In the constructed language Ithkuil, entire sentences can be said in a single word. It does this using stress, tones, volume, etc., in the word to make it as dense as humanly possible.

Has Ithkuil has reached the limit of density in language?

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    $\begingroup$ I think the limit is not in the language but in ability for the brain to process it. That's just a hunch unworthy of an answer though. $\endgroup$ – PatJ Feb 1 '17 at 22:11
  • $\begingroup$ You can't reliably use volume, unless they live in closed, isolated households with constant amount of noise - which is unlikely. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Feb 1 '17 at 22:13
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    $\begingroup$ Languages like Japanese are "dense". ex: One 5 stroke character can carry an abstract meaning as well as 4 different possible readings. Which reading to use depends on the character that follows it. A language does not necessarily need "tones". $\endgroup$ – Just Someone Feb 1 '17 at 22:57
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    $\begingroup$ Do you mean how much bandwidth can the human voice express as Zxyrra addresses, or how much can be communicated with little information, as LSerni’s comment gets into? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Feb 2 '17 at 0:12
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    $\begingroup$ The big question is how do you define a word? Polysynthetic languages agglomerate morphemes into long "words". In languages such as French the words are separated in writing, but the pronounciation of meaningful groups is continuous -- for example what is written "on a laissé la fenêtre ouverte" (the window was left open) is pronounced [ɔ̃nalɛselafˌnɛːtχuˈvɛχt]. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 2 '17 at 8:36


There are many more ways to make a language complex - as long as the mind can keep up.

  • Stress / tones
  • Meter (is there a beat to it? ex 1-2 1-2 1-2 vs 1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2-3)
  • Volume / dynamics
  • Pitch (or note if language is sung)
  • Articulation
  • Phrasing (where you take a breath, general swells and falls)
  • Facial expressions and all their own complexity
  • Body language
  • Movement / actions (may include a sign language?)
  • Percussive movements (drumming) as well as whistling, etc
  • Physical location
  • Context (words around it)
  • Context (formal, informal, however acquainted you are with the audience)
  • Inferred vs literal meanings
  • Personal views and opinions (ex. different words if you're happy or the subject is positive)
  • A word could exist for every possible meaning - perhaps a longer education is needed to form them all, but potentially you could just invent a simple word for each complex thought
  • Alternatively every word could have its own letter, so that "words" are actually sentences. Play with the definitions.

  • If the speakers are not necessarily humans, you open up the possibility of other forms of communication, so words may be compressible even further.

Feel free to edit if I've missed anything, but in general, language can be complicated as long as it can be understood by the speaker and the recipient - as @PatJ said in the comments.

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    $\begingroup$ If we had memory enough, and time, we could learn a large corpus of dramas, comedies, tragedies, etc., covering almost everything that can conceivably happen in a lifetime (and keep basic child's language for the other cases) and refer to very complex situations with a short quotation. Mirab, with sails unfurled. $\endgroup$ – LSerni Feb 1 '17 at 23:54

You can actually entirely take away words all together and still be able to communicate. Cats for example, only develop meowing to be able to get human attention. 99% of cat to cat communication is actually through non verbal means, as Zxyrra listed off with body language. To some extend, humans too can have conversations without using any words (and no sign-language) by the way someone is acting, breathing, moving, standing.

So I agree that, language can be very simplified or compacted/dense as you want it to be. hell, you can even say that text language is a simplified version of english. ILY, BRB, LOL, BRT, OMW, AFK, WTF, OMG and so on are all examples of taking phrases or sentences and compacting it to a short reply. There are tribal languages too that go off of tongue clicks. I mean you can say A LOT in a short period of time if you can really roll that tongue and can probably be considered one of the more "dense" ways of communicating without speaking full sentences as we know it.

The real question though that you are trying to ask I feel is if having whole sentences be represented by 1 word be the most optimal form of verbal/written communication. The answer is Yes and no. Be right there is a short phrase. We have further shortened it to BRT. In your world ILYSM is a word that may represent a whole sentence (i love you so much), however this word is then tied to another word ILYSM TYFEYD (thank you for everything you do). This over time and evolution of your language may then be condensed further to ILTY to create a more effective and efficient way of communicating and thus a new iteration of your language is born. This iteration will keep happening over the generations. Look at what old languages like latin and hebrew did for modern day languages. Parts of the words are fused together to make new words in english. Now in english, we are fusing words together into letters.

So my point is that, everything can be optimized to the best of current known abilities, but over time, there is always a way for things to be changed and be made "more optimized".

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Zxyrra’s points mostly cover how much bandwidth can be expressed, but he also mentions context which is how much can be communicated with little information.

Let’s look at the limits of both. Bandwidth is limited by the receiver. No matter whether it’s adding body language or more tones or whatnot, you are limitee in how many bits of sensory input can be paid attention to.

As for context, LSerni sums it up nicely with his comment. Formally, this was studied by Shannon, Huffman, and others just before the computer era. Given a maximum sized shared dictionary (human memory limits) and a shared perfect ascessment of the probabilities of what might be said next, a minimal representation (in bits or nits) can be calculatee for that symbol.

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The answer depends on what you mean by "word". In addition to all of the different channels for transmitting information that can be layered simultaneously (for which Zxyrra's answer will give you the scope of possibilities), there is also how long these different channels can go on before you call for the end of a word. Having learned a bit of German, I've indulged in the amusement of stringing together as many thoughts as possible into one word (which German allows).

There is also the issue of eliminating ambiguity. There cannot be too many instances where words with different meanings can be mistaken for each other (and this is worse, and not better, when the wrong word makes sense in the context of the correct word), or people are going to start changing the language to minimize these instances.

Finally, you can't have too many rules in your grammar. Languages have to be used by people, and people want to get stuff done. When observing the finer points of the grammar gets in the way of taking care of the business of life, people will start to ignore the finer points.

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