) The system of affixes—and the ingenious ‘correlatives’—are described in this post.

c. Zamenhof followed the overall structure of evolved languages rather than building a strictly rational and logical structure. The latter course was followed by others who constructed languages, but the results are in general unlearnable, whereas Esperanto is in fact easy to learn. Apparently in mimicking evolved languages Zamenhof incorporated deep structures that make languages fit the human mind.

d. Zamenhof, when he was satisfied with his work, approached the Czarist censors to get approval to publish a book that described and taught the language. The censors considered the implications of allowing a “secret language” to emerge and refused permission to publish. Unable to publish about the language, Zamenhof contented himself with translating large sections of the Bible and Shakespeare and other works into Esperanto, discovering and resolving various niggling little issues and expanding the vocabulary.

e. When he did get permission at last to publish a book on the language, he did something quite remarkable: he stepped back rather than trying to keep ownership and control of the language. Esperanto, he said, belongs to the Esperantists. He did publish the Fundamenta Krestomatio and the basic rules, saying that those would hold until nations jointly agreed to changes—which ingeniously provided the stability that evolved languages have by virtue of the inertia of all the works and traditions already in the language. For most constructed languages, the creator attempts to maintain firm control and inevitably tinkers with and changes the language more or less continually so that students are frustrated at trying to learn what is in effect a moving target. Esperanto has continued to grow, but slowly and organically by accretion of vocabulary, with no fundamental changes in the language.

Well, I do go on, don’t I? I’m thinking that I may delve again into my Esperanto books. You can view my previous posts on Esperanto (there are only 26) here.

But to the point: Joshua Foer has a wonderful article in the current New Yorker about a constructed language of the rational sort, developed not as a common second language but as an investigation into a theory of language. It also has a nifty written form.

There are so many ways for speakers of English to see the world. We can glimpse, glance, visualize, view, look, spy, or ogle. Stare, gawk, or gape. Peek, watch, or scrutinize. Each word suggests some subtly different quality: looking implies volition; spying suggests furtiveness; gawking carries an element of social judgment and a sense of surprise. When we try to describe an act of vision, we consider a constellation of available meanings. But if thoughts and words exist on different planes, then expression must always be an act of compromise.

Languages are something of a mess. They evolve over centuries through an unplanned, democratic process that leaves them teeming with irregularities, quirks, and words like “knight.” No one who set out to design a form of communication would ever end up with anything like English, Mandarin, or any of the more than six thousand languages spoken today.

“Natural languages are adequate, but that doesn’t mean they’re optimal,” John Quijada, a fifty-four-year-old former employee of the California State Department of Motor Vehicles, told me. In 2004, he published a monograph on the Internet that was titled “Ithkuil: A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language.” Written like a linguistics textbook, the fourteen-page Web site ran to almost a hundred and sixty thousand words. It documented the grammar, syntax, and lexicon of a language that Quijada had spent three decades inventing in his spare time. Ithkuil had never been spoken by anyone other than Quijada, and he assumed that it never would be.

In his preface, Quijada wrote 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, vagueness, illogic, redundancy, polysemy (multiple meanings) and overall arbitrariness that is seemingly ubiquitous in natural human language.”

Ithkuil has two seemingly incompatible ambitions: to be maximally precise but also maximally concise, capable of capturing nearly every thought that a human being could have while doing so in as few sounds as possible. Ideas that could be expressed only as a clunky circumlocution in English can be collapsed into a single word in Ithkuil. A sentence like “On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point” becomes simply “Tram-mļöi hhâsmařpţuktôx.”

It wasn’t long after he released his manuscript on the Internet that a small community of language enthusiasts began to recognize what Quijada, a civil servant without an advanced degree, had accomplished. Ithkuil, one Web site declared, “is a monument to human ingenuity and design.” It may be the most complete realization of a quixotic dream that has entranced philosophers for centuries: the creation of a more perfect language.

Ithkuil’s first piece of press was a brief mention in 2004 in a Russian popular-science magazine called Computerra. An article titled “The Speed of Thought” noted remarkable similarities between Ithkuil and an imaginary language cooked up by the science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein for his novella “Gulf,” from 1949. Heinlein’s story describes a secret society of geniuses called the New Men who train themselves to think more rapidly and precisely using a language called Speedtalk, which is capable of condensing entire sentences into single words. Using their efficient language to communicate, the New Men plot to take over the world from the benighted “homo saps.” . . .

Continue reading.

BTW, I don’t much like the usage “natural languages.” All languages are created by humans, none come by nature. I prefer “evolved” vs. “constructed”, though one does encounter “natural” vs. “artificial”. But are not all languages artificial?

Update: See also this post, which notes some practical drawbacks of Ithkuil (which, to be fair, is more a philosophical investigation than an effort to make a language for practical use).

Written by Leisureguy

23 December 2012 at 3:08 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Esperanto

Interesting finding on guns in the home

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Although the NRA, through its puppet Congressmen, has blocked the sharing of any data on firearms use and fatalities (for reasons hard to understand: their claim is that data would support their position), there is this from the NIH:

Injuries and deaths due to firearms in the home.

Kellermann ALSomes GRivara FPLee RKBanton JG.

Center for Injury Control, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA.


OBJECTIVE:  Determine the relative frequency with which guns in the home are used to injure or kill in self-defense, compared with the number of times these weapons are involved in an unintentional injury, suicide attempt, or criminal assault or homicide.

METHODS:  We reviewed the police, medical examiner, emergency medical service, emergency department, and hospital records of all fatal and nonfatal shootings in three U.S. cities: Memphis, Tennessee; Seattle, Washington; and Galveston, Texas.

RESULTS:  During the study interval (12 months in Memphis, 18 months in Seattle, and Galveston) 626 shootings occurred in or around a residence. This total included 54 unintentional shootings, 118 attempted or completed suicides, and 438 assaults/homicides. Thirteen shootings were legally justifiable or an act of self-defense, including three that involved law enforcement officers acting in the line of duty. For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.

CONCLUSIONS:  Guns kept in homes are more likely to be involved in a fatal or nonfatal accidental shooting, criminal assault, or suicide attempt than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense.

Written by Leisureguy

23 December 2012 at 11:53 am

Posted in Science

Lamb shanks in wintertime

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Lamb shanks, which require long-slow cooking, are excellent in the winter. One of my favorite recipes is Lamb Shanks Beatrice, which I think I’ll make soon. I was reminded of it by this Mark Bittman column on lamb shanks and leftovers. He doesn’t seem to like lamb shanks very much, which is too bad.

Written by Leisureguy

23 December 2012 at 10:10 am

Sea meadows of frost flowers

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Screen Shot 2012-12-23 at 9.54.20 AM

Fascinating—and even better photos (close-ups) in the NPR article by Robert Krulwich:

It was three, maybe four o’clock in the morning when he first saw them. Grad student Jeff Bowman was on the deck of a ship; he and a University of Washington biology team were on their way back from the North Pole. It was cold outside, the temperature had just dropped, and as the dawn broke, he could see a few, then more, then even more of these little flowery things, growing on the frozen sea.

“I was absolutely astounded,” he says. They were little protrusions of ice, delicate, like snowflakes. They began growing in the dry, cold air “like a meadow spreading off in all directions. Every available surface was covered with them.” What are they?

“Frost flowers,” he was told. “I’d never heard of them,” Jeff says, “but they were everywhere.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

23 December 2012 at 9:57 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

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