Thursday, December 20, 2012

If we stamp out ambiguity, Bob Mankoff wonders (while setting fire to his own straw man), is there room left for humor?


by Ken

I've started reading it, and have every expectation, or at least hope. of someday finishing it, or anyways reading more of it, but as New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff explains in his newsletter-blogpost this week, "ÇA ÜŠLÁ," in this week's issue Joshua Foer has a piece, "Utopian for Beginners," about a language called Ithkuil, which was "created from scratch" (as Bob puts it) by amateur linguish John Quijada.

I've read far enough to know that to the considerable puzzlement of Mr. Quijada, interest in Ithkuil is off the charts in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. There might be some humor in that, but this isn't where Bob's interest, even concern, lies.

"The aim of Ithkuil," Bob summarizes, "is to be both as precise and as concise as possible [generally speaking, highly contradictory goals, Foer explains -- Ed.], in order to eliminate, to the maximum degree, the 'ambiguity, vagueness, illogic, redundancy, polysemy (multiple meanings)' that form the unplanned evolutionary heritage of all natural languages." (Above we have another Bruce E. Kaplan cartoon, which Bob offers apparently as a sample of all those nasty things Ithkuil seems aimed at doing away with.)

What concerns Bob is that, as Joshua Foer explains, "In Ithkuil ambiguity is quashed in the interest of making all that is implicit explicit."
Which left me wondering [Bob writes] if this quashing of ambiguity left any room for humor. Ambiguity is a joke’s main weapon, lying in wait in the setup to ambush the listener in the punch line, as in this Steven Wright classic.
Setup: It’s a small world… (Usual interpretation: you meet the same people in unexpected places.)
Punch line: …but I wouldn’t want to paint it. (Literal interpretation of the phrase.)
Bob then devotes more attention than most of us require to explaining how important ambiguity is to cartooning. We'll skip to the example he offers, a Danny Shanahan "classic":

Bob acknowledges that he may be unfairly characterizing Ithkuil -- in fact caricaturing it. "Because, broadly speaking, caricaturization, which involves simplification, exaggeration, and distortion is what I do for a living. And he offers in evidence this cartoon of his own:

Bob went so far as to query the master of Ithkuil himself, and Mr. Quijada "was nice enough to respond, although he was wary that my intention was just to poke fun at his creation for being funless. Goodness gracious, believe me, nothing could be closer to the truth."

But no, Bob determines --
to look at the issue from Mr. Quijada's point of view, which is basically that I've created a straw man and then lit him on fire. To wit, Ithkuil is not intended to supplant natural languages but (hypothetically) to supplement them in specialized contexts where there is a need for completely precise, unobfuscatory language, such as in science, court testimony, philosophy, and the recounting of history.

I'll leave it to the scientists, jurists, and historians to weigh in on that.
In his august New Yorker chair Bob of course has access to the whole of the New Yorker community, and so he had a weigh-in from article author Joshua Foer as well.
As for jokes, Joshua Foer told me that he didn’t think Quijada aspired for anyone to tell a traditional joke in Ithkuil. So, if no one ever does tell an Ithkuil joke, we can't fault Quijada for that. But he did supply me with a useful Ithkuil phrase -- Ça üšlá -- which means "It's a joke" in a language that doesn't aspire to have any.
You might want to make a note of that in case you find yourself in a situation where it comes in handy.

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At 5:09 AM, Blogger John said...

Science has it's own languages. So substitute for it, on the list of types of human communication logically handled by Ithkuil, ALL political talk.

John Puma

At 7:04 AM, Anonymous Bil said...

GREAT post Ken.

I wish I knew how I really felt about it.


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