Frequent readers of Commonplace Fun Facts know that we like languages. They also know that we probably need to spend more time learning the nuances of English before we delve into others. Honestly, we wish we had followed that advice before we invested countless hours trying to wrap our minds around Ithkuil. It is, by all accounts, the hardest language in the world.
Ithkuil is a made-up language. Technically, all languages are made up, but this one was designed as an experimental constructed language. It was created by John Quijada. The name is an Ithkuil way of saying, “hypothetical representation of a language.” Quijada designed it to demonstrate how human language could be used to convey much deeper levels of human cognition and semantic nuance/exactitude than are found in natural human languages. To give you an idea of how complex the language is, its inventor has yet to master it.
Ithkuil attempts to accomplish two seemingly-conflicting goals: be as precise as possible while using the fewest letters possible.
Consider, for example, how you would use English to communicate to someone that your hovercraft is full of eels. After a moment’s consideration, you would likely say something akin to, “My hovercraft is full of eels.” Actually, you would probably say something like that only after first bragging about the fact that you own a hovercraft and trying to figure out how such an expensive toy could so easily become infested with eels. Once you got around to expressing the situation, however, Ithkuil would allow you to say it this way: “Tî akt’asalb abjatļud.” The English version is six words, and the sentence consists of 29 characters, spaces included. The Ithkuil method uses half the number of words and a mere 21 characters.
Admittedly, that’s not much reduction in words or characters, so let’s try something a wee bit more complex. The Lord’s Prayer contains the phrase, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Ithkuil reduces that to just two words: “ř uigrawulakkönurň.”
Consider, also, the situation to which all of us can relate. Who hasn’t had to say, “The incompetent tailor began to cry after finding out about the clowns’ new directive on nakedness”? With Ithkuil, you can replace that unnecessary jumble of words and letters with the much more concise: “Âffapka gvilevum ‾xhéi’aica ekšaéţ odralek há gvoecuaţ”.
So how does this language work? Well, you could read the migraine-inducing, incomprehensible, 379-page Ithkuil Grammar in PDF form (available by clicking on the link). Admittedly, it is shorter and easier to digest than the court’s decision in the Jayalalitha court case. If you take the time to read the Ithkuil Grammar, you may gain a basic understanding of Ithkuil, but you will have few friends and be so devoid of any resemblance to a social life that you might as well become a staff writer for Commonplace Fun Facts. Your other option is to read our barely-scratching-the-surface explanation, leaving you free to be thankful for not wasting 100 hours that you will never get back.
Figuring out how to say something in Ithkuil starts with a chart consisting of 15 stations. Because it is an unnecessarily-complex language, those stations are not identified as “1-15” or even “one through fifteen.” Instead, they are stations I through XV. Each word requires components from a minimum of six stations but might have as many as fifteen.
The first station, logically, would be the first, but this is Ithkuil, so, of course, we begin at number
7 seven VII. All words in Ithkuil begin with a root. There are 3,600 roots in the language. Each of those roots has 18 stems, divided between the formal and the informal.
By way of example, let’s assume that I want to tell you about Skye, the official canine consultant of Commonplace Fun Facts. To begin, we would look up the root for “dog.” It gives us the Ithkuil starting point of “BY.”
We find three primary stems in each of the formal and informal branches. Under the sets of three, there is an option of a formal or informal complementary stem.
In the case of Skye, the best description of her is item #3 on the informal side: a female dog. Under the complementary stems, she definitely is not wild/feral, so we can nix that option. We are hesitant to call her “domesticated” or a “pet.” Everyone knows that dogs own humans, not the other way around. For the sake of this exercise, however, we select the domesticated option. That means we have the informal, third meaning of the third pattern.
Then we need to look at the function of the word. All Ithkuil nouns are stative, blessedly simplifying things for this demonstration. If we were talking about a verb, however, there are three other functions it could take: dynamic, manifesting, and descriptive. For our purposes, though, we are talking about a stative noun. Using this handy chart:
we find that the third pattern, third stem, stative gives us the prefix “ô-“.
Our word, thus far, is ôby.
Next, we move to station VIII — case. This is the part that our noun is playing in this drama. English, with all of its admitted complexity, has three cases: subjective, objective, and possessive. Ithkuil is a wee bit more complex. It has 96 cases.
Let’s say we are talking about Skye and want to say, “The dog demands treats from her human.” That would be the Ergative case, identifying the semantic role of agent — a noun that initiates tangible action undergone by another party. The Ergative case is marked by the value -o-.
That brings our word to ôbyo.
Are you getting the hang of this? Hold on, because that was the easy part. Now we move to Station X. This will describe five different things: configuration, affiliation, perspective, essence, and extension. The first three of those have no corresponding equivalent in the English language. To find a language that makes use of them, we need to look to — well — Ithkuil. No other language in the world uses these concepts.
Configuration has nine options to express whether we’re talking about an individual, a homogenous group, a diverse group, etc. Skye is definitely one of a kind, so the option to choose here is uniplex.
The next, affiliation, speaks to how the object/objects in question relate. Most of the time, the uniplex configurations result in the consolidative affiliation. It indicates that the individual members of a configurational set are a naturally occurring set where the function, state, purpose, or benefit of individual members is inapplicable, irrelevant, or if applicable, is shared.
Perspective tells us about the number without specifically addressing the quantity, and it also tells us the tense. There are four options: monadic, unbounded, nomic, and abstract. In our example, the monadic form works best. It speaks to a specific, complete entity that had a specific beginning, continues to exist, and is expected to continue to exist for some time into the future.
Essense has two options: is it an actual or a hypothetical representation? In our example, although she sounds too good to be true, Skye is, indeed, real. This gives her the normal essence.
Finally, there are six extensions. The extension tells you what part of the thing is being discussed: the beginning, a portion, the whole, the portion relevant to the discussion, etc. In our example, we are talking about Skye as the whole package. That is the delimitive extension.
Once you have gone through all of that, you simply have to wade through about a dozen pages of charts to find the elements you have chosen. In our case, we have:
- Essence and Extension: Normal and Delimitive
- Perspective: Monadic
- Affiliation: Consolidative
- Configuration: Uniplex
Having gone through all of that, we get “I,” bringing our word to ôbyoI.
That leaves us with just a couple more things to figure out. The first is tone (Station XIV). There are seven different tones:
Tones tell us such things as whether a verb is goal-oriented and if it was successful. Fortunately, our example deals with a noun. Nouns default to a falling tone. The guide tells us, “Falling-rising tone is indicated by either a caron (hacek) or a breve (e.g., ˇ or ˘ ), or if these symbols aren’t available, a superscripted tilde (e.g., ~).”
That brings our word to ôb̌yoI.
The last mandatory station to consider is Station XV — stress. This tells us which part of the word is to be emphasized. To determine this, we need to look back to the steps we took in determining that this word is being used in the stative function and whether we used the formal or informal form of the root. This will help us know whether the word is being used to frame something else. If we were saying, “Skye demands treats from humans while they are staying at her house,” the phrase “while they are staying at her house” would frame her demanding of treats. In our example, however, there is no such framing event. That means when we consult the appropriate chart and see that we are using the unframed informal designation, we are to use the penultimate stress. The grammar guide then instructs us: “Penultimate stress. Polysyllabic words having penultimate stress are unmarked for stress, except for those containing the dissyllabic phonemes ì or ù as the penultimate syllable, which, if stressed, take an acute accent, e.g., the word iskoùt (stress on the o), if shifting to ultimate stress, becomes iskoút (stress on the u).” In other words, we went through all of that to learn that we leave our word alone.
That brings us, finally, to our word ôb̌yoI. Basically, it is a female domesticated dog that has an identity in herself and can be identified as an individual, complete being, who existed before now, is in existence now, and will have an existence in the immediate future.
That is only what “dog” would look like in the sentence, “The dog demands treats from her human.” If the sentence changed to “The human gave a treat to the dog,” the word would be different. You have to go through all of the above exercises for each word in the sentence. When you start dealing with verbs, adjectives, prepositions, etc., it can be even more complicated, involving all of the fifteen stations.
We evaluated how long it took to figure out this single word configuration and determined we would see an infinite number of monkeys successfully reproduce the works of William Shakespeare before we could complete a full sentence. Instead, we present this sentence from the Ithkuil Grammar: Rril eglalaimļ byoail. Those three words are the Ithkuil way of saying, “The cat is now at least as sick as the dog, if not more so, whereas previously only the dog was sick.” You can see that “dog” is now represented as “byoail,” signifying the different way in which the dog appears in this drama.
As if all of this weren’t complicated enough, Ithkuil also has its own system of writing. If you find the above-described use of Romanized writing too elementary for your intellect, you can opt for the Ithkuil script. Understanding it is a whole new level of complexity. To give you an idea of what we’re talking about, we provide the following explanation of just three of the characters:
Using Ithkuil, you can take the sentence, “On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point,” and express it as, “Tram-mļöi hhâsmařpţuktôx.” Alternatively, you could write:
And that, boys and girls, is Ithkuil in a nutshell. “Nutshell,” ironically, is how we feel after spending countless hours trying to figure this thing out. If you would like to learn more, check out the official Ithkuil website, where you can find detailed explanations of this convoluted language. You can also see and hear the Ithkuil translations of such works as The Lord’s Prayer, The Litany Against Fear from Frank Herbert’s Dune, and the Babel text from Genesis 11:1-9.