Utopian for beginners
Posted: 19 December 2012 01:14 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I found this article from the New Yorker absolutely fascinating.. It’s by Joshua Foer and its subtitle is An amateur linguist loses control of the language he invented. The amateur linguist in question is John Quijada, a fifty-four-year-old former employee of the California State Department of Motor Vehicles and the language Ithkuil, which utilizes concepts ranging from the ideas of John Wilkins (a 17th century English bishop and polymath) to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. (It’s one of those languages based on logic and the watchword ‘succinctness is all.)

Quijada published the lexicon, grammar and syntax of his language in 2004 on the net and somewhat to his surprise later found it had been enthusiastically adopted in Russia.

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.”

Soon after the publication of the Russian article, Quijada began to receive a steady stream of letters from e-mail addresses ending in .ru, peppering him with arcane questions and requesting changes to the language to make its words easier to pronounce. Alexey Samons, a Russian software engineer based in Vladivostok, took on the monumental task of translating the Ithkuil Web site into Russian, and before long three Russian Web forums had sprung up to debate the merits and uses of Ithkuil.

At first, Quijada was bewildered by the interest emanating from Russia. “I was a third humbled, a third flattered, and a third intrigued,” he told me. “Beyond that, I just wanted to know: who are these people?

He accepted an invitation to a conference in Russia to satisfy his curiosity and I’ll allow the article to take up the rest of the tale. All in all a most enjoyable read and it served to introduce me to that novella by Heinlein which I hadn’t come across before and which I look forward to reading as soon as I can find it.

BTW I was delighted to read of this language.

Solresol, the creation of a French musician named Jean-François Sudre, was among the first of these universal languages to gain popular attention. It had only seven syllables: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, and Si. Words could be sung, or performed on a violin. Or, since the language could also be translated into the seven colors of the rainbow, sentences could be woven into a textile as a stream of colors.

It reminded me of Jack Vance’s story The Moon Moth, set on a planet with a sung language. Vance also wrote The Languages of Pao in which on a far world different languages are invented for different castes (scientists, soldiers, merchants, etc), again referencing the Sapir-Whorff hypothesis.

[ Edited: 19 December 2012 01:48 AM by aldiboronti ]
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Posted: 19 December 2012 07:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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In the US, at least, “Gulf” was published in a collection titled Assignment in Eternity, as well as being included, IIRC, in a few multi-author anthologies.

As I recall, Speedtalk is a relatively minor element in the story; Heinlein was no Tolkein nor even a Vance, and did not lavish a lot of effort on developing the language beyond the bare needs of the story, which was not primarily about the language.

We did discuss it (very much in passing) in this old thread: to grok or not to grok.

[ Edited: 19 December 2012 07:23 AM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 20 December 2012 01:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Using their efficient language to communicate, the New Men plot to take over the world from the benighted “homo saps.”

This statement does less than justice to the heroes of Heinlein’s novella*, who IIRC were trying to save the world from a “homo sap” takeover plot, and ended up doing so at the cost of their lives. I doubt if the person who wrote the above quoted words ever read the story.

*and to Heinlein, whose early heroes tended to be paragons of altruistic virtue

Edit: You’d have made a great archaeologist, Dr. T ;-)

[ Edited: 20 December 2012 01:33 PM by lionello ]
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Posted: 21 December 2012 07:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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No, actually that statement is essentially correct.  The hero of the story is saved/captured by a group that turns out to be the organization of “New Men” ("homus novis,” in Heinlein’s bad Latin) and learns that they are basically running the world from behind the scenes to keep homo sap from destroying it.  There was no “homo sap” takeover plot, there was one Evil Villainess who got her hands on the “nova effect” the New Men were trying to keep secret (actually, destroy) and is planning to use it to make herself Empress of the World via blackmail.  (The hero also learns that he himself is a New Man; they cheerfully admit that if he weren’t, they’d have killed him.  Heinlein was all in favor of eliminating the unfit.)

Why, yes, I have a copy of Assignment in Eternity right at hand, since you ask.

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Posted: 23 December 2012 02:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Well, the Evil Villainess (a Mrs. Keithley, IIRC) was a member of homo sap, wasn’t she? and she plotted to take over the world, didn’t she? That was all I meant.

Heinlein’s world-view* was always a hopeless mess of contradictions.  That, and his gift as a story-teller, always remind me of Kipling.

* S. Potter (Lifemanship)recommends the use of the word weltanschauung whenever possible ;-)

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