Ithkuil: A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language




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



Chapter 9: Syntax

  9.1 Topic, Focus and Pragmatic Relations
  9.2 Morpho-Semantic Considerations
  9.3 The “Carrier” Root

Syntax refers to the rules for sequencing the order of words within a phrase or sentence, including rules permitting more than one possible sequential ordering of words. To understand the following discussion of Ithkuil syntax it is necessary to have a cursory understanding of the notions of semantic role, pragmatic role, and grammatical (or syntactical) relations:

In general, the syntax of a language either (1) establishes the permissible grammatical relations of the language, (2) reflects and/or reinforces semantic roles, (3) reflects and/or reinforces pragmatic roles, or (4) any combination of these. As one might surmise from the above, English syntax is weighted heavily toward establishing grammatical relations at the near-total expense of identifying semantic roles. As for pragmatic roles, English rarely reflects these in its syntax (one exception is the strong tendency for placing wh- question words in sentence-initial position in specialized questions, even if they represent a direct object, e.g., What have you done? or Who[m] are they talking about?), however, such roles do tend to be marked “supra-segmentally” by inflection of vocal pitch and tone of voice.

We have already seen the extreme to which Ithkuil uses noun cases to mark semantic roles morphologically as opposed to syntactically. And since grammatial relations in and of themselves are relatively arbitrary within language, Ithkuil uses word order primarily to accomplish pragmatic relations, i.e., to indicate the topic and/or focus of a sentence. Additionally, Ithkuil does have a few word order constraints necessary to ensure avoidance of ambiguity in determining which nouns lie in apposition to their head, and which words of a compound sentence lie within a case-frame as opposed to outside the case-frame. The specifics of Ithkuil word order are explained in Section 9.1 below.



The concept of semantic focus refers to what information in an utterance is to be considered new information, while the semantic topic is the background context already known or implied. 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, i.e. the topic. In answering the second question, the verbal phrase ‘jump through’ would have focus while both the dog and the hoops would be the topic. In answering the third question, it would be ‘my dog’ that carries the focus while jumping through hoops would be the topic. 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 word-order to accomplish the same options that such vocal inflections accomplish in English. In Ithkuil, the element with focus is placed immediately before the verb. As for the topic of the sentence, this is shown by placing it as the first element in a sentence. If there is no overt topic or focus, the verb will appear as the first word in the sentence. Examples:

Euspoigrataì  ekšúl  břatļ.

DYN-[inc.stem: ‘buy’]-consume/ingest’-NRM/DEL/U/CSL/UNI-IFL-PRT    STA-‘clown’-IND-NRM/DEL/M/CSL/UNI-FML   

The clown bought some clams and consumed them. (No topic or focus)          LISTEN 


Ekšúl  euspoigrataì  břatļ.

STA-‘clown’-IND-NRM/DEL/M/CSL/UNI-FML     DYN-[inc.stem: ‘buy’]-consume/ingest’-NRM/DEL/U/CSL/UNI-IFL-PRT  

It was the clown who bought some clams and consumed them. (The clown is the focus)


Břatļ  ekšúl  euspoigrataì.

DYN-[inc.stem: ‘buy’]-consume/ingest’-NRM/DEL/U/CSL/UNI-IFL-PRT

As for the clams, it was the clown who bought and consumed them. (The clams are the topic; the clown is the focus)


9.1.1 Abbreviated Sentences Using Focus and Topicalization

Focus and topicalization allow Ithkuil, as with other languages, to provide abbreviated sentences in direct answer to commands, questions, or to comment on a topic already under discussion. Because the topic is already known within the contextual discourse, only the portion of the new sentence carrying semantic focus need be spoken. Similarly, the topicalization suffix in conjunction with the INTERROGATIVE illocution, allows for abbreviated inquiries within a known contextual discourse, similar to such abbreviated sentences in English, e.g., ‘and Bill?’ in lieu of the full sentence ‘Comment on how this applies to Bill.’


9.1.2 Word-order within Case-Frames

Within a case-frame (see Section 5.4), the verb always appears in initial position to identify the clause as a case frame (using FRAMED Relation in the verb). Because of this, it becomes necessary to utilize the focusing and sequencing affixes from Sec. 7.4.13 to identify elements which carry focus or are topicalized within the case-frame. Additionally, the last noun within the case-frame will usually take the -Vt’ in degree 2, 6, 7, or 9 (see Sec. 7.4.13) to signify the end of the case-frame, unless this is clear without the suffix (e.g., because the case-frame is in sentence-final position).


9.1.3 Additional Constraints in Word Order

The following additional word-order constraints exist in order to avoid potential ambiguity or semantic incoherence.


9.1.4 Phonotactically-Induced Syntactic Modifications

As mentioned above, word-order can shift in an Ithkuil sentence to accommodate phonotactic or phonaesthetic ends, i.e., for purposes of euphony. This is because suffixes on a formative, as well as morphemes associated with categories of Aspect and Bias can be moved to verbal adjuncts or transformed into autonomous adjuncts (see Sections 6.3, 8.2, 8.3, and 8.4). As words of six syllables or more are generally undesirable, any formative with numerous affixes is potentially subject to having several of its morphemes redistributed to adjuncts.


Ar-ryigrawileiţrar  eglulôn.
Çtar-rya  eirţ  igralar  eglulôn.
HOR/PPS/CTX-PCL    EXT2/6    DYN-‘eat food’-NRM/DEL/M/CSL/UNI-NA11/5-IFL     STA-‘illness’-IND-NRM/DEL/M/CSL/UNI-AGC2/7-IFL

If only the physician wouldn’t eat his food in one gulp like that.

When ordering such phonaesthetically-induced adjuncts, it is important that they can be easily associated with the formative to which they apply. Generally, this means that they will be adjacent to the formative, or occur on either side of other adjuncts associated with the formative.

9.1.5 Iconicity

English and other languages generally display phrase-structure patterns and word-order patterns which reinforce, or even reflect, a cognitive understanding of what is being described, i.e., the order of the words themselves reflects information about how we are to understand the utterance. Such a phenomenon is known as iconicity. In English and other Western languages, the most common way in which iconicity is manifested is what is termed “sequential order iconicity,” the idea that the actual sequential order of words in a phrase or sentence reflects the sequential order of the events they describe. For example, the phrases ‘eye it, try it, buy it,’ ‘I came, I saw, I conquered,’ or ‘dine and dash’ describe sequential events where the sequence of the words reflect the sequence of the events. What is most important is that re-ordering of the words either changes the meaning of the phrase or leads to semantic nonsense, e.g., ‘buy it, eye it, try it’ implies that a different sequence of events actually takes place than ‘eye it, try it, buy it.’ This can be more dramatically illustrated with the following pair of sentences.

1) Jane got married and had a baby.
2) Jane had a baby and got married.

In English, the ambiguous word ‘and’ is interpreted as connecting a sequence of events, i.e., ‘and’ is interpreted to mean sequential ‘then’ (= ‘and following that,’ ‘then next’ or ‘then later’). As a result, the meanings of the two sentences imply very different social interpretations about Jane.

Besides the reflection of sequential order, other types of word-order iconicity are possible. For example, compare the subtle difference in meaning between the following two sentences:

3) Sam painted the fence white.
4) Sam painted the white fence.

In the first sentence, we do not know what color the fence was prior to being painted, or even if it was a new fence that had never been painted before. In the second sentence, not only do we know what color the fence had been, but also that it was not previously unpainted, however, we do not necessarily know what its new color is. This sort of iconicity is used to convey a resultative state of affairs, i.e., by placing the adjective ‘white’ after the word ‘fence’ (seemingly in violation of the usual adjective-before-noun word order used in English), we describe a resulting state of affairs.

Yet another type of word-order iconicity is displayed in comparing the following two sentences.

5) Loretta gave Sue a wedding gift.
6) Loretta gave a wedding gift to Sue.

Most grammar textbooks would state that these two sentences are semantically equivalent, the first employing a “ditransitive” pattern (i.e., juxtaposing an indirect object ‘Sue’ with a direct object ‘wedding gift’), while the second uses a “complement” pattern in which the indirect object follows the direct object and is changed to a prepositional phrase using ‘to.’ However, there is a subtle semantic distinction between the two sentences. The first strongly implies that the wedding gift is for Sue, i.e., Sue is the bride and intended recipient. The second sentence, however, invites the possibility that Sue is only a temporary or circumstantial goal for the act of giving, but not the bride and intended recipient. For example, if Sue is merely a guest at the wedding and Loretta needed Sue’s help carrying an armload of wedding gifts, she might give a wedding gift to Sue, but that does not mean she would give Sue a wedding gift. This type of iconicity distinguishing a recipient from a directional goal is an example of what is termed “distance iconicity,” because the two linked words are made more “distant” from each other in the sentence as a reflection of their more circumstantial association.

Ithkuil does not display iconicity. While the order of words in an Ithkuil phrase or sentence may coincidentally reflect a temporal or causative sequence of events, this is not by syntactic design. Because of the myriad means available in Ithkuil to morphologically distinguish sequence, cause-and-effect, resulting states, and the distinction of recipients from directional goals, no iconicity patterns are required.

For example, we saw in sentences (1) and (2) above how English ‘and’ can be used to convey not just mere coordination, but also a sequencing function. In Sections 7.4.3 and 7.4.4, we saw that Ithkuil has no less than thirty-six suffixes (four suffix categories, each with nine different degrees) which convey various coordinative and sequencing patterns with great specificity. Thus, Ithkuil has no morpheme directly equivalent to the ambiguous English word ‘and.’ There is an affix corresponding to ‘and’ in its use as a mere additive listing device (e.g., ‘pears and apples and bananas’), another corresponding to its use as an indicator of simultaneity (e.g., I clenched my fists and scowled), another corresponding to its use as an indicator of additional information (e.g., The clown likes children and loves to eat), another to its use as an indicator of parallel description or activity (e.g., We went dancing and so did they), and yet another as a temporal sequencing indicator (e.g., I went to the window and looked out).



It should be noted that when structuring an Ithkuil sentence, particularly when translating from other languages such as English, care must be given to avoid capturing irrelevant semantic information reflected by the morphology of the source language and trying to find an equivalent or parallel way to reflect those irrelevancies in the Ithkuil sentence. This can have a profound effect on the morpho-syntactical structure of the resulting Ithkuil sentence.


9.2.1 Arbitrary Delineations of Perspective or Point of View

One area where word-choice in English and other Western languages arbitrarily affects sentence structure is in the unintentional schematicization of a particular perspective or point of view. For example, consider the following pair of sentences in English.

1) The path climbs steeply out of the canyon.
2) The path descends steeply into the canyon.

Both of these sentences are describing the same property of the path — its steepness. The distinction in the sentences comes from the point of view being reflected by the speaker. In sentence (1) the implied point of view is from the bottom of the canyon upward, while in sentence (2) the viewpoint is from the top of the canyon downward. What is important is that, semantically, the point of view is of no relevance to the steepness of the path per se. So if the cognitive intent of the utterance is simply to describe the vertical gradient of the path within the canyon, there would be only one Ithkuil translation for both of these sentences, eschewing the point of view entirely and restating the sentence to read:

Ûb  eikkradwa  smou’olâxh.
EXN1/6     DYN-‘move.along.obliquely.vertical.path.between.two.points’-RPV/PRX/N/CSL/UNI-IFL      STA-‘valley’-NAV-NRM/DEL/M/CSL/UNI-SCO2/5-IFL
The path through the canyon is steep.          LISTEN 


9.2.2 Masking of Semantic or Participatory Roles

Similarly, care must be made, when comparing Ithkuil sentence structure with other languages, to note that Ithkuil grammar allows for a more overt reflection of the underlying semantic roles inherent in a given sentence. As a result, sentence structures in Western languages which “mask” potentially anomalous semantic structures are avoided in Ithkuil. For example, compare the following pairs of sentences.

  3a) He supplied a report to the analyst. 4a) She applied a solvent to the stain.
  3b) He supplied the analyst a report. 4b) *She applied the stain a solvent.

The syntactical patterns of these two pairs of sentences are identical, yet the word-order in sentence (4b) is ungrammatical (as indicated by the asterisk), while the same word-order in sentence (3b) presents no problem. The underlying reason for the difference is one of semantic role. While ‘analysts’ can function in the role of Recipients, ‘stains’ cannot (they are merely directional Goals, i.e., where the solvent gets applied). Cognitively, stains cannot “possess” a solvent the way analysts can “possess” a report. In Ithkuil, the semantic roles would be clearly defined by the case-markings of the participants. Therefore, syntactically inconsistent pairs such as (3b) and (4b) do not occur.

Sometimes, rather than semantic role, it is a participant’s relationship to an underlying clause that presents the problem. For example, He’s a tall president means ‘He’s a president who is tall.’ So why doesn’t He’s a likely president mean ‘*He’s a president who is likely’? The reason is that, while ‘tall’ describes its adjacent referent ‘president,’ ‘likely’ does not describe its adjacent referent. Rather, ‘likely’ describes an underlying process in which that referent is or will be engaged, i.e., ‘running for president.’ Therefore, while these two sentences are morpho-syntactically identical in English, their Ithkuil translations are quite different from one another morpho-syntactically:


Qi  alkaţeins  eádrai’seumi.

ma-AFF     STA-‘height’-NRM/DEL/N/CSL/UNI-PTT2/6-IFL     MNF-FRAMED/FML-‘preside/govern’-COR-NRM/PRX/M/CSL/UNI-ROL2/4-FNC
He’s a tall president.
[literally: There is much height to him who formally presides.]          LISTEN 


Qa    eadramtôçqeumí.

ma-OBL        MNF-‘preside/govern’-NRM/ICP/M/CSL/UNI-PRB2/7-ROL2/4-FNC-FML
He’s a likely president.
[literally: He is one who probably will begin to formally preside.]          LISTEN 


9.2.3 Negation

Negation is another morpho-semantic area where translation from English or other Western languages can be tricky. Consider the English sentence Shelly doesn’t think they like her cooking. Note this sentence does not mean what a literal word-for-word analysis implies, i.e., ‘That they like her cooking is not something that Shelly is thinking.’ Rather, the correct meaning is ‘Shelly thinks that they don’t like her cooking.’ Ithkuil is very precise in specifying exactly what components of a sentence are to be negated. Use of the four affirmation/negation affixes from Section 7.4.9 in conjunction with a formative carries very specific information as to what morphological components of a sentence are being affirmed or negated and to what degree. Using these four affixes alone, Ithkuil can distinguish between the following four sentences without any syntactic rearrangement of the words:

I don’t want to begin singing.

I’m beginning to not want to sing.

I want to not begin singing.

I’m beginning to want to not sing.

Thus when translating negative sentences into Ithkuil, care must be taken to not syntactically “rearrange” a sentence as with Shelly doesn’t think they like her cooking. Additionally, Ithkuil makes a morpho-semantic distinction not found in Western languages: the difference between absolute negation and relative negation. Absolute negation implies that the non-existence or non-occurrence of an entity, state, or event is due to contextual inapplicability, while relative negation indicates that the non-existence or non-occurrence is circumstantial. This distinction is illustrated in the two sentences below:

Ilmaţár  êqeil.
The woman doesn’t sing [even though she can, i.e., she chooses not to].


Ilmàţîr  êqeil.

The woman doesn’t sing [because she can’t, i.e., she is mute].



Since the Ithkuil declensional and conjugational system is based on multiple patterns of vowel mutation, affixation, and shifts in tone and stress, proper nouns such as personal and place names, as well as non-Ithkuil words from other languages are by nature morpho-phonologically incompatible with such as system. Nevertheless, such words can be declined or conjugated like any other Ithkuil formative by means of the “carrier” root -p-. In addition to this use, the carrier root is employed in certain other contexts as well, as described below.

9.3.1 Words that Cannot Take Affixes or Be Mutated

The three primary stems of the carrier root, (a)p-, ep-, up-, are respectively associated with animate beings (the two complementary derivatives op- and âp- being humans versus non-humans or figuratively/metaphorically animate entities); inanimate entities (the two complementary derivatives öp- and êp- being objectively concrete entities versus subjective entities such as thoughts, emotions, sensations, etc.); and finally intangible abstract referents (the two complementary derivatives îp-/ûp- and ôp- being place names and abstractions). The carrier stem is placed immediately before the proper noun or foreign word or phrase, then declined or conjugated normally for any desired morphological categories, even verbal categories. The proper noun or foreign word or phrase itself is left unchanged. The non-Ithkuil word or phrase is pronounced with either high or rising tone on its last syllable, in order to clue the listener that the following syllable/word returns to being Ithkuil. For those rare instances where the non-Ithkuil word or phrase natively carries grammatical tone (e.g., properly pronounced Cantonese), the end of the phrase can be indicated by either a pause in speech or repetition of the carrier-stem following the phrase. (Note: this repeated carrier-stem would not be indicated in writing - see Sec. 11.4.)

9.3.2 Emphasizing or Highlighting a Particular Category

Another use of the carrier root is to emphasize or topicalize a particular affix or grammatical element associated with a word. For example, in English we can say ‘a big house’ with extra intonation on the word ‘big’ to emphasize that word. To accomplish such emphasis in Ithkuil, the carrier root is used with the augmentative suffix in conjunction with the noun ‘house’ as opposed to simply using the augmentative suffix on the stem for ‘house.’ No change in vocal pitch or intonation is required, as the grammatically unnecessary use of the carrier root serves to accomplish the required emphasis. Any morphological category manifested by a carrier root rather than an adjunct or mutation serves to emphasize that category. (It should be noted that the use of optional combination and euphonic adjuncts do not accomplish such emphasis. Their use versus non-use imparts no difference in emphasis for the particular morphological categories contained in the adjunct.)

9.3.3 Titles of Address

It should be noted that the use of the carrier root in front of the names of persons serves to function as a title of address corresponding to English Mister, Ms. or Miss. There is no distinction of gender or marital status conveyed by the term.


Proceed to Chapter 10: Lexico-Semantics >>




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