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ptydepe

LEAR: Ptydepe, as you know, is a synthetic language, built on a strictly scientific basis. Its grammar is constructed with maximum rationality, its vocabulary is unsually broad. It is a thoroughly exact language, capable of expressing with far greater precision than any current natural tongue all the minutest nuances in the fomulation of important office documents. The result of this precision is of course the exceptional complexity and difficulty of Ptydepe.
(...)
And now, let us turn briefly to some of the basic principles of Ptydepe. The natural languages originated, as we know, spontaneously, uncontrollably, in other words, unscientifically, and their structure is thus, in a certain sense, dilettantish. As far as official communications are concerned, the most serious deficiency of the natural languages is their utter unreliability, which results from the fact that their basic structural units - words - are highly equivocal and interchangeable.
(...)
The significant aim of Ptydepe is to guarantee to every statement, by purposefully limiting all similarities between individual words, a degree of precision, reliability and lack of equivocation, quite unattainable in any natural language. To achieve this, Ptydepe makes use of the following postulation: if similarities between any two words [are] to be minimized, the words must be formed by the least probable combination of letters. This means that the creation of words must be based on such principles as would lead to the greatest possible redundancy of language.
(...)
How does, in fact, Ptydepe achieve its high redundancy? By a consistent use of the so-called principle of a sixty per cent dissimilarity; which means that any Ptydepe words must differ by at least sixty per cent of its letters from any other Ptydepe word of the same length. (...) Thus, for example, out of all the possible five-letter combinations of the 26 letters of our alphabet - and these are 11,881,376 - only 432 combinations can be found which differ from each other by three letters, i.e., by sixty per cent of the total. From these 432 combinations only 17 fulfill the other requirements as well and thus have become Ptydepe words. Hence it is clear that in Ptydepe there often occur words which are very long indeed.
(...)
But at the same time the length of a word - as indeed everything in Ptydepe - is not left to chance. You see, the vocabulary of Ptydepe is built according to an entirely logical principle: the more common the meaning, the shorter the word. Thus, for example, the most commonly used term so far known - that is the word "whatever" - is rendered in Ptydepe by the word "gh". As you can see, it is a word consisting of only two letters. There exists, however, an even shorter word - that is "f" - but this word does not yet carry any meaning. I wonder if any of you can tell me why. Well?

(Only THUMB raises his hand.)

LEAR: Well, Mr. Thumb?

THUMB (gets up): It's being held in reserve in case science should discover a term even more commonly used than the term "whatever."

LEAR: Correct, Mr. Thumb. You get an A.

- Václav Havel, from his play 'The Memorandum' (1966).

In Havel's bureaucratic hell, Franz Kafka meets Stefan Themerson when a new language is introduced which nobody understands but all except the main character, Gross, seem to support. Gross makes a humanist stand but is too much of an intellectual doubter to hold out. However, as Ptydepe is used, it starts to assume the "emotional overtones" and ambiguities of a natural language, and the bureaucrats soon realize that this will defeat its purpose. By that point we've been treated to some hilarious scenes, including a discussion of the different complicated ways to say "boo" in Ptydepe.

At the end of the play a new and better synthetic language is introduced, called Chorukor, which is based on an opposite principle: "the more similar the words, the closer their meaning; so that a possible error in the text represents only a slight deviation from its sense." (Ponder the ramifications of that one!)

Of course 'The Memorandum' must be seen in the context of the Communist turmoil in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. But its insight in the use of language in the dehumanization of bureaucracies - and by the same token, the essential force of language in any humanist project - is just as valid today.

Tom Stoppard characterized the bureaucracy depicted in 'The Memorandum' as "absurdities pushed to absurdity compounded by absurdity and yet saved from mere nonsense by their internal logic." It's not hard to find contemporary examples of such language-aided absurdities...

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