What is Ouwi?

Ouwi (pronounced Ow!-wee!) is an artistic project which has three main facets:

It's likely that every one of these aspects sounds a little strange. If not, then you may want to jump in and explore the site's content. Otherwise, allow me to explain...

How I Began

In October 1997 Pliny the Elder was stuck on my mind. Pliny lived during the Roman Empire near Pompei and was quite a character. Before it exploded, several times he would climb into the nearby volcano, Mt. Vesuvius, to do geological research (and for fun, I imagine). Most of us have heard the story about Pompei--one day the volcano exploded, and covered the city, freezing and suffocating the Pompeians, under a soft blanket of ash.

His nephew, Pliny the Younger, wrote many letters (including one asking advice on what to do with those pesky Christians) which are still preserved, and one of the Latinists' larger crops of Roman Latin example. When Mt. Vesuvius did erupt, the Elder was killed either trying to save people, or possibly because he was exploring the volcano at the time (this is how I imagine it, the romantic that I am). The Younger lived, and saw the whole spectacle from a country house removed from the action. Needless to say, we know this, because Pliny the Younger wrote several letters about it.

That October, this image of Pliny the Elder exploring the volcano as it exploded, came up among random conversations with people--my mind really seemed to be trying to concentrate on something else despite the general din of living and everyday communication. While talking with Jackie Hidalgo one evening, I started thinking about inventing a language--don't ask me why--it came into my head. I remember some symptomatic excuses I conjured up in trying to explain the urge to people then: I would say, "There are some things which we just can't express in English or any language--What if there was a language more wedded to the 'language of our mind,' which could then allow us to be fully expressive?" I always start out idealistic.

This really isn't possible, I've determined (so far). The more I've thought about it, the more I realize that at least half the difficulty in expressing ourselves is that we don't want to express ourselves. We are ashamed of our thoughts. We believe, often rightly, that there is a limit to people's patiences--hearing about the same thing from the same person is tedious. There's only so much we want to talk about the same thing! (I wonder how long you'll keep reading this! You could always skip ahead.)

So, building a language, then, is not like discovering a physics equation. It is more like building/designing a house. It is an engineering project. Before I figured that out, I came up with a nice little structure for designing a language--this was a night or two after talking with Jackie.

The Current Goal

Since then, many twists and turns have led to some specific goals for what this language will do. Before I tell you how I started, and how the design has formed, let me lay them out.

The project is to design a spoken language with the following characteristics:

Furthermore, the language will have a corresponding non-linear writing system with the following characteristics: When I began this project several years ago, these were not my original goals. This is what I wrote approximately at that time:
To invent a language which sounds beautiful,
with a certain amount of wisdom derivable,
just through fluency, where any combination of
phonemes that exist in the language of any length
will mean something.  In brief, a language that
when anything is translated into it, the work will
improve both in eloquence and revelation.

The Project

The night I started thinking about this language thing, I came up with a beautiful design.

What if there were ten ways to say the same alphabet? When we say the English alphabet, we say "'ay bee see dee" etc. So if we always said the same vowel at the end of an ordered list of consonants (bee see dee fee gee hee jee...), we would have one way of saying the alphabet. If we have ten vowels, then there are ten ways to say the alphabet. Another would be "boe soe doe foe goe...".

Now, if each consonant-vowel pair is a word, then saying the alphabet could mean something. Each way to say the alphabet, could be a story--I loved this idea: ten fundamental stories, each with a certain number of words. A people that spoke such a language would know the stories just by knowing their language and being able to say the alphabet. The stories would mean something powerful or significant--but they couldn't overshadow the need to have a workable language: somehow the ten stories would have to comprehend the entire fundamental lexicon of the language.

And so, for about three years, I worked to figure out what the stories should be--what each word in the stories should be. The first one I began to adapt was inspired by Pliny the Elder--the volcano story, ou. I started out intending to have 25 consonants, but in trying to make the first story complete, I was forced to add two more consonants, so I could have twenty-seven words in the story. That affected the number in all of the other stories, but since then I haven't had to change the length, and twenty-seven seems to be a good number

Another idea I had from the beginning is that there would be one Unknown story, u, a story which no one knew any of the words to--and, in fact, it's impossible ever to know or discover the words to this story. The words themselves would be used to indicate variables. For example, "The name of the opera begins with 'd'." The speaker would use one of the unknown words (whichever s/he chose) to indicate a certain amount of lack of knowledge. Perhaps it would also be used for ambiguous pronouns?

The Hope

Even though this started out as an artistic project it has developed some advantages that lend themselves to practical purposes. I think the non-linear writing system has potential for similar applications to flowcharts and UML. Because the writing system can also document history and intentions it might have even more uses--in documenting changes, justifications, proofs, etc--all visually.

If that's not ambitious enough, it also has potential as an alternative to the WIMP/icons desktop metaphor. We'll see...

'Ouwi,' in the language itself translates to "just within (the ability) to see to infinity." I like to interpret this as observing that language is a deductive tool. That is, you can construct an infinite number of finite elements from it. Thus, the finite is the boundary for what we can express. And as Wittgenstein concluded, "For the rest, we must be silent."