Friday, January 18, 2013

The Universal Language

This article by Joshua Foer in The New Yorker on constructed languages (e.g., Klingon, Esperanto, etc.) is good journalism, good prose, and an enthralling biographical sketch of a California DMV worker with a passion for linguistics.  The DMV worker spent 30 years of his life constructing Ithkuil, a new language.  (I'm imagining disgruntled California motorists waiting for their numbers to be called at the DMV during those 30 years.)  He publishes a manuscript describing Ithkuil on the Internet.  A Russian science magazine does a piece on the manuscript, although the DMV worker is unaware.  A couple of years go by and then . . .

In early 2010, he was forwarded an e-mail in patchy English from a Ukrainian academic named Oleg Bakhtiyarov, who introduced himself as the director of a recently formed institution of higher education in Kiev called the University of Effective Development, and as a leading proponent of a philosophical movement called psychonetics. When Quijada Googled both Bakhtiyarov and psychonetics, he found “a sea of impenetrable jargon” about “efforts to develop the human mind using a mix of Western and Eastern ideas,” but nothing that made him suspicious of the group’s motivations. The e-mail invited Quijada to participate in a conference titled “Creative Technology: Perspectives and Means of Development,” which was to be held that July in Elista, the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia, a small semi-autonomous state in the Russian Federation, situated on the arid western shore of the Caspian Sea.
Republic of Kalmykia?  Yeah, that was my reaction.  Just reading the Wikipedia page on the Republic of Kalmykia, "the only Buddhist region in the West," is its own adventure.   These people got the full Stalin treatment and then some.  For no reason at all, here is their flag:

 Here is their governor talking about his alien abduction and his plan to build a $10 million building in downtown New York City shaped like a king chess piece.

Anyway, the DMV worker accepts an invitation to go on an all-expense paid trip Kalykia to speak at the conference.  There, he's treated like a rock star because of the language he created.

That's just the beginning of this tale.  You'll have to read the rest for yourself.  (There's even a special appearance by George Lakoff, whose writings on language and metaphor I discussed in my Sunday morning Moral Imagination class, a couple of years ago.)

Reading The New Yorker article, speaking to how inefficient human languages (the real ones) are, and how much better language could be if it was designed through a rational process, I was reminded of Hayek's criticisms of philosophies that fail to respect the emergent nature of society.  Here's Wikipedia on "Emergence in Political Philosophy":

Economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek wrote about emergence in the context of law, politics, and markets. His theories (Hayek 1973, p. 37) set out the difference between cosmos or "grown order" (that is, emergence), and taxis or "made order". Hayek dismisses philosophies that do not adequately recognize the emergent nature of society, and which describe it as the conscious creation of a rational agent (be it God, the Sovereign, or any kind of personified body politic, such as Hobbes's Leviathan). The most important social structures, including the laws ("nomos") governing the relations between individual persons, are emergent, according to Hayek. While the idea of laws and markets as emergent phenomena comes fairly naturally to an economist, and was indeed present in the works of early economists such as Bernard MandevilleDavid Hume, and Adam Smith, Hayek traces the development of ideas based on spontaneous-order throughout the history of Western thought, occasionally going as far back as the presocratics. In this, he follows Karl Popper, who blamed the idea of the state as a made order on Plato in The Open Society and its Enemies. Emergentism is a rejection of the state on the grounds that it is a perversion of the emergent rules that societies form spontaneously. Some 19th-century classical liberals, notably Gustave de Molinari and Frédéric Bastiat, were known advocates of an emergent society and wrote about the concepts in detail. See The Production of Security and The Law, respectively.

Maybe it's simpler to quote Hayek: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”  Maybe the same could be said about the "conlangers" in The New Yorker piece.  So I appreciated the humility of the DMV worker in acknowledging that Ithkuil is an impractical language that would never be adopted.  As Lakoff says, it is more of a conceptual-art project.  

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