Understanding by means of Creation: INTJs and Ithkuil


I recently read, and greatly enjoyed, Jonathan Foer’s article “Utopian for Beginners” as appeared in “The New Yorker” on December 24th of last year.

The article describes the work and passion of John Quijada who has painstakingly crafted, alone, a language called “Ithkuil”. What could possess someone to try to create a new language, a “constructed language,” or “conlang?” Quijada, when surveying the vast panoply of the world’s languages, saw a missing ideal language that perfectly blended maximum conciseness with maximum expressivity and maximum precision. To create a language that met this ideal has been Quijada’s quest over the last 30 years. The article goes in depth about how Ithkuil allows speakers to express

… [How we] see the world. We can glimpse, glance, visualize, view, look, spy, or ogle. Stare, gawk, or gape. Peek, watch, or scrutinize. Each word suggests some subtly different quality: looking implies volition; spying suggests furtiveness; gawking carries an element of social judgment and a sense of surprise. When we try to describe an act of vision, we consider a constellation of available meanings

It’s fascinating. Needless to say that by the time I reached the end of the article, I was more than passingly interested in learning some of the basics of Ithkuil — just as I am fascinated by some of the more arcane corners of the programming language bestiary (Haskell, Prolog, et al.).

I also particularly enjoyed Foer’s deliciously subversive stab at “The New Yorker’s” style guide: “…the quietly aloof Quijada stuck out like an umlaut in English.” “The New Yorker’s” style guide quixotically holds that the second of doubled vowels in English is to bear an umlaut (e.g. “coöperate”).

But something that emerged in the course of the tale was that I recognized in Quijada a similar personality type to my own. During the course of the article I came to the conclusion that he, like me, must be an INTJ. The article reads like a case study in life with an INTJ and I thought I might comment a bit on him, or rather, us. Caveat: While I have no actual idea if Mr. Quijada is an INTJ or not, he displays several of the type’s hallmark behaviors.

INTJ Description

INTJ’s … need … systems and organization… An INTJ scientist gives a gift to society by putting their ideas into a useful form for others to follow. It is not easy for the INTJ to express their internal images, insights, and abstractions. The internal form of the INTJ’s thoughts and concepts is highly individualized, and is not readily translatable into a form that others will understand. However, the INTJ is driven to translate their ideas into a plan or system that is usually readily explainable, rather than to do a direct translation of their thoughts. They usually don’t see the value of a direct transaction, and will also have difficulty expressing their ideas, which are non-linear. However, their extreme respect of knowledge and intelligence will motivate them to explain themselves to another person who they feel is deserving of the effort.

Discemus creando

“We shall learn by means of creating,” is the translation from Latin into this phrase. We only feel they have truly understood an idea when we can translate it into another form, or another system, or perhaps a more readily shareable system or more easily communicated format. Our drive to know is not some simple “oh it’d be nice to know that” but is more “I need to know that.” Until we find those threads that unite facts into a whole, we suffer under them. It’s like loose change in a dryer where each revolution brings an eardrum battering set of plonks and plinks. Six degrees of Kevin Bacon? I’d bet it’s an INTJ-created game. Wrote a Ruby library to conjugate Latin Verbs? It was an INTJ. Apples to Apples, Scattegories, Taboo, Jeopardy, Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game — I bet there’s an occult INTJ hand lurking behind them all.


This personality type often has a level of shame associated with it. You see, when you suffer under the noise of loose ideas crashing about your brain, the only way to silence them is to build them into your system. And that system becomes an analgesic or a prophylactic, it protects you and you start to, well, love it. You, quite literally, need it. When the system is in the state of active evolution, we find it calling to us. While being at some extrovert-fest like a party, christening or dance club, we feel the call to get back to our exploration station (library, laboratory, canvas, shell prompt) so that we can get back to our quests.

But we know (amirite?) that it’s not reasonable to want to get up early, stay up late, abandon a lunch hour for our projects but we simply cannot do otherwise. We also know that other cannot or will not understand this (“You did what on a Friday night? Why didn’t you come out and, y’know, party?"). Quijada says, in the article:

“This isn’t exactly something you discuss on a first or second date.”

and later:

I’ve now proved myself to be beyond whatever state of geekery they might have previously thought about me,” Quijada said. " ‘You’re a what? A con man?’ ‘No, boss, a conlanger.’ " [Quijada] was being sent halfway around the world on an all-expenses-paid trip, sponsored by a foreign government, to take part in a conference whose docket of speakers included philosophers, sociologists, economists, biologists, a logician, and a Buddhist monk.

Quijada calls it “geekery” but I think I might call it “therapy.” Like most forms of therapy (talk therapy, pharmacological therapy), those undergoing it are often embarrassed about their therapy. I know I was:

“Where are you headed”
“Down to the university”
“[Looks me up and down, clearly too old to be a student] Are you a professor?”
“Nope, I’m taking Latin.”
“[cheerfully]Latin-American studies?”
“No, Latin. Yes, I’m 30 and yes I’m in classes with people were in elementary school when my diplomas were struck.”

Even to this day when I try to answer people about what I did instead of lunch or over the weekend, when it runs into my therapy, it’s hard to talk about.


Our therapy looks like workaholism, but it’s not. We must build these systems and these skills are very much in demand in our culture and society. We are (generally) well-remunerated for living in a world that knows how to harvest our personality type into lucre. As such after a day of building systems for others we want to come home and build our own quite likely using the same tools we get paid to use. This looks like workaholism. We see it differently, but, I must admit, it’s dangerously close. A good friend or partner is usually a valuable leader by example in getting us to break out of our patterns here. I’d simply ask that you treat us with a gentle hand on the matter.

Hurting Those We Love

It’s very hard to say this: it’s not about you, friend of INTJ. We’re not trying to reject you, it’s just our trying to preserve our sanity that has the side effect of isolating you. Like workaholism above they’re damn near the same thing. It doesn’t feel that way to us, but if you catch us in a rational and reflective mood (most of the time) we’ll agree we may be indulging our systems too much. We’re collectively sorry. We have to work hard to balance this but love you for loving us through it.