Essay about English: Mind and Language

Submitted By kevinzheng1
Words: 1239
Pages: 5

Language as a Constraint In his essay Utopian for Beginners, Joshua Foer describes his acquaintance with John Quijada, an amateur linguist and creator of Ithkuil, a completely logical hypothetical language. Ithkuil seeks to be “an idealized language” (2), and that ideal is built out of efficiency, logic, and detail. One of the essential aspects of Ithkuil is its ability to create a single, precise phrase to describe a situation or feeling that no other language has a word for. The creation of artificial languages is inherently tied in with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which claims that the language we speak actually shapes our experience of reality. A stronger version of the hypothesis is even more liberal, “suggesting that language constrains the set of possible thoughts that we can have” (8). While Foer presents this version of the hypothesis as absurd, the style of his writing suggests that he does believe in its merits. Language is primarily a method used by humans to organize and share their thoughts with the external world. To that end, there are thoughts that cannot be shared simply because the words do not exist to express them; to that end, these words must be created if one is to properly express these ideas. For example, the term umami is one of the five basic tastes, and is used to describe a dish’s savory taste. This term is derived from the Japanese language, and before it was coined, there was no precise way to express this specific aspect of a dish. This shows that if no word exists in a language to describe an idea, we cannot think about it, or at best, only do so opaquely. This is part of the appeal of a theoretical language whose roots are logic and precision, such as Ithkuil. Quijada demonstrates this aspect of his greatest creation when asked to come up with a new word spontaneously: “No language, as far as I know, has a single word for that chin-stroking moment you get, often accompanied by a frown on your face, when someone expresses an idea you never thought of and you have a moment of suddenly seeing possibilities you never saw before. In Ithkuil, it’s astal” (12). The ability of Ithkuil to so precisely define a complex situation makes it an effective instrument for expressing ideas natural languages struggle with. Foer further highlights this example because it relates directly to the intent of creating an artificial language; Ithkuil’s ultimate aspiration is to create moments of astal among its speakers. The fact that Ithkuil can define its purpose so succinctly and precisely further emphasizes its merits and potential. Quijada’s language seeks to remove this obstacle by allowing, perhaps even forcing, its speakers to precisely identify what they mean to say. To that end, if language really does imprison our thoughts, “then the only sensible course of action is to build a roomier, more lavish jail cell—a new language that could make possible new ways of thinking” (9). As a writer, Joshua Foer inherently has a desire to express his ideas precisely and concisely, a Herculean task that Quijada spent thirty years trying to accomplish. Foer dedicates much of his text to his attempt to understand the views of the psychoneticists he encounters and their obsession with Ithkuil. To them, “language is a barrier that gets in the way of a holistic perception of the universe” and “Ithkuil [is] a tool to bring all of one’s unconscious thoughts and feelings under conscious control” (15). They regard natural language as a crude attempt at organizing one’s ideas, and indeed feel that trying to express ideas using language confines one’s worldview and neglects the complex, unconscious thoughts that only logical languages like Ithkuil can make explicit.
The Russian psychoneticists tell stories of incredibly rapid development of skills in areas ranging from chess to cooking and exercises that use Ithkuil to “go into the field of pure meaning” (15). This is an extremely appealing power, and even though Oleg…