Ithkuil: A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language




Home   Introduction 4 Case Morphology 8 Adjuncts 12 The Number System
FAQs   1 Phonology 5 Verb Morphology 9 Syntax List of Abbreviations
Links of Interest   2 Morpho-Phonology 6 More Verb Morphology 10 Lexico-Semantics The Lexicon
    3 Basic Morphology 7 Suffixes 11 The Writing System Texts


Update: The Ithkuil Grammar Is Now Available in Book Form!    



These webpages present the grammar of an artificially constructed human language, Ithkuil.  It has been designed with the following goals in mind:

  1. The findings of cognitive science and cognitive linguistics since the 1980s show that human cognition gives rise to and processes far more information than is overtly expressed by natural human languages.  Theoretically, it should be possible to design a human-usable language that overtly expresses more (or “deeper”) levels/aspects of human cognition than are found in natural human languages.
  1. Natural human languages are notorious for their semantic ambiguity, polysemy (multiple meanings for a given word), semantic vagueness, inexactitude, illogic, redundancy, and overall arbitrariness.  Theoretically, it should be possible to design the language to minimize these various characteristics in favor of greater semantic precision, exactitude, and specification of a speaker’s cognitive intent.
  1. The above two goals would seemingly demand that the resulting language be long-winded, since individual words of the language (or at least any sentence as a whole) would have to convey much more morpho-semantic content than their natural language counterparts.  Nevertheless, it should theoretically be possible to accomplish the above two goals while achieving relatively concise morpho-phonological forms for words.  In other words, to be able to pack a lot of meaning and information into a relatively small number of syllables.

Ithkuil represents the culmination of my attempts over a period of thirty years or so to achieve the above goals. It should be noted that Ithkuil is NOT intended to function like a “natural” human language. Ithkuil exists as an exercise in exploring how human languages could function, not how human languages do function.


How the Language Works

Ithkuil’s ability to express extensive cognitive detail in a concise manner is possible due to the design of the grammar, essentially a matrix of grammatical concepts and structures designed for compactness, cross-functionality and reusability. This matrix-like grammar is combined with a vocabulary/lexicon of semantic stems which (1) are capable of a high degree of flexibility and synergism within that matrix, (2) have been completely reconceptualized from the cognitive level up regardless of their correspondence to actual word roots and grammatical categories in existing languages, and (3) reflect the inherent dependencies and interrelationships between one semantic concept and another. Therefore, the morphemes of the language (i.e., word-roots, suffixes, prefixes, grammatical categories, etc.) are as phonetically brief as possible, function in multiple roles with one another, and correspond more closely to human cognitive categories than in natural languages. In this fashion, a limited number of sounds and word-roots can be made to generate a vast array of variations and derivations corresponding to and even surpassing all of the grammatical and semantic functions of the usual stock of words, phrases, and idiomatic constructions in natural languages.

Additionally, the particular grammatical categories of the language, combined with a systematic and hierarchical derivational morphology, allow for extreme transparency and flexibility in:

As an example of the morphological richness and efficiency possible in this language, examine the following Ithkuil sentence, comparing it to its literal English translation:

Tram-mļöi  hhâsmařpţuktôx.

On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point.’

NOTE: See Phonology, Section 1.2 on how to pronounce the Romanized orthography used to transliterate the Ithkuil characters.

The reader may well wonder why it takes a 19-word sentence in English to translate a two-word Ithkuil sentence. One might assume the sentence “cheats” in that the two Ithkuil words simply have innately intricate and specialized meanings. While it is true that the first word, tram-mļöi, translates as ‘on the contrary, it may turn out at some point (that...),’ and the second word, hhâsmařpţuktôx, means ‘I have a feeling this unevenly high range of mountains trails off,’ it would be quite erroneous to conclude that these are simply autonomous words one might theoretically find in an Ithkuil dictionary. Indeed, the only part of the sentence that represents any sort of “root” word is -âsm-, a stem more or less meaning ‘hill’ or ‘upland.’ The remainder of the sentence is made up entirely of morphological, not lexical components, i.e., prefixes, suffixes, infixes, vowel permutations, shifts in stress and tone, etc. For example, the first word, tram-mļöi, has three parts to it as shown below:






an affix indicating a rebuttal to an allegation, translatable as ‘on the contrary...’





an infix which conveys both aspectual information translatable as ‘it turns out (to be) that’ or ‘it is revealed that,’ plus subjunctive mood, translatable as  ‘(it) may (be that)...’





an aspectual suffix translatable as ‘at some point’ or ‘somewhere along the way’

The second word, hhâsmařpţuktôx, breaks down morphologically as follows:





an affix indicating a conclusion based on the speaker’s intuition, translatable as ‘I have a feeling (that)...’





a stem meaning ‘hill, upland,’ in turn derived from the root -sm- indicating the level of a landscape





an affix indicating (1) that the stem is to be re-interpreted as comprising a composite entity of non-identical members consolidated together into a single segmented whole (i.e., ‘hill’ becomes ‘uneven range of hills’), and (2) that the entity displays depletion (i.e., ‘trailing off’ or ‘petering out’)





a demonstrative suffix translatable as ‘this’ (= ‘the one in question’ or ‘the one at hand’)





a suffix indicating that the stem is to be interpreted as being very large in size, and furthermore, that the increase in size creates a new gestalt entity, i.e., not simply a ‘very large hill or upland’ but rather a ‘mountain’



stress on penultimate (i.e., second-from-last) syllable


provides partial information on how the stem specifically derives from its semantic root



falling tone (unmarked)


statement reflects an end-in-itself rather than a goal-oriented situation


In addition to its morphology, Ithkuil is different from other languages in the way its lexicon (stock of word-roots) has been created as well as in the principles underlying its lexico-semantics (the relationship between words and meaning). In natural languages, the choice as to what mental concepts and categories will be overtly reflected as word-roots and stems is arbitrary and unsystematic (while in most invented languages, the lexicon is by and large consciously or sub-consciously patterned after that of natural languages). While it is true that virtually all languages reflect certain basic universals of word choice (e.g., all have words for sun, moon, speak, mother, father, laugh, I, you, one, two, water, blood, black, white, hot, cold, etc.), the manner in which these words are created is haphazard and with little regard for basic conceptual interrelationships. The result, in most cases, is a plethora of separate, distinct word roots which bear no morpho-phonological, or morpho-semantic relation to one another (i.e., the patterns of sounds used to create particular words are unsystematic and independent for each word-root regardless of whether those word-roots are semantically or cognitively related to one another). Ithkuil word-roots have been created in a more efficient and systematic manner, with a recognition that the interrelatedness between what are large sets of discrete words in other languages can be formalized and systematized into a vast array or matrix of derivational rules, the result being a drastic reduction in the number of basic word-roots, which in turn allows all individual stems to be extremely compact phonologically-speaking.

For example, consider the following series of English words: see, sight, vision, glimpse, stare, gawk, view, panorama, look, eye, glance, visualize. Note how each of these is a separate, autonomous word despite the fact that it shares a single underlying semantic concept with the others (a concept which we can conveniently refer to as SIGHT/VISION), each representing a mere manipulation of either durational aspect, situational perspective, or manner of participation relating to that underlying concept. What is more, these manipulations are, by and large, haphazardly applied, vague, subjective, and particular to the specific underlying concept (i.e., the aspectual/perspectival manipulations applied to SIGHT/VISION do not parallel those manipulations applied to the concept TRANSFERENCE OF POSSESSION by which we derive the series give, take, receive, steal, donate, lend, borrow, send, etc.).

In Ithkuil, it is the seminal underlying concept which is lexified into a word-root which then undergoes a series of regular, predictable, and universally applicable modifications at the morphological (i.e., grammatical) level to generate new words that, in some cases, parallel such series of English words, but in most cases, far exceed the dynamism and range of such English word series.

Another principle underlying the formation of words in Ithkuil is complementarity. Western thought and language generally reflect Aristotelian logic in the way they conceptualize the world and the interrelationships between discrete entities in that world. Ithkuil, on the other hand, views the world as being based on complementary principles, where, instead of discrete independence between related entities, such concepts are seen as complementary aspects of a single holistic entity. Such complementarity is in turn reflected in the derivation of word-roots. By “complementarity” is meant that the manifestation of a concept appears in any given context as either one sort of entity or another, but never both simultaneously; yet, neither manifestation can be considered to be a discrete whole without the existence of the other. A simple illustration of complementarity is the flip of a coin: the coin can only land on one side or the other, yet without both sides being part of the coin, any given coin toss has no meaning or contextual relevance no matter which side is face-up.

For example, in Western languages, words such as male, night, limb, sit, and happen are all autonomous words, linguistically representing what are inherently considered to be basic mental concepts or semantic primitives. However, in Ithkuil, none of these words is considered to be a semantic primitive. Instead, they are seen to be parts of greater, more holistic semantic concepts, existing in complementary relationship to another part, the two together making up the whole.

Thus, Ithkuil lexical structure recognizes that the word male has no meaning in and of itself without an implicit recognition of its complementary partner, female, the two words mutually deriving from a more basic, holistic concept, translatable into English as living being. Similarly, the word night(time) derives along with its complement day(time) from the underlying concept translatable as day (24-hour period), while limb, along with its complement trunk or torso, derives from the stem (corporeal) body.

Actions, too, are not exempt from this principle of complementarity, an example being the relationship between sit and seat; one has no meaning without an implicit and joint partnership with the other, i.e., one cannot sit unless one sits upon something, and whatever one sits upon automatically functions as a seat. We see the awkward attempt of English to convey these jointly dependent but mutually exclusive perspectives when comparing the sentences Please sit down and Please be seated. Another example involves the word happen or occur, which Ithkuil recognizes as having no real meaning without the attendant implication of consequence or result, the two being complementary components of a holistic concept roughly translatable as event or situation.

The Ithkuil word for hole illustrates another instance of complementarity. Holes can be looked at from two different, but interrelated perspectives: either as an opening connecting two different spaces (or access point to a previously unavailable space, i.e., a pit), or as a discontinuity in the surface or structural integrity of the dividing entity separating the two realms. In other words, one can focus on the potential function or consequences of the hole, or on the structural nature of the hole. Either of these two perspectives represents a legitimate, but complementary way to consider a hole or puncture. Thus, the Ithkuil word would have two derivative roots each indicating one of these two perspectives. One such root would be used when saying There’s a hole in your shirt, while the other would be used when saying She saw me through a hole in the fence.

Ithkuil recognizes that such complementarity exists for virtually any concept, in fact that it is one of the foundational principles of the universe itself. No beam of light can be spoken of without implicit recognition of its source. No signal can be described without accounting for the signaling device. Indeed, in Ithkuil no river is without its channel, no surface without its firmament, no message without its medium, no sense impression without its sense faculty, no contents without their container, no occurrence without its consequence, no memory without its present effect, no plan without its purpose, no music without its playing, no relief without prerequisite deprivation, no pleasure without its absence, no motion without space in which to move.

Other principles underlying Ithkuil word-derivation include the interrelated principles of fuzzy logic, prototype theory, and radial categorization. Incorporation of these principles into the architecture for word-formation allows roots to be grouped into various types of affiliated sets, each of which then functions as a conceptual gestalt, the individual members of which being marked as having varying degrees and kinds of relatedness or similarity to a hypothetical prototype member or archetype. Thus, Ithkuil is able to systematically derive words such as crowd, mob, group, troop, club, association, assembly, and gathering all from the single root-word person. Similarly, words such as grove, orchard, forest, woods, jungle, and copse can all be derived from the single root-word tree.

As one last example exemplifying the dynamism and conciseness of Ithkuil lexico-semantics, consider the following list of English words and phrases: drenched, wet, damp, moist, near-dry, dry, parched. Rather than provide separate autonomous words for these concepts, Ithkuil recognizes that these terms all indicate relative degrees of moisture along a continuous range. Such continua would be addressed by a single root whose meaning more or less corresponds to [DEGREE OF] MOISTURE to which an array of simple suffixes would be added to specify the particular degree along that range, all the way from bone dry (or parched) through drenched to saturated. All such phenomena which Western languages tend to semantically delineate into binary oppositions (e.g., hard/soft, light/dark, shallow/deep, etc.) are recognized and lexified in Ithkuil as single roots which then systematically use suffixes to specify the particular degree along a continuous range.

The above paragraphs illustrate how Ithkuil is able to capture and systematically present at the morphological level what other languages accomplish haphazardly at the lexical level. By systematically finding and structuring the covert dependencies and interrelationships between what are disparate words in other languages, the hundreds of thousands of words in a language like English are drastically reduced down to the approximately 3600 word-roots of Ithkuil. This is morpho-lexical efficiency on a grand scale. Nevertheless, by means of the matrix-like morphological scheme previously described, each of these roots can in turn generate thousands of permutations to convey complex and subtle semantic distinctions and operations which dwarf the capacity of existing languages to convey without resorting to cumbersome paraphrase. This is lexico-semantic and morpho-semantic efficiency on an equally grand scale. Such a synergistic design for grammar lends a dynamism that allows the Ithkuil language to describe reality to a minute level of detail and exactitude despite a limited number of word-roots. This dynamism is visible throughout this work, but is discussed in systematic detail in Chapter 10: Lexico-Semantics.


Addressing the Vagueness Inherent in Natural Languages

To further illustrate the cognitive depth at which Ithkuil operates, consider one of the most pervasive aspects of natural human languages: semantic vagueness. For example, consider the following four English sentences:

(a) The boy rolled down the hill.
(b) Maybe she just stopped smoking.
(c) Joe didn’t win the lottery yesterday.
(d) There is a dog on my porch.

In examining these four sentences most native English speakers would deny that any vagueness exists. This is because the vagueness does not exist in terms of the overt meanings of the words themselves. Rather, the vagueness lies at the nearly subconscious level of their grammatical (or syntactical) relations and cognitive intent. For example, in sentence (a) we have no idea whether the boy chose to roll himself down the hill or whether he was pushed against his will. (In formal linguistic terms we would say it is unknown whether the semantic role of the subject ‘boy’ is as agent or patient.) And yet knowing which scenario is correct is crucial to understanding the speaker’s intent in describing the action.

Imagine sentence (b) Maybe she just stopped smoking being spoken as an answer to the question ‘Why does she seem so irritable?’ In interpreting sentence (b), we have no idea whether the subject is indeed a smoker or not; i.e., is the speaker offering this speculation because he/she knows the subject to be a smoker, or as mere conjecture without knowledge one way or the other whether the subject smokes or not?

Sentence (c) Joe didn’t win the lottery yesterday illustrates four-way ambiguity. Joe’s failure to win the lottery could be either because: the speaker knows Joe didn’t play; because the speaker knows Joe did play but lost; because the speaker doesn’t know whether Joe played or not and is simply voicing a conjecture; or because the statement is an inference based on some indirect clue (e.g., since Joe showed up for work today, he must not have won the lottery).

And while sentence (d) There is a dog on my porch seems on its surface to be the most straightforward of the four, is the intent of the speaker to simply describe and identify the participants to a scene, or does she wish to convey the idea that the scene has personal significance to her, e.g., because she has a phobia of dogs or has been waiting for a long-lost pet dog to return home? In other words, the sentence itself does not convey the intent behind the utterance, only the static description of the scene.

In all four instances, such vagueness exists unless and until the audience can ascertain information from the surrounding context of other sentences. This shows that, despite the fact that all four sentences are grammatically well-formed English sentences whose words in and of themselves are unambiguous, their grammar alone is insufficient to convey the cognitive information necessary to fully comprehend the intent of the speaker’s utterance. This failure of grammar to inherently convey the requisite information necessary to understand a speaker’s cognitive intent is a functional pitfall of human language in general which Ithkuil grammar has been designed to avoid. The Ithkuil equivalents to the above four sentences would mandatorily convey all of the “missing” information noted above without requiring any extra words not corresponding to the English originals. The grammatical elements of the words themselves (word-selection, declensions, conjugations, prefixes, suffixes, etc.) would convey all the elements mentioned.

Similar examples can be given to show the extent to which natural languages such as English must often resort to idiomatic expressions, metaphor, paraphrase, circumlocution and “supra-segmental” phenomena (e.g., changing the pitch of one’s voice) in their attempts to convey a speaker’s intended meaning. Ithkuil grammar has been designed to overtly and unambiguously reflect the intention of a speaker with a minimum of such phenomena.


Comparison to Other Constructed Languages

Those readers familiar with the history of artificial language construction might think this endeavor belated or unnecessary, in that logical languages such as James Cooke Brown’s renowned Loglan (or its popular derivative, Lojban) already exist. This serves to illustrate exactly what distinguishes Ithkuil from such previous attempts. Loglan was published in the 1950s as a spoken/written language based on symbolic logic (formally known as the first-order predicate calculus), an algorithmic system of symbol manipulation devised by mathematicians and logicians. As a result, one might think that such a language is the most capable means of achieving logical, unambiguous linguistic communication. However, Loglan and its derivatives are merely sophisticated tools for symbol manipulation, i.e., the levels of language known as morphology and syntax. It is not within the scope of such languages to address any reorganization of the semantic realm. This means that symbolic logic simply manipulates arguments which are input into the system, they do not analyze the origin of those arguments in terms of meaning, nor are they capable of analyzing or formalizing the structure of the cognitive or semantic realm of the human mind in terms of how meaning itself is assigned to arguments. (Indeed, Lojban derives its roots via statistical “sampling” of the most frequent roots in the six most spoken natural languages, a method virtually guaranteed to carry over into the Lojban lexicon all of the lexico-semantic inefficiencies previously described.) By not addressing these components of language, Loglan and similar efforts fail to address the inconsistencies and inefficiency inherent in language at the lexico-semantic level. Ithkuil has been designed to systematically address this issue.

Other readers might think of international languages (or “interlanguages”) such as Esperanto, Interlingua, or Ido, as being logical and efficient representations of language. However, these languages are merely simplified, regularized amalgamations of existing languages (usually Indo-European), designed for ease of learning. While addressing many overt irregularities, inconsistencies, and redundancies of language found at the morpho-phonological and morpho-syntactic levels, they do little to address the problems found within the other components of language, especially the lexico-semantic. For example, while Esperanto admirably employs systematic rules for word derivation as knabo ‘boy’ versus knabino ‘girl,’ it preserves the basic lexico-semantic categorization scheme of Indo-European languages in general, rather than seeking opportunities to expand such word derivation schemes into multidimensional arrays as is done in Ithkuil.

All in all, neither logical languages such as Loglan nor interlanguages such as Esperanto, are designed specifically to achieve the purpose of cognitive exactness and conciseness of communication which is the goal of Ithkuil. Actually, Ithkuil might more readily be compared with the analytical language of John Wilkins of the Royal Society of London, published in 1668, in which he divided the realm of human conception into forty categories, each containing a hierarchy of subcategories and sub-subcategories, each in turn systematically represented in the phonological structure of an individual word. While unworkable in terms of specifics, Wilkins’ underlying principles are similar in a simplistic way to some of the abstract derivational principles employed in Ithkuil lexico-morphology and lexico-semantics. Another comparable predecessor in a simplistic sense is the musical language, Solresol, created by Jean François Sudre and published in 1866.


A Brief History of the Language’s Development

The design of Ithkuil has slowly and painstakingly evolved from my early attempts as a teenager (following my introduction to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Charles Fillmore’s seminal 1968 article on case grammar) to explore beyond the boundaries of Western Indo-European languages to a complex, intricate array of interwoven grammatical concepts, many of which are wholly of my own creation, others of which have been inspired by such obscure linguistic sources as the morpho-phonology of Abkhaz verb complexes, the moods of verbs in certain American Indian languages, the aspectual system of Niger-Kordofanian languages, the nominal case systems of Basque and the Dagestanian languages, the enclitic system of Wakashan languages, the positional orientation systems of Tzeltal and Guugu Yimidhirr, the Semitic triliteral root morphology, and the hearsay and possessive categories of Suzette Elgin’s Láadan language, not to mention 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. The writings of the American cognitive linguists George Lakoff, Ronald Langacker, Gilles Fauconnier, and Len Talmy have been particularly influential on Ithkuil’s design.

The Ithkuil writing system likewise derives from both original and inspired sources: it employs a unique “morpho-phonemic” principle of my own invention, its logical design borrows from the mutational principles underlying the Ethiopic and Brahmi scripts, and its aesthetic visual design bears a superficial resemblance to Hebrew square script and the various Klingon fonts.

The first version of Ithkuil was originally posted to the Internet in early 2004.  A second, alternative version of the language called Ilaksh was posted during mid-2007, designed specifically to address the many requests for a version of the language with a simpler phonology (sound system). During the course of modifying the original version of Ithkuil into Ilaksh, I realized there were many aspects of Ilaksh design that could be incorporated back into Ithkuil without the constraints of Ilaksh on the number of consonants and vowels. This would (hopefully) allow the language to be more euphonic to the ear while maintaining its morpho-phonological conciseness. Additionally, hindsight has caused me to re-think a few fine points of the grammar, which this latest design allows me to incorporate into the language. 

Introduced in July 2011, this third incarnation of the language (which shall retain the name “Ithkuil” out of convenience and continuity with the original version), reflects these ideas and now constitutes what I consider to be the definitive (or “official”) version of the language. The name of the language is an anglicized form of the word iţkuîl, which means more or less hypothetical representation of a language in the original version of Ithkuil.


About the Grammar Presentation

This website provides a systematic presentation of the grammar of the language. In addition to a description of the various components of the grammar, the reader will find example phrases or sentences illustrating those components. The navigational links at the top and bottom of this page lead to chapters on the major grammatical components of the language and should be preferably read in sequence, as each chapter is cumulative and assumes knowledge of the preceding. While this grammar assumes only a basic knowledge of linguistic concepts, it will be helpful to briefly familiarize the reader with the hierarchical/schematic structure of human language in general, as the organization of this grammar is somewhat based around this structure. The analysis of human language can be organized into the following hierarchical schema of primary concepts:

The above components of language in turn operate in an interrelated fashion, combining to designate several additional or secondary levels of analysis. For example:

The interrelationships between these components can be illustrated by the following diagram.


Each example comprises an Ithkuil word, phrase, or sentence written in native Ithkuil script, accompanied by a Romanized transliteration, an English translation (sometimes divided into a “natural” versus literal translation), and a morphological analysis. The morphological analysis is presented serially, morpheme-by-morpheme, using three-letter abbreviations or labels for Ithkuil morphological categories. These labels are presented within the body of the work in conjunction with the explanation of each morphological category. A list of these abbreviations is also available on the main naviagtional menu at the top and bottom of each page of the site.

This work is not meant as a primer or means of self-instruction in speaking the language, a task beyond even its creator, given that Ithkuil may be perhaps the most grammatically complex language ever devised. Simplicity was not my purpose, but rather bridging the gap between extreme morphological dynamism, the overt reflection of human cognitive processes via language, and extreme morpho-semantic economy and efficiency. I believe I have achieved a result which is close to the ideal I sought. I leave it to the reader to explore that result.

My work on Ithkuil is dedicated to my brother Paul, in fond remembrance of Kccoj, Mbozo, and all the fun times we had growing up playing with language and linguistics. Aniamtrexu tanskbitero!

And I dedicate this new 2011 version of the language to Ms. Alla Vishneva, who teaches students about Ithkuil in Kyiv, Ukraine, and to whom my work is as important as it is to me. Дякую, Алла. Ти маєш рацію!

                                                                              —John Quijada
                                                                             July, 2011



Proceed to Chapter 1: Phonology >>





Home   Introduction 4 Case Morphology 8 Adjuncts 12 The Number System
FAQs   1 Phonology 5 Verb Morphology 9 Syntax List of Abbreviations
Links of Interest   2 Morpho-Phonology 6 More Verb Morphology 10 Lexico-Semantics The Lexicon
    3 Basic Morphology 7 Suffixes 11 The Writing System Texts


Cover of Ithkuil Grammar book


For those who would like a copy of the Ithkuil Grammar
in book form, it is now available!

And while you’re at it, you can check out the novel I co-
with my twin brother Paul, also now available!

(It’s a political thriller/science fiction story that explores the
philosophical implications of quantum physics, and features
Ithkuil as a “para-linguistic” interface to a quantum computer.)

Cover of "Beyond Antimony" by John & Paul Quijada




©2004-2011 by John Quijada. You may copy or excerpt any portion of the contents of this website for private, individual, or personal use which is non-commercial in nature and not for purposes of profit. Otherwise, you may copy or excerpt brief portions of the contents of this website in published, web-accessible, or commercially distributed articles, papers or webpages for purposes of review, commentary or analysis, provided you give full attribution to the author and this website.