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Lojban (/LOZH-bahn/) is a constructed language. Originally called "Loglan" by project founder Dr. James Cooke Brown, who started the language development in 1955, the language goals were first described in the article "Loglan" in Scientific American, June, 1960. Loglan/Lojban has been built over three decades by dozens of workers and hundreds of supporters, led since 1987 by The Logical Language Group.
There are many artificial languages, but Loglan/Lojban has been engineered to make it unique in several ways. The following are the main features of Lojban:
- Lojban is designed to be used by people in communication with each other, and possibly in the future with computers.
- Lojban is designed to be culturally neutral.
- Lojban grammar is based on the principles of logic.
- Lojban has an unambiguous grammar.
- Lojban has phonetic spelling, and unambiguous resolution of sounds into words.
- Lojban is simple compared to natural languages; it is easy to learn.
- Lojban's 1300 root words can be easily combined to form a vocabulary of millions of words.
- Lojban is regular; the rules of the language are without exception.
- Lojban attempts to remove restrictions on creative and clear thought and communication.
- Lojban has a variety of uses, ranging from the creative to the scientific, from the theoretical to the practical.
Why was Lojban developed?
Lojban was originally designed for the purpose of supporting research on a concept known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: "the structure of a language constrains the thinking of people using that language". Lojban allows the full expressive capability of a natural language, but differs in structure from other languages in major ways. This allows its use as a test vehicle for scientists studying the relationships between language, thought, and culture.
Other uses for Lojban
Lojban was designed as a human language, and not as a computer language. It is therefore intended for use in conversation, reading, writing, and thinking. However, since Lojban can be processed by a computer much more easily than can a natural language, Lojban-based computer applications are a natural expectation. Due to its unambiguous grammar and simple structure, it can be easily parsed by computers, making it possible for Lojban to be used in the future for computer-human interaction, and perhaps conversation. Lojban's predicate structure is similar to AI, suggesting it as a powerful tool in AI processing, especially in the storing and processing of data about the world and people's conceptions of it. Linguists are interested in Lojban's potential as an intermediate language in computer-aided translation of natural languages. Other people are interested in Lojban as an international language.
The Lojban design
Lojban's character set uses only standard keyboard keys; capitalization is rare; punctuation is spoken as words. Written language corresponds exactly to the sounds of the spoken language; spelling is phonetic and unambiguous, and the flowing sounds of the language break down uniquely into words. These features make computer speech recognition and transcription more practical. Learning to write and spell Lojban is trivial.
Lojban's predicate grammar was derived from that of formal logic. Lojban sentences are stated as sets of arguments tied together by predicates. These predicate structures can be used to express 'non-logical' thought; logicians are able to analyze all manner of verbal expressions by converting them into predicate notation. But while Lojban will already be expressed in a predicate-based system, allowing easy logical analysis, it also contains the wide variety of elements found in natural language for expression of attitudes,
emotions, and rich metaphor.
Lojban has none of the standard parts of speech. Lojban's 'predicate words' can serve as the equivalent of a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb. Action and existence are equally accessible to a speaker; the distinction can be ignored, or can be explicitly expressed. A variety of operators deal with abstractions such as events, states, properties, amounts, ideas, experience, and truth, and with at least four pre-defined varieties of causality.
Lojban has no mandatory inflections and declensions on nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Natural languages evolved such variations to reduce ambiguity as to how words are related in a sentence. Evolutionary development made these inflections and declensions highly irregular and thus difficult to learn. The simple but flexible predicate relationship erases both the irregularity and the declensions.
Tense and location markers (inflections), adverbs, and prepositions are combined into one part of speech. New preposition-like forms can be built at will from predicates; these allow the user to expand upon a sentence by attaching and relating clauses not normally implied in the meaning of a word.
Numbers and quantifiers are conceptually expanded from natural languages. "Many", "enough", "too much", "a few", and "at least" are among concepts that are expressed as numbers in Lojban. Core concepts of logic, mathematics, and science are built into the root vocabulary. On top of the core concepts of predicate logic, Lojban adds in non-logical constructs that do not affect or obscure the logical structure, allowing communications that are not amenable to logical analysis. For example, Lojban has a full set of emotional indicators, similar to such ejaculations in English as "Oh!", "Aha!", and "Wheee!", except that each has a specific meaning. Similarly, Lojban has indicators of the speaker's relationship to what is said, similar to those found in some American Indian languages.
Lojban supports metalinguistic discussion about the sentences being spoken while remaining unambiguous. Lojban also supports a 'tense' logic that allows extreme specificity of time and space relationships, even those implied by time travel. Lojban's grammar is designed to support unambiguous statement of mathematical expressions and relations in a manner compatible both with international usage and Lojban's non-mathematical grammar.
Lojban is much simpler than natural languages. Its grammar is comparable in complexity with the current generation of computer languages (such as ADA). Lojban's pronunciation, spelling, word formation, and grammar rules are fixed, and the language is free of exceptions to these rules.
Current status and usage
The language, then called Loglan, was first described in the 1950's, by Dr. James Cooke Brown. The 1960 Scientific American article "Loglan" was his call for assistance in developing the language. A revolution in linguistics was simultaneously taking place; the resulting increase in knowledge of the nature of language changed the requirements for Loglan. The first widely distributed Loglan dictionary and language description did not appear until 1975; this description was incomplete, and continued development work discouraged learning the language. Computers caught up with Loglan just then, making it possible to refine the grammar, eliminate ambiguity and mathematically prove its absence; this work has just been completed. For over 35 years, this work has been performed by volunteers, and without financial support. Now, after several versions of the language, people are learning and using the current version, which is the first called Lojban (from the roots "logical-language" in Lojban).
This version is the first version with a stable vocabulary, and the first to have a stable and completely defined grammar (the grammar of mathematical expressions, for example, was not developed until 1990). The basic Lojban vocabulary was baselined (stabilized against change) in the last half of 1988, and the grammar similarly stabilized in late-1990, after completion of the first Lojban courses, actual usage of the language, and several iterations of careful analysis. The full language design was baselined in 1997, and no changes will even be considered until 5 years after the set of books describing the language is published (thus at least 2005). Thus, while the language was first started 35 years ago, Loglan/Lojban is a very new language.
To ensure Lojban remains stable while people learn it, the language definition is prescribed and closely controlled. When the number of speakers has grown significantly, and a Lojban literature has developed, Lojban will be treated like a natural language and allowed to grow and flourish without constraint, as do other natural languages.
Original text and poetry have been written in Lojban, and some has been translated into the language. Lojban's powerful metaphor structure allows building new concepts into words easily, as needed. A Lojban speaker doesn't need a dictionary to use and understand millions of words that can potentially exist in the language.
As of 1997, there are about 1200 people on our mailing lists, including about 300 listed as actively trying to learn the language. Over 100 of these have demonstrated communicative ability to use the language in conversation, translation, or original writing, and one person is sufficiently skilled to be considered fluent in the language. Several of these regularly get together in the Washington DC area for conversation, and an annual meeting/mini-convention is held there every summer. This progress is remarkable since there is no dictionary for the current language, and a textbook exists only in partial draft form; people use the language reference manual as a learning source, and we've evolved methods of teaching the language at a distance that overcome this handicap.
Lojban has an unambiguous grammar (proven by computer analysis of a formal grammar with YACC), pronunciation, and morphology (word forms). The person who reads or hears a Lojban sentence is never in doubt as to what words it contains or what roles they play in the sentence. Lojban has no words that sound alike but have different meanings (like "herd" and "heard"), that have multiple unrelated meanings ("set"), or that differ only in punctuation but not in sound (like the abominable "its" and "it's"). There is never any doubt about where words begin and end ("cargo shipment" can be heard as 2, 3, or 4 words). The function of each word is clear; there is nothing like the English "Time flies like an arrow.", in which any of the first three words could be the verb. Precision in no way confines the meaning of a Lojban sentence. It is possible to speak nonsense, to tell a lie, or to be misunderstood. You can be very specific, or you can be intentionally vague. Your hearer may not understand what you meant, but will always understand what you said.
Lojban is NOT entirely unambiguous; human beings occasionally desire to be ambiguous in their expressions. In Lojban, this ambiguity is limited to semantics, metaphor, and intentional omission of information (ellipsis). Semantic ambiguity in language results because words in natural languages represent families of concepts rather than individual meanings, often with only weak semantic relationships to each other. In addition, each individual's personal experiences provide emotional connotations to words. By providing a fresh, culturally-neutral start, Lojban attempts to minimize the transference of these associations as people learn the language. By intention, most Lojban words do not closely resemble corresponding words in other languages; the differences aid in making this fresh start possible. Lojban's powerful metaphor and word-building features make it easy to make fine distinctions between concepts, discouraging individual words from having families of meanings. Lojban metaphors are themselves ambiguous, specifying a relationship between concepts, but not what the relationship is. That relationship can be made explicit using unambiguous logical constructs if necessary, or can be left vague as the speaker (usually) desires. Similarly, portions of the logical structure of a Lojban expression can be omitted, greatly simplifying the expression while causing some ambiguity. Unlike in the natural languages, though, this ambiguity is readily identified by a reader or listener. Thus all ambiguity in Lojban is constrained and recognizable, and can be clarified as necessary by further interaction.
Lojban and Sapir-Whorf
This hypothesis states that the structure of a language constrains thought in that language, and constrains and influences the culture that uses it. In other words, if concepts or structural patterns are difficult to express in a language, the society and culture using the language will tend to avoid them. Individuals might overcome this barrier, but the society as a whole will not. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is important, and controversial; it can be used as a sociological argument to justify or to oppose racism and sexism (and a variety of other 'isms'). For example, the assertion that since genderless expressions in English use 'masculine' forms, English is 'sexist', presumes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true. Understanding the potential for Sapir-Whorf effects could lead to better inter-cultural understanding, promoting communication and peace.
It is known that people's ideas and thought change somewhat when they learn a foreign language. It is not known whether this change is due to exposure to a different culture or even just getting outside of ones own culture. It is also not known how much (if any) of the change is due to the nature of the language, as opposed to the cultural associations.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was important in linguistics in the 1950's, but interest fell off partially because properly testing it was so difficult. Loglan/Lojban is a new approach to such testing. Obviously, if a culture-independent language could be taught to groups of people, the effects of language could more easily be separated from those of culture.
Unique features of Lojban remove constraints on language in the areas of logic, ambiguity, and expressive power, opening up areas of thought that have not been easily accessible by human language before. Meanwhile, the formal rigidity of the language definition allows speakers to carefully control their expressions (and perhaps therefore their thought processes). This gives some measure of predictive power that can be used in designing and preparing for actual Sapir-Whorf experiments.
One of the prerequisites of a Sapir-Whorf experiment is an international body of Lojban speakers. We need to be able to teach Lojban to subjects who know only their native (non-English) tongue, and we need to know in advance the difficulties that people from each language and culture will have in learning Lojban. Thus, the Lojban community is actively reaching out to speakers of languages other than English.
Lojban does not need to prove or disprove the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in order to be successful. However, if evidence is produced supporting the Sapir-Whorf effect, Lojban will likely be perceived as an outstanding tool of analytical and creative thought. More...
Other linguistic applications
An artificial language (AL) is a simple model of a natural language. It is used for communication like natural languages, simpler, more regular, and relatively uncontaminated by culture effects. Unlike most natural languages, an AL has not evolved through natural processes of internal change or contact with other languages. In addition, to the extent to which details of an AL is pre-defined, the internal structure of the language is far better known than that of any natural language.
Such a pre-definition, a language 'prescription', makes an AL a unique tool for studying the nature of language. As people learn the language, the way they 'acquire' understanding of that prescription can tell scientists how 'natural' the prescribed forms are. Actual usage of the language can be compared to the prescription providing quantitative data on specific patterns of usage. As the language evolves from its relatively pristine initial state, it may deviate from its prescription. Such deviations will better inform researchers as to the properties of a 'natural' language. The process of language change itself will be open to investigation in a way never before possible. Finally, the existence of a relatively complete language prescription at the birth of the language means that a 'description' of actual usage after that initial state can be more simply created, maintained, and studied.
Lojban is undoubtedly the most carefully designed and defined AL ever created. All aspects of its design have been carefully engineered by several people encompassing expertise in a variety of disciplines, including linguistics. The language prescription is similarly the most complete of any language. As such, it serves as a unique basis for the study of language usage and language change.
A new language like Lojban, with no native speakers, is a 'pidgin'. As the language evolves, native speakers of other languages will learn it, and will bring into their Lojban usage the perspective and patterns of their native language. This interaction process, called 'creolization', affects all languages, and may be the principle cause of language change. As Lojban is learned by speakers of a variety of natural languages, this process can be studied directly in a way never before possible, with the language prescription serving as a standard by which deviations associated with speaker origin, and evolution of usage, can be measured and described in detail.
An AL like Lojban has neither an associated 'native accent' nor a culture base. Being much simpler and more regular than a natural language, an adult speaker should acquire a fluency seldom achieved when studying a natural language, and in a relatively short time. Lojban thus makes possible relatively short-term studies of language learning and language change. Processes that take generations in natural languages may be observed in a few years in Lojban speakers.
With the learning of other languages acquiring critical importance in today's international economy, Lojban provides a tool for research in language acquisition. Again, Lojban's simplicity allows the results of such research to be obtained more quickly than in similar studies of natural language acquisition.
No claim is made that studying Lojban will tell 'all' about language. Lojban, at least for several decades, will only be a 'model' of a language, whose 'naturalness' will be suspect. However, to the extent that Lojban serves the communicative and expressive functions of human language, any theory about the nature of human language must apply to Lojban. Language features and processes more easily identified in studying Lojban can then be confirmed in natural languages. Similarly, theories of the nature of language can be tested and refined against this simpler model of a language before facing the more difficult and time-consuming testing and analysis involved in natural language research.
Because Lojban is relatively culture-free, and because of its prescribed structure that is consistent with predicate logic, Lojban is an ideal medium for the analysis and description of other languages. Currently, features in language must be compared against other natural languages, and are usually described in scientific literature by glossed translation into English. Lojban is simple and regular enough to be acquired as a metalanguage for describing other languages; its structures allow clearer reflection of the patterns of the language being described, without interference from the competing patterns of English.
Finally, Lojban's predicate grammar, makes it eminently suited for ongoing computer research into natural languages. Lojban can be used for parsing and analysis, as an internal medium of data storage, or as an intermediate language for machine translation. Having a combination of logical and natural language structures, Lojban combines the best of both major structural approaches to language processing in computers.
The exercise of trying to invent a language can teach us things about language that probably can't be learned in any other way. Even if Lojban should fail as a language, we will learn. However, to the extent Lojban succeeds, its potential as a basis for testing ideas about language, its structure, and usage, is unlimited. The invention of Lojban is the invention of the science of experimental linguistics.
Lojban as an international language
Lojban may be the first artificial language NOT in direct competition with Esperanto, in that Lojban's potential success is not dependent on its immediate practical use as an international language. Indeed, we use Esperanto as one means of rapidly spreading information about Lojban to non-English speakers, speeding a process that would take decades using direct translation to all target languages. Lojban has proven attractive to Esperantists interested in acquiring a new perspective on their own international language; these feel less threatened because Lojban has different goals. Lojban's supporters recognize that it will take decades for Lojban to acquire both the number and variety of speakers and the extensive history of usage that marks Esperanto culture. Meanwhile, each language community has much to learn from each other; this process has started and is most active.
Several reasons for learning Lojban NOW
Those working with the language now are actively consulted for their opinions on how to teach and spread the language. People who write in the language are contributing to the growth of the lexicon, and establishing the conventions and idioms that will guide language use in future years. People who are especially active have joined the project leadership within a few months of becoming involved.
Those with a computer background can lead development of the first computer applications for the language. Expertise in the language will no doubt be valuable as Lojban becomes recognized as a useful tool for computer applications by the computer industry. Computer-oriented Lojbanists can also aid in developing computer-aided instruction tools or converting existing software to run on new computers.
Regardless of background, learning Lojban is a mind-expanding experience. Learning any language other than your native tongue broadens your perspectives and allows you to transcend the limited viewpoints of your native language culture. Lojban, being much simpler to learn than natural languages, provides this benefit much more quickly than does the study of other languages. Being so strongly different, the intensity of the effect seems to be heightened. When Lojbanists talk about language, the discussion has been observed to be more sophisticated as well as qualitatively different from the talk of students of second natural languages.
The logical organization embedded in Lojban aids in organizing and clarifying thoughts. Having done so, your new perspective on language, ambiguity, and communication will allow you to express those thoughts more clearly, even when you use an ambiguous natural language.
A relatively short study of Lojban by high school (or younger) students has been proposed, providing the linguistic understanding that was once associated with studying Latin and other languages for much longer periods of time. Such study can be tied in with concepts of logic, and possibly with computer-related activities, helping to show the essential interrelated nature of language and other human endeavor.
You needn't learn Lojban for any practical purpose, however. Many of those learning Lojban are doing so because it is fun. Learning Lojban is intellectually stimulating, and provides human interaction and mental challenge. Lojban has all the benefits of games designed for entertainment, with the added prospect of developing useful skills as a side benefit. Learning Lojban as an 'intellectual toy' means that you can get enjoyment from learning Lojban without nearly the effort needed to benefit from studying other languages. While becoming fluent in Lojban will probably take hundreds of hours over several months, you can feel some sense of accomplishment in the language after just a few hours of study. You can use Lojban immediately for fun, while gaining skill with greater experience.
How to learn Lojban
Write to The Logical Language Group, Inc., and we will be happy to provide information, though our collected Web and file archives contain all information that we have in distributable form. For printed matter, we request a contribution of $5 to cover the costs of introductory materials (including a copy of this essay), but will send this package on speculation. Additional materials available total hundreds of pages, which are priced approximately at our costs; we are a non-profit educational/scientific organization. Contact us regarding international payment; we offer several options. A limited policy exists for providing materials to people who cannot afford payment.
We encourage new people to concentrate on vocabulary. Almost any use of Lojban requires some mastery of the basic vocabulary (1000-2000 words). You can learn enough Lojban grammar to support conversation in just a couple of hours, but face many hours of vocabulary work in order to effectively use that grammar. We distribute flash cards and have developed flash card techniques that are extremely efficient in learning vocabulary. These techniques have been automated into computer-aided-teaching programs sold and distributed as Shareware under the name "LogFlash", with MS-DOS and MacIntosh versions
You can learn the Lojban grammar in several ways, including study of examples in the quarterly journal ju'i lobypli or by inspection and analysis of YACC and E-BNF formal grammar descriptions. There is now a published language reference The Complete Lojban Language, by John Cowan. Draft lesson materials (about 180 pages) are the best materials available for self-study. A Lojban text-book is being written to reflect what is learned from the first learning efforts, and is being designed so that it can be used for self-instruction, classroom teaching, or group study. A formal 'Lojban dictionary' will replace most of the existing word lists and language description materials, and is being worked on, but present materials contain the equivalent of a basic dictionary.
After the dictionary and textbook have been published the Lojban language definition will be baselined (frozen) for a minimum of 5 years, and Lojban will thereafter be solely controlled by speakers of the language.