Ithkuil: A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language

5a Verb Morphology
9 Syntax
5b Verb Morphology (continued)
10 Lexico-Semantics
1 Phonology
6 More Verb Morphology
11 The Script
  2 Morpho-Phonology  7a Using Affixes 12 The Number System
   3 Basic Morphology 7b Using Affixes (continued) The Lexicon
  4 Case Morphology   8 Adjuncts Revised Ithkuil: Ilaksh


Chapter 3: Basic Morphology

3.1 Configuration 3.5 Focus
3.2 Affiliation 3.6 Context
3.3 Perspective 3.7 Designation
3.4 Extension 3.8 Essence

As previously discussed in Section 2.6.1, the distinction between nouns and verbs common to most languages is rather blurred in Ithkuil. All lexical stems in Ithkuil function equally as nouns or verbs and share many of the same morpho-semantic features and categories. This is because Ithkuil morpho-semantics does not see nouns and verbs as being cognitively distinct from one another, but rather as complementary manifestations of ideas existing in a common underlying semantic continuum whose components are space and time. The equivalents to nouns and verbs in other languages are merely “reified” (or nominalized) and “activized” (or verbalized) derivatives of semantic formatives. Nevertheless, for simplicity’s sake, we will refer to nominal formatives as nouns and verbal formatives as verbs when discussing their morphology.

All Ithkuil formatives, whether functioning as nouns or verbs, inflect for nine Configurations, four Affiliations, four Perspectives, six Extensions, two Focus distinctions, four Contexts, two Designations, and two Essences, and can take any of more than 1300 optional affixes. These morphological categories are explained in the sections which follow.



To understand the Ithkuil concept of enumeration and quantification of nouns (i.e., what other languages term singular, plural, etc.) one must analyze three separate but related grammatical categories termed Configuration, Affiliation, and Perspective. These concepts are alien to other languages. While they deal with semantic distinctions which are quantitative in nature, these distinctions are usually made at the lexical level (i.e., via word choice) in other languages, not at the morphological as in Ithkuil. In this section we will deal first with Configuration, followed by Affiliation in Section 3.2 and Perspective in Section 3.3.

Specifically, Configuration deals with the physical similarity or relationship between members of a noun referent within groups, collections, sets, assortments, arrangements, or contextual gestalts, as delineated by internal composition, separability, compartmentalization, physical similarity or componential structure. This is best explained and illustrated by means of analogies to certain English sets of words.

Consider the English word ‘tree.’ In English, a single tree may stand alone out of context, or it may be part of a group of trees. Such a group of trees may simply be two or more trees considered as a plural category based on mere number alone, e.g., two, three, or twenty trees. However, it is the nature of trees to exist in more contextually relevant groupings than merely numerical ones. For example, the trees may be of like species as in a ‘grove’ of trees. The grouping may be an assortment of different kinds of trees as in a ‘forest’ or occur in patternless disarray such as a ‘jungle.’

As another example, we can examine the English word ‘person.’ While persons may occur in simple numerical groupings such as ‘a (single) person’ or ‘three persons’ it is more common to find persons (i.e., people) referred to by words which indicate various groupings such as ‘group,’ ‘gathering,’ ‘crowd,’ etc.

Segmentation and amalgamated componential structure are further configurative principles which distinguish related words in English. The relationships between car versus convoy, hanger versus rack, chess piece versus chess set, sentry versus blockade, piece of paper versus sheaf, girder versus (structural) framework, and coin versus roll of coins all exemplify these principles.

Another type of contextual grouping of nouns occurs in binary sets, particularly in regard to body parts. These binary sets can comprise two identical referents as in a pair of eyes, however they are more often opposed or “mirror-image” (i.e., complementary) sets as in limbs, ears, hands, wings, etc.

In Ithkuil, the semantic distinctions implied by the above examples as they relate to varying assortments of trees or persons would be accomplished by inflecting the word-stem for ‘tree’ or ‘person’ into one of nine configurations. Additional semantic distinctions on the basis of purpose or function between individual members of a set could then be made by means of Affiliation (see Section 3.2 below) and by the use of specific affixes. For example, once the words for ‘forest’ or ‘crowd’ were derived from ‘tree’ and ‘person’ via Configuration, the Ithkuil words for ‘orchard,’ ‘copse,’ ‘team’ or ‘mob’ could easily be derived via affiliation and affixes. (Such derivations into new words using affixes are explored in detail in Chapter 7: Using Affixes.)

The nine configurations are the UNIPLEX, DUPLEX, DISCRETE, AGGREGATIVE, SEGMENTATIVE, COMPONENTIAL, COHERENT, COMPOSITE, and MULTIFORM. The function and morphology of these categories are explained below.

The Uniplex

The UNIPLEX configuration is marked by Grade 1 mutation of the C1 radical consonant and indicates a single, contextual embodiment of the stem concept, i.e., one whole contextual unit of the basic nominal stem, e.g., a tree, a person, a screwdriver, a grape, a hammer blow, a hole. With verbs the UNIPLEX signifies a single, holistic act, state, or event, e.g., to be a tree, to become a person, to use a screwdriver, to eat a grape, to strike (once) with a hammer, to dig a hole.

The Duplex

The DUPLEX configuration is marked by Grade 2 mutation of the C1 radical consonant and indicates a related binary set. While it often refers to body parts, e.g., one’s eyes, ears, lungs, wings, etc., it can also be used to describe any set of two identical or complementary objects or entities, e.g., a matched pair of vases, a two-volume set, a set of bookends, mutual opponents. Thus, the Ithkuil word for spouse inflected for the DUPLEX configuration would translate as a man and wife or a married couple.

One context in which the DUPLEX appears for both nouns and verbs is with events which contain two complementary “halves” exemplified by English words such as bounce, flash, arc, wag, swing, switch, breathe/respiration, indeed, any concept which involves a dual-state notion of up/down, to/fro, back/forth, in/out, empty/full, or on/off. Use of the DUPLEX in these contexts implies a full cycling through the two complementary states involved. For example the word for hammer blow inflected for the UNIPLEX would signify the singular impact of the hammer, whereas the same word inflected for the DUPLEX signifies a single down-then-up cycle of the swing of the hammer, the two complementary “halves” of the action being divided by the impact.

The Discrete

The DISCRETE configuration is marked by Grade 3 mutation of the C1 radical consonant and indicates a grouping or set of the basic stem units that are more or less identiform (each having the same design or physical appearance). This grouping or set-nature can be either spatial, as in a flock of gulls (flying together), or temporal (i.e., sequentially repetitive or iterative) as in (a flock of) gulls flying one after another. Further examples of English nouns or noun phrases which would be translated using the DISCRETE are a grove, a set of screwdrivers, a group of soldiers, a pile of leaves, a bowl of grapes, a series of hammer blows, an area of holes. Thus, the Ithkuil word for (identical) set would simply be the word for thing or object inflected for the DISCRETE configuration. Note that the distinction between a spatially configured set versus a temporally (i.e., iterative) configured set would be made by use of an additional affix, -V1šk, specifying which spacetime axis is implied. This affix is analyzed in Sec. 7.7.13.

For verbs, the DISCRETE signifies a single set of repetitions, whether spatially or temporally, viewed as a single holistic event. The individual member components acts, states, or events within this set can be either UNIPLEX, e.g., to take steps, to flip through pages, to have spots, to dig holes in an area, or DUPLEX in nature, e.g., to hammer, to spin, to breathe.

It should be noted that the Containment CNM affix, -Vomt, can be used with the DISCRETE, as well as most of the following configurations, to designate specifically the type of container, holder, or means of conveyance for a configurative set (e.g., a sack, package, jar, bottle, pile, load, etc.)

The Aggregative

The AGGREGATE configuration is marked by Grade 4 mutation of the C1 radical consonant and functions like the DISCRETE above in referring to an associated group or set of entities, except that the members of the configurational set are not identical to one another. Examples of English words/entities which would be translated using the AGGREGATIVE are a forest (of different kinds of trees), a toolset, a citizens group, a mixed pile of leaves, an assortment of animals, an area of different-sized holes, a series of musical notes. With verbs, the AGGREGATIVE implies a spatially or temporally repeated set of non-identical acts, events, or states considered as a whole contextual unit. It would be used, for example, in translating the sentence This morning I dug holes in my garden (i.e., of different sizes).

3.1.5 SEG   The Segmentative

The SEGMENTATIVE configuration is marked by Grade 5 mutation of the C1 radical consonant and indicates a grouping or set of the basic stem units, the individual members of which are physically similar or identical and are either in physical contact with one another, physically connected via some linking medium, or in sufficiently close contact with one another so that the group moves or operates together. Examples would be a web, a train of flatcars, a convoy of schoolbuses, a string of pearls, a fall of leaves, a line of dancers, a parade of Barbie dolls (e.g., coming off an assembly line). To illustrate the difference between this configuration and the DISCRETE above, we saw that the word grape in the DISCRETE would be translated as a serving of grapes, while in the SEGMENTATIVE it would mean a bunch of grapes (i.e., still connected to each other on a portion of vine).

With verbs, the use of the SEGMENTATIVE versus the DISCRETE implies that the repetitive/iterative nature of the act, state, or event occurs naturally due to the contextual nature of the precipitating event or agent. It would thus be used to distinguish the fuselage of bullets from a machine-gun from the simple hail of bullets from single-fire weapons. Likewise, it would distinguish The light is blinking from The light is flashing, where blink implies the way in which the source naturally emits light, while flash implies that the light is being made to emit repetitive bursts of light.

3.1.6 CPN   The Componential

The COMPONENTIAL configuration is marked by Grade 6 mutation of the C1 radical consonant and operates identically to the SEGMENTATIVE above, except that the individual members of the configurational set are not physically similar or identical to each other. Examples of English words/entities which would be translated using the COMPONENTIAL are a freight train, a cascade of (mixed) fruit (i.e., a continuous stream of fruit falling), a line of ticketholders, a parade of floats, a pattern of musical notes. With verbs, the COMPONENTIAL signifies a connected series of repetitions where the individual acts, events, or states comprising the repetitive set are non-identical. It would distinguish The light twinkled from The light was blinking.

3.1.7 COH   The Coherent

The COHERENT configuration is marked by Grade 7 mutation of the C1 radical consonant and functions similarly to the SEGMENTATIVE above, except that the individual members of the configuration are connected, fused or mixed with one another to form a coherent emergent entity, i.e., the total configuration of objects constitutes an entirely new gestalt-like entity. Examples of English words which would be translated using the COHERENT are a bookcase, a phalanx, a xylophone.

In the realm of verbs, finding English translations illustrating the COHERENT is difficult. If one can imagine the verb to glow to mean a series of flashes blurred one into another to create a continuous emanation, then glow versus flash might suffice. Perhaps a better illustration would be the difference between to buzz from to make a set of repeating noises.

3.1.8 CST   The Composite

The COMPOSITE configuration is marked by Grade 8 mutation of the C1 radical consonant and operates the same as the COHERENT above except that the individual members of the configurational set are not identical or physically similar to one another. Examples of words/concepts that would be translated using the COMPOSITE are a building (= a constructional set of walls, floors, doors, windows, etc.), a communications array, a conspiracy, a jungle thicket. Thus the Ithkuil words for recipe, skeleton, and melody would simply be the words for ingredient, bone, and musical note inflected for the COMPOSITE configuration. For verbs, the COMPOSITE versus COHERENT distinction would distinguish to rumble from to buzz, or to glitter from to glow.

3.1.9 MLT   The Multiform

The MULTIFORM configuration is marked by Grade 9 mutation of the C1 radical consonant and is the most difficult to explain, as there is no Western linguistic equivalent. The MULTIFORM serves to identify the noun as an individual member of a “fuzzy” set. A fuzzy set is a term which originates in non-traditional logic, describing a set whose individual members do not all share the same set-defining attributes to the same degree, i.e., while there may be one or more archetypical members of the set which display the defining attributes of the set exclusively and exactly, other members of the set may vary from this archetypical norm by a wide range of degrees, whether in physical resemblance, degree of cohesion or both. Indeed, some members of the set may display very little resemblance to the archetype and be closer to the archetype of a different fuzzy set, i.e., fuzzy sets allow for the idea of “gradient overlap” between members of differing sets.

It is difficult to accurately translate into English without resorting to paraphrase the sorts of concepts that Ithkuil easily expresses using the MULTIFORM. For example, the Ithkuil word for ‘tree’ inflected for the MULTIFORM configuration would mean something like a group of what appear to be trees, or better yet, a group of tree-like objects (i.e., some being trees, and others seeming less like trees). Essentially, any set of entities whose similarity of membership varies by different degrees in comparison to an archetypical member of the set can be expressed using the MULTIFORM. For examples, the Ithkuil word for library would simply be a word meaning something like work (i.e. thing authored/composed) inflected for the MULTIFORM, signifying a hodge-podge assortment of writings and compositions (e.g., including books, pamphlets, notebooks, ledgers, formulas, letters, journals, recordings, magazines, etc.). Other example concepts translatable using the MULTIFORM would be a rag-tag group of people, an incoherent pattern, lives in flux.

With verbs, the MULTIFORM implies that the individual repetitions comprising an act, state, or event have varying degrees of spatio-temporal similarity to each other. A few English verbs such as fluctuate, sputter or flicker capture this sense.



While the category of Configuration from the preceding section distinguishes the relationships between the individual members of a set in terms of physical characteristics, physical attributes or physical connections, the category of Affiliation operates similarly to distinguish the member relationships in terms of subjective purpose, function, or benefit. Affiliation operates synergistically in conjunction with Configuration to describe the total contextual relationship between the members of a set. Like Configuration, the meanings of nouns or verbs in the various affiliations often involve lexical changes when translated into English.

Returning to our earlier example of the word tree, we saw how a group of trees of the same species becomes a grove in the DISCRETE configuration. The word grove implies that the trees have grown naturally, with no specific purpose or function in regard to human design or utilization. On the other hand, groves of trees may be planted by design, in which case they become an orchard. We saw how trees occurring as a natural assortment of different kinds is termed a forest. However, such assortments can become wholly chaotic, displaying patternless disarray from the standpoint of subjective human design, thus becoming a jungle.

As another example, we saw how the word person becomes group, or gathering, both of which are neutral as to subjective purpose or function. However, applying a sense of purposeful design generates words such as team, while the absence of purpose results in crowd.

There are four affiliations: CONSOLIDATIVE, ASSOCIATIVE, VARIATIVE, and COALESCENT. Affiliation is marked by a word-initial vocalic prefix which varies depending on the extension of the formative, as well as being dependent on the format for verbs (see Sections 3.4 and 5.3 for an explanation of these respective categories). For nouns, these prefixes are shown in Table 11 in Section 3.4 on Extension. For verbs, these prefixes are shown in Table 14 in Section 5.4.1. The details of each affiliation are explained below.

3.2.1 CSL The Consolidative

The CONSOLIDATIVE affiliation 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. It differs from the ASSOCIATIVE affiliation below in that the role of individual set members is not subjectively defined by human design. Examples are tree branches, a grove, a mound of rocks, some people, the clouds.

The CONSOLIDATIVE is also the affiliation normally applied to nouns in the UNIPLEX configuration when spoken of in a neutral way, since a noun in the UNIPLEX specifies one single entity without reference to a set, therefore the concept of “shared” function would be inapplicable. Examples: a man, a door, a sensation of heat, a leaf. With verbs, the CONSOLIDATIVE would imply that the act, state, or event is occurring naturally, or is neutral as to purpose or design.

For the set of prefixes which mark this affiliation, see Table 11 in Section 3.4 below for nouns and Table 14 in Section 5.4.1 for verbs.

The Associative

The ASSOCIATIVE affiliation indicates that the individual members of a configurational set share the same subjective function, state, purpose or benefit. Its use can be illustrated by taking the Ithkuil word for soldier in the DISCRETE configuration and comparing its English translations when inflected for the CONSOLIDATIVE affiliation (= a group of soldiers) versus the ASSOCIATIVE (= a troop, a platoon). It is this CONSOLIDATIVE versus ASSOCIATIVE distinction, then, that would distinguish otherwise equivalent DISCRETE inflections of the Ithkuil word for tree by translating them respectively as a grove versus an orchard.

The ASSOCIATIVE affiliation can also be used with nouns in the UNIPLEX configuration to signify a sense of unity amongst one’s characteristics, purposes, thoughts, etc. For example, the word person inflected for the UNIPLEX and ASSOCIATIVE would translate as a single-minded person. Even nouns such as rock, tree or work of art could be inflected this way, subjectively translatable as a well-formed rock, a tree with integrity, a “balanced” work of art.

With verbs, the ASSOCIATIVE signifies that the act, state or event is by design or with specific purpose. The CONSOLIDATIVE versus ASSOCIATIVE distinction could be used, for example, with the verb turn in I turned toward the window to indicate whether it was for no particular reason or due to a desire to look outside.

For the set of prefixes which mark this affiliation, see Table 11 in Section 3.4 below for nouns and Table 14 in Section 5.4.1 for verbs.

The Variative

The VARIATIVE affiliation indicates that the individual members of a configurational set differ as to subjective function, state, purpose or benefit. The differences among members can be to varying degrees (i.e., constituting a fuzzy set in regard to function, purpose, etc.) or at complete odds with one another, although it should be noted that the VARIATIVE would not be used to signify opposed but complementary differences among set members (see the COALESCENT affiliation below). It would thus be used to signify a jumble of tools, odds-and-ends, a random gathering, a rag-tag group, a dysfunctional couple, a cacophony of notes, of a mess of books, a collection in disarray. It operates with nouns in the UNIPLEX to render meanings such as a man at odds with himself, an ill-formed rock, a chaotic piece of art, a “lefthand-righthand” situation.

With verbs, the VARIATIVE indicates an act, state, or event that occurs for more than one reason or purpose, and that those reasons or purposes are more or less unrelated. This sense can probably be captured in English only through paraphrase, as in She bought the house for various reasons or My being at the party served several purposes. With non-UNIPLEX configurations, the use of the VARIATIVE affiliation can describe rather complex phenomena; for example, a sentence using the SEGMENTATIVE configuration such as The light is blinking in conjunction with the VARIATIVE would mean that each blink of the light signals something different than the preceding or following blinks.

For the set of prefixes which mark this affiliation, see Table 11 in Section 3.4 below for nouns and Table 14 in Section 5.4.1 for verbs.

The Coalescent

The COALESCENT affiliation indicates that the members of a configurational set share in a complementary relationship with respect to their individual functions, states, purposes, benefits, etc. This means that, while each member’s function is distinct from those of other members, each serves in furtherance of some greater unified role. For example, the Ithkuil word translating English toolset would be the word for tool in the AGGREGATIVE configuration (due to each tool’s distinct physical appearance) and the COALESCENT affiliation to indicate that each tool has a distinct but complementary function in furtherance of enabling construction or repair activities. Another example would be the Ithkuil word for finger inflected for the SEGMENTATIVE configuration and the COALESCENT affiliation, translatable as the fingers on one’s hand (note the use of the SEGMENTATIVE to imply the physical connection between each finger via the hand). A further example would be using the COALESCENT with the word for (piece of) food to signify a well-balanced meal.

The COALESCENT naturally appears most often in conjunction with the DUPLEX configuration since binary sets tend to be complementary. It is used, for example, to signify symmetrical binary sets such as body parts, generally indicating a lefthand/righthand mirror-image distinction, e.g., one’s ears, one’s hands, a pair of wings. Pairs that do not normally distinguish such a complementary distinction (e.g., one’s eyes) can nevertheless be optionally placed in the COALESCENT affiliation to emphasize bilateral symmetry (e.g., one’s left and right eye functioning together).

With verbs, the COALESCENT signifies that related, synergistic nature of the component acts, states, and events which make up a greater holistic act, state, or event. It imposes a situational structure onto an act, state, or event, where individual circumstances work together in complementary fashion to comprise the total situation. It would be used, for example, to distinguish the sentences He traveled in the Yukon from He ventured in the Yukon, or I came up with a plan versus I fashioned a plan.

For the set of prefixes which mark this affiliation, see Table 11 in Section 3.4 below for nouns and Table 14 in Section 5.4.1 for verbs.



Perspective is the closest Ithkuil morphological category to the Number and Tense categories of other languages (e.g., singular/plural and past/present/future). However, the correspondence is only approximate because Perspective does not specifically address the quantity to which a formative is instantiated within a given context, nor when it occurs relative to the present, but rather the manner in which it is spatio-temporally instantiated. Specifically, Perspective indicates whether a noun or verb is to be identified as 1) a “bounded” contextual entity (i.e., having a spatio-temporally unified or accessible manifestation), 2) an unbounded entity (i.e., manifested as spatio-temporally separated or inaccessible), 3) as a unified collective or generic entity throughout spacetime, or 4) as a spatio-temporally neutral abstraction. How this works requires separate explanations for nouns and verbs.

Perspective with Nouns. What Perspective means for nouns is that, in addition to merely indicating whether a given spatial context contains one or more than one, it also specifies single versus multiple manifestations in time, as well as along an axis of concreteness versus abstraction. Complicating the picture is the fact that the categories of Configuration and Affiliation (see Secs. 3.1 and 3.2 above) already contain an implicit numerical element due to the fact that they usually describe multi-membered sets. It is for all these reasons that the terms “singular” and “plural” have been avoided.

Perspective with Verbs. For verbs, the aspect of “boundedness” inherent in Perspective does not imply a quantitative context but rather an aspect of spatio-temporal “accessibility,” i.e., whether or not an act, state, or event can be viewed as a unified whole within the present temporal context. This is a long way from the “tense” categories of Western languages. In Ithkuil, the notion of linearly progressive time is not inherently expressed in the verb (although it can be specified, if necessary, using various aspectual markers - see Sec. 6.4).

There are four perspectives in Ithkuil: MONADIC, UNBOUNDED, NOMIC, and ABSTRACT. They are shown morpho-phonologically by shifts in a formative’s syllabic stress patterns. Each perspective’s specific meaning and usage is detailed below.

The Monadic

The MONADIC signifies a bounded embodiment of a particular configuration. By “bounded embodiment” is meant a contextual entity which, though possibly numerous in membership or multifaceted in structure, or spread out through a time duration, is nevertheless being contextually viewed and considered as a “monad,” a single, unified whole perceived to exist within a literal or figurative psychologically uninterrupted boundary. This is important, since configurations other than the UNIPLEX technically imply more than one discrete entity/instance being present or taking place. For nouns, this boundary is physically contiguous, like a container, corresponding to the “surface” of an object (whether literal or psychological). For verbs, this boundary is psychologically temporal, specifically the “present” (which in Ithkuil might be better thought of as the “context at hand” or the “immediately accessible context”). This distinction as to how “bounded embodiment” is interpreted for nouns and verbs is appropriate, given that Ithkuil considers nouns as spatially reified concepts while considering verbs to be their temporally “activized” counterparts (see Section 2.6.1).

Thus, using the word tree for example, while there might be many trees present in terms of number, the MONADIC implies they form only one embodiment of whatever particular Configuration category is manifested. Using the AGGREGATIVE configuration as an example, the MONADIC would mean there is only one AGGREGATIVE set of trees, i.e., one forest.

At this point, it should be noted in regard to Perspective that Ithkuil makes no distinction between “count” and “non-count” (or “mass”) nouns. In languages such as English, nouns differ between those that can be counted and pluralized (e.g., one apple, four boys, several nations), and those which cannot be counted or pluralized (e.g., water, sand, plastic, air, laughter). All nouns are countable in Ithkuil in that all nouns can exist as contextual monads. As a result, English translations of certain Ithkuil nouns must often be “contextual” rather than literal, employing various conventions to put the noun in a numerical and pluralizable context, e.g., ‘some dirt,’ ‘the air here’ or ‘a puff of air’ rather than “a dirt” or “an air.”

With verbs, the MONADIC superficially corresponds in a very approximate fashion with Western present tense categories except in a habitual sense. As noted above, the bounded embodiment conveyed by the MONADIC means that the act, state, or event is temporally contiguous and accessible from the point of view of the present context. It would be used to describes an act, state, or event which:

By “accessible past” or “accessible future” is meant a past or future where the speaker was (or will be) spatially present at the time and the time elapsed between then and “now” is psychologically contiguous, i.e., the speaker views the passage of time from then till now as one continuous temporal flow of moments, not as disconnected memories, disconnected predictions, or historical reports. Conversely, “inaccessible” would mean a past or future where the speaker was not or will not be present or which he/she knows only from memory, reports, or predictions.

The MONADIC is marked by penultimate stress on the noun or verb (i.e. stress on the second-to-last syllable).

The Unbounded

The UNBOUNDED signifies “unbounded embodiment” of a particular configurative entity, meaning that the noun or verb manifests itself as not being contained within an uninterrupted boundary, i.e., in contextually “disconnected” manifestations. For nouns, the term “plural” has been avoided so as not to imply that the member nouns are not being referred to quantitatively per se, but rather as a non-monadic (i.e., non-unified) manifestation of a configurative set. While the most convenient translation into English would be to use the plural, e.g., trees, groves, lumps of dirt, a semantically (if not morphologically) more accurate rendering would be ‘a tree here, a tree there,’ ‘this grove and another and another…,’ ‘dirt-lump after dirt-lump after dirt-lump….’

For verbs, “unbounded embodiment” means that the psychological temporal boundary of an act, state, or event is not accessible from the present context. This would apply to an act, state, or event which:

If necessary to specify whether the UNBOUNDED is referencing the past versus the future, additional aspectual markers can be employed (see Sec. 6.4 on Aspect). Note that, even more so than with the MONADIC, translation of the UNBOUNDED into Western languages is subjective, as the translation must necessarily convey linear tense information which is not conveyed by the Ithkuil original.

The UNBOUNDED is shown by ultimate syllabic stress (i.e., on the final syllable).

The Nomic

The NOMIC refers to a generic collective entity or archetype, containing all members or instantiations of a configurative set throughout space and time (or within a specified spatio-temporal context). Since it is all members being spoken of, and no individual members in particular, this category is mutually exclusive from the MONADIC or UNBOUNDED. For nouns, the NOMIC corresponds approximately to the several constructions used for referring to collective nouns in English, as seen in the sentences The dog is a noble beast, Clowns are what children love most, There is nothing like a tree.

With verbs, the NOMIC designates an action, event, or situation which describes a general law of nature or a persistently true condition or situation spoken of in general, without reference to a specific instance or occurrence of the activity (it is, in fact, all possible instances or occurrences that are being referred to). English has no specialized way of expressing such generic statements, generally using the simple present tense. Examples of usage would be The sun doesn't set on our planet, Mr. Okotele is sickly, In winter it snows a lot, That girl sings well.

The NOMIC is shown by antepenultimate stress (i.e., on the third-from-last syllable).

The Abstract

Similar to the formation of English abstract nouns using suffixes such as -hood or -ness, the ABSTRACT transforms a configurative category into an abstract concept considered in a non-spatial, timeless, numberless context. While only certain nouns in English can be made into abstracts via suffixes, all Ithkuil nouns in all Configurative categories can be made into abstracts, the translations of which must often be periphrastic in nature, e.g., grove the idea of being a grove or “grovehood”; book everything about books, having to do with books, involvement with books.

With verbs, the ABSTRACT is used in verbal constructions to create a temporal abstraction, where the temporal relationship of the action, event, or state to the present is irrelevant or inapplicable, similar to the way in which the English infinitive or gerund form (used as substitutes for a verb phrase) do not convey a specific tense in the following sentences: Singing is not his strong suit; It makes no sense to worry about it; I can't stand her pouting. As a result, the ABSTRACT acts as a "timeless" verb form which, much like these English infinitives and gerunds, operates in conjunction with a separate main verb in one of the other three perspectives. The ABSTRACT is often used in conjunction with certain modalities and moods of the verb (see Sec. 5.5 on Modality and Sec. 6.5 on Mood) which convey hypothetical or unrealized situations, in which the temporal relationship to the present is arbitrary, inapplicable, or unknowable.

The ABSTRACT is marked in either of two ways: (1) by preantepenultimate stress, i.e., on the fourth-to-last syllable, or (2) by a combination of ultimate stress plus the addition of an anaptyctic vowel -ï- or -a- in any morpho-phonologically permissible position of the word (as previously described in Sec. This extra vowel can be placed at any position within the word except within the stem, as long as the vowel does not lead to confusion or ambiguity in interpreting the phonological boundaries of any other suffixes to the stem. (Note that in word-final position, only anatyctic -a, not -ï, is permitted.)



Extension is another Ithkuil morphological category for which there is no exact equivalent in other languages. It applies to all formatives and indicates the manner in which the noun or verb is being considered in terms of spatial or temporal extent or boundaries. There are six extensions: DELIMITIVE, PROXIMAL, INCEPTIVE, TERMINATIVE, DEPLETIVE, and GRADUATIVE, shown by a vocalic prefix to the formative in conjunction with Affiliation for nouns (see Sec. 3.2 above) and Affiliation plus Format for verbs (see Section 5.4 on Format). The table below shows these prefixes for nouns. The prefixes for verbs are shown in Table 14 in Section 5.4. How Extension operates is explained in detail following the table.

Table 11: Word-Initial Affiliation/Extension Prefixes for Nominal Formatives

* This a- prefix is optional if the nominal versus verbal status of the formative can be determined from other morphological elements or if the meaning of the phrase or sentence is clear regardless of knowing the formative's nominal or verbal status.

The Delimitive

The DELIMITIVE extension indicates that a noun is being spoken of in its contextual entirety as a discrete entity with clear spatio-temporal boundaries, with no emphasis on any particular portion, edge, boundary, limit, or manifestation beyond the context at hand. It can be considered the neutral or default view, e.g., a tree, a grove, a set of books, an army. To illustrate a contextual example, the English sentence He climbed the ladder would be translated with the word ladder in the DELIMITIVE to show it is being considered as a whole. With verbs, this extension indicates that the act, state, or event is being considered in its entirety, from beginning to end, e.g., She diets every winter (i.e., she starts and finishes each diet).

The DELIMITIVE can be thought of as an expanse of spacetime that has definite beginning and ending points, beyond which the noun or verb does not exist or occur. The graphic to the right illustrates the spatio-temporal relationship of a concept in the DELIMITIVE to the context at-hand (i.e., the spatio-temporal “present”).


The Proximal

The PROXIMAL extension indicates that a noun is being spoken of not in its entirety, but rather only in terms of the portion, duration, subset, or aspect which is relevant to the context at hand. It would be used to translate the words tree, journey, and ladder in the sentences That tree is hard there (e.g., in the spot where I hit against it), She lost weight during her journey, or He climbed on the ladder (i.e., it is not relevant to the context to know if he made it all the way to the top). Note that in these sentences, the PROXIMAL does not refer to a specific or delineated piece, part, or component of the tree or ladder, but rather to the fact that delineated boundaries such as the ends of the ladder or the entirety of the tree are not relevant or applicable to the context at hand. With verbs, this extension signifies that it is not the entirety of an act, state, or event which is being considered, but rather the spatial extent or durational period of the act, state, or event relevant to the context, e.g., She’s on a diet every winter (i.e., focus on “having to live on” a diet, not the total time spent dieting from start to finish).

The graphic to the right illustrates the spatio-temporal relationship of a noun or verbal concept in the PROXIMAL to the context at-hand (i.e., the spatio-temporal “present”).


The Inceptive

The INCEPTIVE extension focuses on the closest boundary, the beginning, initiation, or the immediately accessible portion of a noun or verb, without focusing on the boundaries of the remainder. It would be used in translating the nouns tunnel, song, desert, daybreak and plan in the following sentences: We looked into (the mouth of) the tunnel, He recognizes that song (i.e., from the first few notes), They came upon (an expanse of) desert, Let’s wait for daybreak, I’m working out a plan (i.e., that I just thought of). In verbal contexts it would correspond to the English ‘to begin (to)…’ or ‘to start (to)…’ as in He began reading, It’s starting to molt, or She goes on a diet every winter.

The graphic to the right illustrates the spatio-temporal relationship of a noun or verbal concept in the INCEPTIVE to the context at-hand (i.e., the spatio-temporal “present”).


The Terminative

The TERMINATIVE extension focuses on the end, termination, last portion, or trailing boundary of a noun, without focusing on the preceding or previously existing state of the noun. It would be used in translating the words water, story, and arrival in the sentences There’s no water (i.e., we ran out), I like the end of that story, and We await your arrival. With verbs, it is illustrated by the sentences It finished molting or She’s come off her diet.

The graphic to the right illustrates the spatio-temporal relationship of a noun or verbal concept in the TERMINATIVE to the context at-hand (i.e., the spatio-temporal “present”).


The Depletive

The DEPLETIVE extension focuses on the terminal boundary or “trailing” edge of a noun, where this terminus is ill-defined, “diffuse” or extended to some degree, (i.e. the at-hand context of the noun “peters out” or terminates gradually). Essentially, it applies to any context involving actual or figurative fading. It would be used in translating the words water, strength, and twilight in the sentences He drank the last of the water, I have little strength left, She disappeared into the twilight. With verbs, it is exemplified by the phrases to wind down, to fade out, to disappear gradually and similar notions, e.g., She’s eating less and less these days.

The graphic to the right illustrates the spatio-temporal relationship of a noun or verbal concept in the DEPLETIVE to the context at-hand (i.e., the spatio-temporal “present”).


The Graduative

The GRADUATIVE extension is the inverse of the DEPLETIVE, focusing on a diffuse, extended “fade-in” or gradual onset of a noun. It would be used in translating the words darkness, wonder, and music in the following sentences: Darkness came upon us, I felt a growing sense of wonder, The music was very soft at first. With verbs it is illustrated by verbs and phrases such as to fade in, to start gradually, to build up, and similar notions, e.g., She’s been eating more and more lately.

The graphic to the right illustrates the spatio-temporal relationship of a noun in the GRADUATIVE to the context at-hand (i.e., the spatio-temporal “present”).

3.4.7 Examples of Configuration, Affiliation, and Extension

‘piece of clothing’ ‘set/suit of clothes’   ‘hand’ ‘pair of hands’

‘oak tree’ ‘trailing edge of an oak forest’   ‘upland’ ‘foothills’

‘something yellow’ ‘a mess of varying yellow things as far as the eye can see’

‘clown’ ‘running
‘Something makes the group of running clowns begin stumbling’ or
‘The group of clowns are made to begin stumbling as they run.’


Focus, is a two-way, positive versus negative distinction labeled +FC FOCUSED and -FC UNFOCUSED which is applicable to all formatives, whether functioning as nouns or verbs. The concept of semantic focus refers to what information in an utterance is to be considered new information as opposed to background context. The specifics are explained below and are best understood through various English illustrations.

In any given discourse (i.e., a contextual series of utterances such as a conversation, a story, an account of an event, etc.), any single sentence of that discourse will likely make reference to previously mentioned material as background, as well as present new material to further the purpose of the discourse. Semantic focus refers to those elements of a sentence which constitute new material within an actual or implied discourse. For example, the sentence My dog jumps through hoops could function as an answer to several different questions such as 1) What tricks can your dog do?, or 2) Does your dog do anything with hoops? or 3) Do you know of anyone’s pet that jumps through hoops? or even 4) What’s up with you? In answering the first of these questions, ‘jump through hoops’ would have semantic focus while the dog is background material. In answering the second question, the verbal phrase ‘jump through’ would have focus while both the dog and the hoops would be background material. In answering the third question, it would be ‘my dog’ that carries the focus while jumping through hoops would be backgrounded. Lastly, in answering the fourth sentence, no element in the sentence has focus over any other, as all elements present previously unknown material within the context of the discourse. In general, English conveys focus by a shift in vocal inflection (tone and pitch contours) to provide emphasis.

Focus does not necessarily require a full discourse to have semantic relevance; it can occur within a single autonomous sentence, in which case the background discourse is implied. For example, a person might spontaneously begin a conversation with the same sentence: My dog jumps through hoops. In English, the speaker might use vocal inflection to emphasize what elements convey semantic focus versus what elements are to be taken by the listener as “given.” Or, the speaker might say the sentence in a neutral tone of voice, essentially inviting the listener to “choose” which elements to focus upon in responding, e.g., Oh, you have a dog? or Oh, does he do any other tricks? or Oh, do you use metal or plastic hoops? or an equally neutral response such as Oh, you don’t say?

Ithkuil uses the Focus category to accomplish the same options that such vocal inflections accomplish in English. Any formative or formatives within an Ithkuil sentence can be marked as FOCUSED to convey semantic focus. The UNFOCUSED option operates as the opposing neutral default condition. Focus can be used to subtly distinguish what in Ithkuil would otherwise be identical sentence. For example, compare the following two English sentences:

After I shopped, I went home.
I shopped before I went home

Both sentences indicate two sequential events: shopping, then going home. The difference between them is one of focus. In the first sentence, I went home has semantic focus, as that is the new information being conveyed, while in the second sentence it is I shopped that has focus. In Ithkuil, both sentences would be translated as (First) I shopped then went home, the only distinction being the +FC FOCUSED distinction applied to the verb phrase went home in the first sentence, and to the verb shopped in the second sentence.

As a further examination of Focus, compare these two very similar English sentences:

Mother entered the room and turned on the lights.
Mother entered the room and she turned on the lights.

In the first sentence, the absence of the reduplicative pronoun ‘she’ before ‘turned’ implies that the entire sentence is to considered as one reported event with no particular element having the focus. In the second sentence, however, the reduplicative ‘she’ implies the sentence is to viewed as two separate events, the first reported as background, the second having the focus. (For example, one might utter the second sentence as a complaint about the lights being turned on.) The Ithkuil equivalents to these sentences would contain no such pronoun distinction. Instead, the nuances of the second sentence would be conveyed by marking the equivalent of the verb form as FOCUSED.

Finally, Focus functions to disambiguate sentences such as Chicago defeated Oakland, too, which means either (1) ‘Chicago was one of the teams that defeated Oakland,’ or (2) ‘Oakland was one of the teams that Chicago defeated.’ Ithkuil would mark one team name or the other as FOCUSED to show which of these two meanings is implied.

The UNFOCUSED attribute is morpho-phonologically unmarked in Ithkuil, i.e., it is indicated by the absence of any overt change in the phonological structure of a formative, or by any affix or adjunct. The FOCUSED attribute is shown in one of three ways for formatives:



Context is yet another morphological category with no equivalent in other languages. It indicates what tangible or intangible features or aspects of a formative are being psychologically implied in any given utterance. There is no way to show this in translation other than by paraphrase. There are four contexts: the EXISTENTIAL, the FUNCTIONAL, the REPRESENTATIONAL, and the AMALGAMATE, marked by each of the four tones on the formative. They are explained and illustrated below.

3.6.1 EXS   The Existential

The EXISTENTIAL context is marked by falling tone on the formative. It focuses on those features of a noun or verb which are ontologically objective, i.e., those that exist irrespective of any observers, opinions, interpretations, beliefs or attitudes. Similarly excluded from consideration in the EXISTENTIAL is any notion of a noun’s use, function, role or benefit. The EXISTENTIAL serves only to point out the mere existence of a noun as a tangible, objective entity under discussion. It is thus used to offer mere identification of a noun or verb.

For example, consider the sentence A cat ran past the doorway. If the Ithkuil words corresponding to cat, run, and doorway are in the EXISTENTIAL, then the sentence merely describes an objective scene. No implication is intended concerning the subjective nature of the two entities or the action involved. The sentence is merely stating that two entities currently have a certain dynamic spatial relationship to each other; those two entities happen to be a cat and a doorway, and the running merely conveys the nature of the spatial relationship.

3.6.2 FNC   The Functional

The FUNCTIONAL context is marked by high tone on the formative. It focuses on those features of a formative that are defined socially by ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions, convention, cultural status, use, function, benefit, etc. It serves to identify not what a noun existentially is, but to show that the noun has specific (and subjective) contextual meaning, relevance or purpose.

For example, in our previous sentence A cat ran past the doorway, if we now place the cat, doorway, and act of running each into the FUNCTIONAL, the ‘cat’ no longer simply identifies a participant, it makes its being a cat (as opposed to say, a dog) significant, e.g., because the speaker may fear cats, or because the cat could get into the room and ruin the furniture, or because cats are associated with mystery, or because a neighbor has been looking for a lost cat, etc. The ‘doorway’ now conveys its purpose as an entry, reinforcing what the cat may do upon entering. Likewise, the verb ‘ran’ in the FUNCTIONAL now implies the furtive nature of the cat.


3.6.3 RPS   The Representational

The REPRESENTATIONAL context is marked by rising tone. It focuses on a formative as a symbol, metaphor, or metonym*, in that it indicates that the formative is serving as a representation or substitute for some other concept or entity which is abstractly associated with it. For example, the metaphorical connotations of the English sentence That pinstripe-suited dog is checking out a kitty, can be equally conveyed in Ithkuil by inflecting the words for ‘dog and ‘kitty’ into the REPRESENTATIONAL context. The REPRESENTATIONAL is one of several ways that Ithkuil overtly renders all metaphorical, symbolic, or metonymic usages (from a grammatical standpoint).

* Metonymy is the use of a word or phrase of one type to refer to an associated word or phrase of a different type (usually a person), such as place-for-person in ‘The orders came from the White House,’ object-for-person in ‘Tell the cook the ham-and-cheese wants fries with his order’ or phrase-for-person as in ‘You-know-who just showed up.’

3.6.4 AMG   The Amalgamate

The AMALGAMATE context is marked by broken tone. It is the most abstract and difficult to understand from a Western linguistic perspective. It focuses on the systemic, holistic, gestalt-like, componential nature of a formative, implying that its objective and subjective totality is derived synergistically from (or as an emergent property of) the interrelationships between all of its parts, not just in terms of a static momentary appraisal, but in consideration of the entire developmental history of the noun and any interactions and relationships it has (whether past, present or potential) within the larger context of the world. Its use indicates the speaker is inviting the hearer to subjectively consider all the subjective wonder, emotional nuances, psychological ramifications and/or philosophical implications associated with the noun’s existence, purpose, or function, as being a world unto itself, intrinsically interconnected with the wider world beyond it on many levels. Thus the AMALGAMATE version of our sentence The cat ran past the doorway would take on quite melodramatic implications, with the cat being representative of everything about cats and all they stand for, the doorway as being representative of the nature of doorways as portals of change, thresholds of departure, and the juncture of past and the future, while the act of running becomes representative of flight from enemies, rapidity of movement, the body at maximum energy expenditure, etc.



Designation is a somewhat subjective category, with no equivalent in Western languages. Previously mentioned briefly in Sec. 2.3, it refers to a two-fold distinction in a formative regarding its contextual status, authority, permanence, or extra-contextual relevance. The two designations are the INFORMAL and the FORMAL, explained below.

  The Informal

The INFORMAL designation is marked by Form I of vocalic mutation (see Section 2.2.3). It indicates that the noun or verb in question does not exist in a necessarily permanent state, or is to be considered only for the duration of the context in which it is spoken, with any lasting effect, influence or permanency beyond the context being either absent, unknown or irrelevant.

  The Formal

The FORMAL designation is marked by Form II of vocalic mutation (see Section 2.2.3). The FORMAL imparts a sense of permanency and/or authority, raising the noun or verb to a more definitive, formal or institutional manifestation of itself, or stressing this authoritative/definitive nature if the meaning already includes it. For example, stems translatable as ‘symbol,’ ‘eat,’ ‘thought,’ and ‘a model’ in the INFORMAL would become ‘icon,’ ‘dine,’ ‘idea,’ and ‘archetype’ in the FORMAL.

The FORMAL achieves several subtle purposes from a lexico-semantic standpoint. While some Ithkuil words would translate the same in English no matter which designation (e.g., to hurt, to float, breath, to fall, shade, sleep, cough), many stems would have different translations in English depending on their designation. For example, the stem qum with the affiliated meanings person group gathering throng, etc. in the INFORMAL designation would change to the following series of approximate translations when placed in the FORMAL designation: official team association/congregation masses, etc.

Further examples of lexical shifts in translation due to INFORMAL FORMAL designation are listed below:

  to grow something to cultivate wander travel
  obtain/get procure/requisition lake reservoir
  (natural) holder container see observe
  to create construct/build heap pile
  animal domesticated animal a thought an idea
  natural environment “man-made” environment awareness consciousness
  [natural] exchange trade/commerce house home
  assortment of animals zoo collection grouping set
  to group/gather collect wall barrier
  get some exercise to work out placidity peace
  problem situation crisis to populate to settle

As can be seen from the above list, the exact interpretation of Designation for each word-root is specific to each word-root, depending on its associated semantic context.



Essence refers to a two-fold morphological distinction which has no counterpart in Western languages. It is best explained by reference to various English language illustrations. Compare the following pairs of English sentences:

1a) The boy ran off to sea.
1b) The boy who ran off to sea didn’t run off to sea.

2a) The dog you saw is to be sold tomorrow.
2b) The dog you saw doesn’t exist.

Sentences (1a) and (2a) appear to be straightforward sentences in terms of meaning and interpretation. However, at first blush, sentences (1b) and (2b) appear nonsensical, and it is not until we consider specialized contexts for these sentences that they make any sense. For example, (1b) would make sense if being spoken by an author reporting a change of mind about the plot for a story, while (2b) makes sense when spoken by a puzzled pet store owner in whose window you earlier saw a dog that is now no longer there.

Why sentences such as (1b) and (2b) can have possible real-world meaning is because they in fact do not make reference to an actual boy or dog, but rather to hypothetical representations of a real-world boy and dog, being used as references back to those real-world counterparts from within an “alternative mental space” created psychologically (and implied linguistically) where events can be spoken about that are either unreal, as-yet-unrealized, or alternative versions of what really takes place. This alternative mental space, then, is essentially the psychological realm of both potential and imagination. In Western languages, such an alternative mental space is implied by context or indicated by certain lexical signals. One such group of lexical signals are the so-called “modal” verbs of English, e.g., must, can, should, etc. as seen in the following:

3) You must come home at once.
4) That girl can sing better than anybody.
5) We should attack at dawn.

Each of the above three sentences describe potential events, not actual real-world happenings that are occurring or have occurred. For example, in Sentence (3) no one has yet come home nor do we know whether coming home is even possible, in Sentence (4) the girl may never sing a single note ever again for all we know, and Sentence (5) gives us no information as to whether any attack will actually occur.

  The Normal
  The Representative

The Ithkuil category of Essence explicitly distinguishes real-world actualities from their alternative, imagined or potential counterparts. The two essences are termed NORMAL and REPRESENTATIVE, the former being the default essence denoting real-world nouns and verbs, the latter denoting alternative counterparts. By marking such counterparts explicitly, Ithkuil allows a speaker to express any noun or verb as referring to a real-world versus alternative manifestation, without having the listener infer such from an explanatory context.

Essence is morpho-phonologically marked by primary versus secondary mode of vocalic mutation, as previously described in Sec. 2.2.3 and fully illustrated in Sec. 2.5. The NORMAL is marked by the primary mode while the REPRESENTATIVE is marked by secondary mode.

3.8.2 Examples of Essence in Use



Proceed to Chapter 4: Case Morphology >>

5a Verb Morphology
9 Syntax
5b Verb Morphology (continued)
10 Lexico-Semantics
1 Phonology
6 More Verb Morphology
11 The Script
  2 Morpho-Phonology  7a Using Affixes 12 The Number System
   3 Basic Morphology 7b Using Affixes (continued) The Lexicon
  4 Case Morphology   8 Adjuncts Revised Ithkuil: Ilaksh

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