Language: Real or Imagined?
Newsflash for today: there are people in the world that don’t just make up languages for fun or for fantasy embellishment. There are people who are making up entire languages for the purpose of perfecting humanity.
There was an article in the December 24 issue of The New Yorker entitled “Utopian for Beginners”. I am going to give you the briefest, simplest summary possible because it was rich with things I have yet to understand, amazing revelations, astonishing considerations, and it also included quite a dose of geekiness that I have not achieved.
You know how Tolkein created a whole universe in his books? Cultures, races, worlds, languages….it’s all there. Individuals are operating by their own unique norms. Another example is Dothraki, the language spoken by a race of nomadic warriors in the HBO series “Game of Thrones”. (You know, the whole super affectionate, makes you jealous, term of endearment that translates to “my moon and stars” is used in this language as much as possible.) It’s obvious that creating a language to be used so extensively isn’t an easy task done in Starbucks over your morning coffee. And here, in this New Yorker article, the main character, John Quijada, chooses to create a language for the sole purpose of saying exactly what he means to say and meaning what he says.
Let that sink in for just a hot second. This guy has an amazing story (never went to graduate school but worked on this language for 20 years as a hobby) and he has organized words by meaning rather than putting words together alphabetically. His language, called Ithkuil, would essentially force speakers to precisely identify what it is they mean to say. There’s something amazing in this and something scary.
I can’t help but think of a phrase we’ve heard at the studio: “The good thing is you’re vulnerable. The bad thing is you’re vulnerable.” Everything is out there. No ulterior motives. No sarcasm to hide behind. It’s simple, straightforward, unapologetic, and profound.
John wasn’t the first guy to have the idea of creating a “perfect language” to use to achieve this. The problem is that these invented languages have a history of failure. Sometimes people pick them up and use them extensively, sometimes they are played with, sometimes only the inventor uses them for private journalings or correspondence This really begs the question of why ‘natural languages’ continue? If we have the opportunity to learn how to say exactly what we mean, why do we not chase that opportunity? Why do we cling to our natural languages, lacking in specificity, clarity, intention, direction, and authenticity? I wonder if we choose to keep the certain comfort and familiar feeling of hiding behind our vagueness in language for some reason? Is there an evolutionary purpose for this?
I’m thinking that, like art, “perfect languages” like Ithkuil have raised many questions that we can merely muse about. If language can be perfect, why do we settle for saying something that is sort of like what we want to say? I once had a theatre professor tell me to never make a “sort-of, maybe” acting choice (such as choosing to play a character “sort of angry but sort of happy at the same time”.) A strong choice is a clear, defined, specifically selected emotion. If art is a way to express what we mean or feel, how can we encourage language to be useful, change us, grow, and transform how we think?
“If we could change how we think by changing how we speak, then the radical possibility existed of creating a new human condition.” Like any movement therapy practice believes, if we change the way we move, we change the way we think. If we change the way we think, we change the way we move. There is a relationship here that I think is radical to note.
The language we speak influences the way we see the world. If tango is a wordless language, then I want to speak in a clear, concise, reflective way. I want to see the world in a reflective way, always striving to see multiple options and opportunities. In what way does tango make you see the world? How do you speak through tango? What is easy to say? What do you struggle to say? Can tango be a perfect language or is it a natural language?
Quotes from the article that particularly stuck out to me to share:
“By requiring speakers to carefully consider the meaning of their words, he hoped that his analytical language would force many of the subterranean quirks of human cognition to the surface, and free people from the bugs that infect their thinking.”
“Why don’t I just create a means of finishing what all natural languages were unable to finish?”–John Quijada on his motive for creating Ithkuil.
“The particular language we speak influences the way we see the world.”
“Ithkuil requires a speaker to home in on the exact idea he means to express, and attempts to remove any possibility for vagueness.”
“With Ithkuil, you always have to be reflecting on yourself. Using Ithkuil, we can see things that exist but don’t have names, in the same way that Mendeleyev’s periodic table showed gaps where we knew elements should be that had yet to be discovered.”
For your reading pleasure, here is a link to “Utopian for Beginners” from the New Yorker: