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Created byJohn Quijada
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Ithkuil, [iːθˈkuːɪl], is an experimental constructed language created by American linguist John Quijada,[1] designed to express deeper levels of human cognition briefly yet overtly and clearly, particularly with regard to human categorization. Presented as a cross between an a priori philosophical and a logical language striving to minimize the ambiguities and semantic vagueness found in natural human languages,[2] Ithkuil is notable for its grammatical complexity and extensive phoneme inventory, the latter being simplified in the final version of the language. The name "Ithkuil" is an anglicized form of Îţkûil, which in the original form roughly means "hypothetical representation of a language".[2] Quijada states he did not create Ithkuil to be auxiliary or used in everyday conversations, but rather to serve as a language for more elaborate and profound fields where more insightful thoughts are expected, such as philosophy, arts, science and politics.[3]

The many examples from the original grammar book[2] show that a message, like a meaningful phrase or a sentence, can usually be expressed in Ithkuil with fewer sounds, or lexically distinct speech-elements, than in natural human languages. For example, the two-word Ithkuil sentence "Tram-mļöi hhâsmařpţuktôx" can be translated into English as "On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point".[2] Quijada sees his strictly regular creation as too complex to have developed naturally, but nonetheless as a language suited to human conversation. No person, including Quijada himself, is known to be able to speak Ithkuil fluently.

Three versions of the language have been publicized: the initial version in 2004, a simplified version called Ilaksh in 2007, and the version in 2011, with additional updates on the morphophonology and lexicon. As of 2019, a new (yet to be named) language is being developed by Quijada based on Ithkuil.

In 2004[4]—and again in 2009[5] with Ilaksh—Ithkuil was featured in the Russian-language popular science and IT magazine Computerra. In 2008, David Peterson awarded it the Smiley Award.[6] In 2013, Bartłomiej Kamiński codified the language to be able to quickly parse complicated sentences.[7] Since July 2015, Quijada has published several Ithkuil music voiced by Peterson under the album Kaduatán, which translates to "Wayfarers".



An example of vertical boustrophedonic Ithkuil text (2004). Translation: "As our vehicle leaves the ground and plunges over the edge of the cliff toward the valley floor, I ponder whether it is possible that one might allege I am guilty of an act of moral failure, having failed to maintain a proper course along the roadway." Romanized: Pull̀ uíqišx ma’wałg eřyaufënienˉ päţwïç aŭë’yaļt xne’wïļta’şui tua kit öllá yaqazmuiv li’yïrzişka’ p’amḿ aìlo’wëčča šu’yehtaş IPA: [ˈpʊlːˋ ʊˈɪˊqɪʃx ˈmaʔwaʟɡ ɛʁjɑʊfɤˈnɪɛnˉ ˈpæθwɯç aʊˈxɤʔjaɬt xnɛʔwiɬˈtaʔʂʊɪ tʊa kɪt œlːˈaˊ jaˈqazmʊɪv lɪʔjɯɾˈzɪʂkaʔ p’amːˊ aɪlɔˈwɤtʃːa ʃʊʔˈjɛhtaʂ] Listen: Speaker Icon.svg

Ithkuil evolved over 45 years as a linguistic experiment beyond Western Indo-European languages in response to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Charles J. Fillmore’s case grammar into "a complex, intricate array of interwoven grammatical concepts [...] inspired by ideas inspired by countless hours studying texts in theoretical linguistics, cognitive grammar, psycholinguistics, language acquisition, linguistic relativity, semantics, semiotics, philosophy, fuzzy set theory, and even quantum physics. "

For his influences, Quijada cites the obscure "morpho-phonology of Abkhaz verb complexes, the moods of verbs of certain American Indian languages, the aspectual system of Niger–Kordofanian languages, the nominal case systems of Basque and Dagestanian languages, the enclitic system of the Wakashan languages, the positional orientation systems of Tzeltal and Guugu Yimithirr, the Semitic triliteral root morphology, and the hearsay and possessive categories of Suzette Elgin's Láadan language". The writing system's logical design borrows principles from Ethiopic and Brahmi scripts, but employs a unique morpho-phonemic principle.[2] The script used throughout the Ithkuil grammar bears superficial resemblance to Hebrew square script and the various Klingon fonts, and Ilaksh has also used a "cartouche script" and a cursive format. Because Ithkuil is designed for users to be precise in their speech, it is quite difficult to express humorous concepts in Ithkuil.[8]


Ilaksh (2007)

The initial publication of Ithkuil in 2004 had an extensive phonology of 65 consonants and 17 vowels. Since the mention of Ithkuil in the Russian magazine Computerra,[4] several speakers of Russian contacted Quijada and expressed enthusiasm to learn Ithkuil for its application to psychonetics, with several complaining about its difficulty in pronunciation. Quijada remade Ithkuil's morphophonology with 30 consonants and 10 vowels (and the addition of tones) and published the revision on 10 June 2007 as Ilaksh.[2] The language featured other amendments to grammar, including some additional Levels and a change of Cases. It was redesigned to be easier to speak and included an additional writing system.[9][10] The initial sequential "informal" system suitable for handwriting or compact typesetting, and a "formal" logographic system with artistic possibilities resembling Maya scripts.

In the "informal" writing system, several parallel sets of lines are shaped to correspond sequentially to the different parallel sets of lexemes and inflections. It is directly pronounceable. The author designed it with reserve for convenient handwriting. The overall design would permit compact, clear, black-and-white rendering.

In the colorful "formal" script, a single complex glyph represented an entire sentence. Diversely shaped, shaded and superimposed cartouches represent the syntactic relations of the verb and noun phrases of a sentence. The edges of the cartouches had particular shapes that indicate one set of inflections, the colors indicate another set of inflections, and the textures yet another one. On the cartouches, letters of hexagonal outline would spell out the forms of particular lexemes. The cartouches formed phrases, with primary phrases overlapping subordinate phrases. The coloring system utilized different color densities and texturing for different colors in order to be usable by colorblind people. These density conventions also allowed the formal system to be inexpensively printed in black-and-white, or inscribed or imprinted on stone or other materials.[11]

Ithkuil (2011)

Ilaksh was superseded by a newer language, also termed Ithkuil because of its ties to the initial publication. Its script uses a unique morpho-phonemic principle that allows sentences representing grammatical categories to be pronounced in multiple ways as the speaker sees fit. As of July 2011, Quijada planned to adopt the cartouche script "for use as an alternative, 'ornamental' writing system for artistic purposes" to the newest revision of Ithkuil, which was made to be morphologically similar to Ilaksh.

A New Ithkuilic Language (2017)

Owing to complaints about the difficult patterns in the language morphology from the community Reddit forum, on 30 October 2017, Quijada published a tentative outline for a new version of the language, which has yet to be named, addressing learners' desires for a more agglutinative morphophonology, including a restructured Formative outline, and extended use of Adjuncts for flexible expression of the grammar to further create phonoaesthetics. Despite the complexity of the language, intended only as an experiment without concern for the constraints of human learnability, he has published several updates for a new language predicated off of the original grammar.



"Tram-mļöi hhâsmařpţuktôx" written in the Ithkuil script. English translation: "On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point"

Ithkuil uses a morphophonemic script because characters convey both phonetic and morphological information. Its use is closely tied to Ithkuil's grammatical system, which allows much of the phonological aspect of words to be morpho-syntactically inferred. Those parts of an Ithkuil word whose pronunciation is predictable are not written, whereas the characters used to indicate the pronunciation of the unpredictable parts of a word also convey the grammatical information necessary to reconstruct the implicit phonetics. Words are thus written in a highly abbreviated manner, particularly useful for the highly inflected, occasionally elongated words of the Ithkuil language. The script is also used alphabetically for transliterating foreign words and mathematical expressions.[12]

Consonant inventory

The newly revised Ithkuil has 45 consonants and 13 vowels. At the left of each cell in the table below is the phoneme, and at the right its transliterated representation if it is not written the same in IPA as in romanized Ithkuil. The consonants are as follows:[13]

Labial Dental Alveolar Retroflex Post-
Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
central lateral
Nasal m n ŋ ň
Plosive voiced b d ɡ
voiceless p t k q ʔ
aspirated t̪ʰ
ejective t̪ʼ
Affricate voiced d͡z ż d͡ʒ j
voiceless t͡s c t͡ʃ č
aspirated t͡sʰ t͡ʃʰ čʰ
ejective t͡sʼ c’ t͡ʃʼ č’
Fricative voiced v ð dh z ʒ ž
voiceless f θ ţ s ɬ ļ ʃ š ç x χ xh h
Approximant l j y w ʁ̞ ř
Flap ɽ r

/m ŋ l ɽ/ can be syllabic. All consonants except /j w ʔ/ can be geminated; when geminated, h is a bidental fricative or a pharyngeal fricative (ħ), and ɽ is an alveolar trill. In a future revision of the language, Quijada has noted that , c’ čʰ, č’, , k’, ļ, , p’, q, , q’, ř, , t’, and xh will be eliminated, x will be pronounced /x/~/χ/, /ɬ/ will only be an allophone of word-initial /l̥/ (voiceless approximant) and be written as hl, ň will be written as n before k, g, or x, and dh will instead be written as , as in the 2004 version of Ithkuil (this phoneme can optionally be written as đ or , but is preferred).

Vowel inventory

The 13 vowels of Ithkuil are as follows:[13]

Front Central Back
Close î ʉ~y ü û
Near-close ɪ i ʊ u
Close-mid ê ô
Mid œ~ø ö ə ë
Open-mid ɛ e ɔ o
Open ä a ɑ â

/ɪ ʊ/ are pronounced [i u] when they precede another vowel, and when at the end of a word. /ɛ ɔ/ are pronounced [e o] when they precede another vowel, excepting /ɪ ʊ/.

In a future revision of the language, Quijada has noted that ê, î, ô, and û will be removed to allow for easier memorization. a will be pronounced /a/, e will be pronounced /ɛ/~/e/, i will be pronounced /ɪ/~/i/, o will be pronounced /ɔ/~/o/, and u will be pronounced /ʊ/~/u/, â will be written as ä to be consistent with the other vowels and pronounced as /ɑ/~/ɒ/, and ë will be pronounced /ə/~/ɤ/, except when unstressed at the end of the word, where ë will be pronounced /ɯ/ to differentiate it from unstressed word-final -a.

The diphthongs in Ithkuil are /äɪ̯/, /ɛɪ̯/, /əɪ̯/, /ɔɪ̯/, /ø̞ɪ̯/, /ʊɪ̯/, /äʊ̯/, /ɛʊ̯/, /əʊ̯/, /ɪʊ̯/, /ɔʊ̯/, /ø̞ʊ̯/. All other sequences of vowels are pronounced as separate syllables. The grave accent is used to indicate the vowel sequence is not a diphthong. The grave and acute accents are used for stress. In a future revision of the language, circumflex accents will be used for stress, but grave accents will not be used for stress, and will only be used to indicate the vowel sequence is not a diphthong, so that the rules for marking stress are simplified.


Ithkuil words can be divided into just two parts of speech, formatives and adjuncts. Formatives can function both as nouns and as verbs, derived from the root and depending on the morpho-semantic context.[14]


Roots are Ithkuil's most basic semantic units. All Ithkuil formatives are derived from a limited number of roots. Each root consists of a cluster of 1–4 consonants (five-consonant clusters are also available, but remain without an assigned meaning).[14] The current lexicon of Ithkuil can potentially consist of approximately 3,600 word roots.[14] So far, just over 1000 have been assigned translations.[15] From the root, word stems are formed by affixing the vocalic affix that indicates pattern, stem type, and function, and by stressing a particular syllable to indicate informal or formal designation.[14][16]

There are three stems associated with each root. Each stem comes in three patterns, one holistic and two complementary ones. Holistic stem 1 typically refers to the most general manifestation of a root, whereas holistic stems 2 and 3 typically refer to more specific manifestations associated with the root. Each holistic stem has two complementary stems associated with it, which refer to the complementary concepts related to the holistic stem.[14] The specific meaning of complementary stems depends somewhat on the root. These are derived from the word roots by prefixing a vowel or diphthong that also indicates the grammatical category function.[14] Two examples are given in the tables below:

Holistic stem 1 Holistic stem 2 Holistic stem 3
nuclear family member
male nuclear family member
female nuclear family member
Complementary stems Complementary stems Complementary stems
Holistic stem 1 Holistic stem 2 Holistic stem 3
higher-order animal lifeform
human being
non-human higher-order animal lifeform
Complementary stems Complementary stems Complementary stems
male higher-order animal lifeform
female higher-order animal lifeform
male human being
female human being
male non-human higher-order animal lifeform
female non-human higher-order animal lifeform


All Ithkuil formatives, whether functioning as nouns or verbs, inflect for various grammatical categories that are quite dissimilar from any of those in natural languages.[16] Quantization is more or less covered by the grammatical categories of Configuration, Affiliation, and Perspective, even though these do not technically refer to number per se.[16]

Category Indicates Amount
Configuration the physical similarity and relationship between the members of a set, e.g. trees may occur in a collection of the same species, of different species, or even in a patternless collection with plants that are not trees. 9
Affiliation the subjective purpose or function of members of a set, e.g. a group of trees may occur naturally and have no purpose, they may have the same purpose, complementary purposes, or different purposes. 4
Perspective the boundedness of a set, i.e. if it is viewed as a single unit, multiple disconnected units, viewed generically, or its characteristics considered abstractly. 4
Extension the referred part of a set, e.g. its beginning or its end. 6
Essence whether the referred set is in the real world or exists solely psychologically. 2
Context the psychological relevance of the set, e.g. merely its existence or the set as symbolic for something else. 4
Designation the authority or permanence of a set. 2
Register the mode of personal communication (narration, personal cogitation, subjective impression, direct speech, parenthetical “aside”) 5


There are 96 grammatical cases in Ithkuil, one special case being the Vocative, used for direct address. Verbal formatives inflect for case under Frame constructions (i.e., dependent clauses). The grammatical cases of Ithkuil can be divided into several distinct groups:[17]

Category Identifies Amount
Transrelative the participants to the verb 11
Possessive possessive relationships between nouns 7
Associative non-possessive relationships between nouns and adverbial relationships with verbs 32
Temporal temporal relationships 15
Spatial spatial relationships; this does not cover spatial relationships such as 'to be inside of', which are covered by separate formatives 6
Comparison comparisons to other nouns, used in conjunction with Level 24

Verbal morphology

Several distinct grammatical categories apply only to verbal formatives. These are listed below:[18]

Category Indicates Amount
Function the general relationship that the verbal formative has with its nominal participants (state, action, description) 4
Mood attitudes or perspectives on the act or the degree of factuality 8
Illocution the general purpose of the speech act (assertion, question, warning, demand, etc.) 6
Relation whether the verbal formative is part of a subordinate clause 2
Phase the temporal pattern of the act or occurrence 9
Sanction the sort of truthfulness the listener should ascribe to it (assertion, allegation, counterargument, refutation, etc.) 9
Valence the manner of participation of two separate entities to the verbal formative 14
Version whether the action is goal-oriented or not + whether successfully completed 2
Validation the evidence supporting the statement 6
Aspect the temporal relationship of the verbal formative in its context 32
Bias the speaker's emotional attitude towards the action 24

Ithkuil nominal formatives also carry a function, but cannot be inflected for them, always remaining in the "stative".[18]


Ithkuil uses a variety of affixes, termed suffixes, to further delineate what is described by the formative.


There are two types of adjuncts in Ithkuil: personal-reference adjuncts and verbal adjuncts.[14] All adjuncts are highly synthetic.

Personal-reference adjuncts are akin to pronouns in English. There are two types of personal-reference adjuncts in Ithkuil: Single-referent and dual-referent.[19]

Verbal adjuncts are adjuncts that work in conjunction with verbal formatives to provide information about the latter's Valence, Level, Phase, Sanction, Illocution, Modality, Aspect, and Bias.[14] Of these, Modality and Level can only be indicated using verbal adjuncts, whereas the others can also be expressed on the verbal formative.[20]

Numerical system

Ithkuil uses a base 100 numeral system with roots for the numbers 1 to 10, and a stem-specific derivative suffix used with a number root to add a multiple of 10, providing the numerals up to 99. Ithkuil did not originally use the concept of zero. Numbers greater than 100 are expressed periphrastically in speech, whereas a special numerical script had logograms for the numbers 1 to 100 and exponential powers of 100.

On 27 March 2015 Quijada released a mathematical sublanguage using a dozenal number system.

Possible advantages

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis postulates that a person's language influences their perceptions and cognitive patterns. Stanislav Kozlovsky proposed[4] in the Russian popular-scientific magazine Computerra that a fluent speaker of Ithkuil, accordingly, would think "about five or six times as fast" as a speaker of a typical natural language. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis would suggest that, Ithkuil being an extremely precise and synthetic language, its speakers would have a more discerning, deeper understanding both of everyday situations and of broader phenomena, and of abstract philosophical categories.

However, strong forms of the hypothesis, which postulate that language determines thought and not only influences it, have been disproven within mainstream linguistics.[21] Moreover, in line with this, Quijada has stated he does not believe a speaker would think necessarily any faster, because even though Ithkuil is terse, a single word requires a lot more thought before it can be spoken than it would in a natural language.[22]

"For these reasons, I believe use of Ithkuil would probably allow one to think more deeply, critically, and analytically; but think faster? I doubt it."

Kozlovsky also likened Ithkuil to the fictional Speedtalk from Robert A. Heinlein's novella Gulf, and contrasted both languages with the Newspeak of the communicationally restricted society of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Ithkuil is by far the most complete language of the three, though Speedtalk and Newspeak were merely "sampled" by their creators, with an outline of neither grammar nor lexicon. John Quijada acknowledged the similarity of Ithkuil's design goals to those of Speedtalk,[3] remarking that,

[h]owever, Heinlein's Speedtalk appears to focus only on the morpho-phonological component of language[, whereas] Ithkuil has been designed with an equal focus on [morphology, lexico-morphology, or lexico-semantics]. Additionally, the apparent purpose of Heinlein's language is simple rapidity/brevity of speech and thought, while Ithkuil is focused on maximal communication in the most efficient manner, a somewhat different purpose, in which brevity per se is irrelevant.
John Quijada

Other resources


  1. ^ Joshua Foer, "John Quijada and Ithkuil, the Language He Invented", The New Yorker, December 24, 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d e f A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language– Introduction
  3. ^ a b Ithkuil FAQs
  4. ^ a b c (Russian) «Скорость мысли», Станислав КозловскийSpeed of thought by Stanislav Kozlovsky, Computerra, №26–27, June 20, 2004
  5. ^ Ithkuil and its philosophical design (Russian) by Mikhail Gertelman, Kompyuterra (17(781)2009 p 12)
  6. ^ The 2008 Smiley Award Winner: Ithkuil
  7. ^ Making fun with Ithkuil easier
  8. ^ Ça üšlá. The New Yorker, access-date=2018-08-10
  9. ^ Ilaksh script diagram (indicates what the various parts of an Ilaksh logogram indicate) (no longer available on site, link shows's cache)
  10. ^ Ilaksh formal / ornamental script example, an updated version of the older script diagram
  11. ^ Ilaksh Chapter 11: The Writing System
  12. ^ A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language– Chapter 11: The Writing System
  13. ^ a b – Chapter 1: Phonology
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language - Chapter 2: Morpho-phonology
  15. ^ The Lexicon
  16. ^ a b c A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language - Chapter 3: Basic Morphology
  17. ^ A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language - Chapter 4: Case morphology
  18. ^ a b A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language - Chapter 5 – Verb morphology
  19. ^ A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language - Chapter 8: Adjuncts
  20. ^ A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language - Chapter 6 – More verb morphology
  21. ^ Ahearn, Laura. Living language: an introduction to linguistic anthropology, Wiley Blackwell, Oxford. ISBN 9781405124416. Page 69.
  22. ^ FAQ

External links