The following online article has been derived mechanically from an MS produced on the way towards conventional print publication. Many details are likely to deviate from the print version; figures and footnotes may even be missing altogether, and where negotiation with journal editors has led to improvements in the published wording, these will not be reflected in this online version. Shortage of time makes it impossible for me to offer a more careful rendering. I hope that placing this imperfect version online may be useful to some readers, but they should note that the print version is definitive. I shall not let myself be held to the precise wording of an online version, where this differs from the print version.
Published in Journal of Linguistics 35.447–8, 1999.
John Woldemar Cowan, The Complete Lojban Language. Fairfax, Virginia: The Logical Language Group, Inc., 1998 [dated ‘1997’]. Pp. x+608.
Reviewed by Geoffrey Sampson, University of Sussex
A leading idea, among linguists who believe in a “language instinct”, is that there could be hypothetical languages which would provide for all human communicative needs, but would nevertheless be unlearnable and unusable because they failed to conform to the genetic blueprint. A community of people are now engaged in a project which might be seen as testing that idea. Lojban is an artificial language which has been designed in the light of modern linguistics, philosophical logic, and computer science to be a superior alternative to naturally-evolved languages, suitable for talking or writing about everything people want to discuss, rational, and even euphonious. It differs from natural languages in many respects, at least some of which relate to matters claimed to be part of the biological ‘language instinct’. Lojban has a following of enthusiasts (see http://xiron.pc.helsinki.fi/lojban/) who are trying to bring it into use as a living language.
The genesis of Lojban lay in an idea published in 1960 by James Cooke Brown. Although artificial, Lojban is very different from the late-nineteenth century international languages, such as Volapük and Esperanto, which are essentially European languages simplified and regularized. Lojban has more in common with seventeenth-century ‘philosophical languages’ such as John Wilkins’s ‘Real Character’. But seventeenth-century artificial languages focused on vocabulary, seeking to classify all possible concepts rationally. The developers of Lojban appreciate that human thought is too dynamic to allow vocabulary to be constrained by any aprioristic scheme; their goal, rather, is to rationalize grammar.
Lojban aims to satisfy the following criteria:
Full explicitness. Natural languages do not communicate exclusively through words. Writing makes heavy use of punctuation, typographic variation, and spacing; speech depends crucially on intonation and ‘body language’. Lojban verbalizes everything. A complex technical book, or a lively social interchange, should be translatable into Lojban, without communicative loss, as a punctuation-free sequence of uniform alphabetic characters, or a phoneme stream that might be generated on a monotone by a speech synthesizer. Expressive intonation, or typographical variety, should only reinforce the wording, not add to it.
Logical transparency. As Cowan puts it (411), ‘Lojban was designed to be a language that makes predicate logic speakable’. Its grammar is intended to reflect ontological and epistemological assumptions which are respectable by the standards of modern philosophical logic. (Quine’s Word and Object was an important influence on the language design.) Instead of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, Lojban has two open-ended word-classes: predicates, and proper names. On the other hand, Lojban has about 120 classes of grammatical words, designed to enforce precision about matters such as the individual/mass/set distinction, quantification, negation, modality, and so forth. Literal glosses of Lojban often have the somewhat Martian flavour of B.L. Whorf’s attempts to convey the alien world-view which Whorf ascribed to Hopi; thus (196) the English sentence I am a travelling cosmetics salesperson for Avon goes into Lojban as a sentence glossed ‘Avon sells a-mass-of face paint with-goer me’.
Parsability. The grammatical structure of a Lojban text is mechanically recoverable from the sequence of letters or phonemes it comprises. Written Lojban not only lacks punctuation but in principle need not even include word-spaces; word boundaries are determinable from the consonant and vowel patterns in the character stream – otherwise, spoken Lojban could not be parsed.
User-friendliness. In theory, standard predicate-logic notation could itself be made speakable, by assigning pronunciations to signs such as brackets and comma. But – leaving aside the fact that any standard logical system ignores many humanly-important considerations which Lojban does express, such as a speaker’s emotional attitude to the propositions he states – such a language would be unusable. It would be grossly cumbersome, and would do nothing to cater to speakers’ needs to foreground or suppress particular elements, or structure information into different perspectives. These things are facilitated in English by mechanisms alien to logical notation, such as the passive construction. Lojban generalizes devices such as the passive, and the contrast between forethought and afterthought sequencing (‘if p then q’ versus ‘q, if p’), to provide even more flexibility than is typical of natural languages.
Cowan discusses a fifth design feature, cultural neutrality, though one might question whether this can ever meaningfully be ascribed to a language capable of expressing the spectrum of human concerns. (In practice the American cultural assumptions of most of the language’s designers show through often enough; for instance, the vocabulary for rulers apparently (379) recognizes no distinction between head of government and head of State.) Apart from this last issue, though, the aims listed have been rather fully realized.
Admittedly, some aspects of the language definition seem weaker than others. The ‘attitudinal’ particles embody some questionable analyses of human emotion. (The chapter on attitudinals also seems to contain more misprints than other chapters.) The choice of argument places for predicates sometimes seems eccentric; why should the list of arguments for the predicate ‘doctor’ include the ailment treated and the treatment applied (282)? But these are curable blemishes. In general, Lojban constitutes a strikingly thorough working-out of its creators’ goals, and its design is responsive to a rich, subtle understanding of linguistics and philosophical logic.
Some readers may nevertheless feel that a topic like this is just a curiosity, unworthy of scholarly attention. That would be a mistake, I believe. No artificial language is likely to come into widespread use; but linguists ought to care whether the circle of Lojban enthusiasts prove capable of turning the language into a living communicative medium among themselves. If so, then the question will arise why natural languages are not more like Lojban (if people can speak logically transparent languages, why don’t they?). If not, then one will ask what differences between Lojban and natural languages make the latter but not the former usable. The creators of Lojban have put into their language everything which we know to matter for human communication; if the language fails, natural languages must have other crucial properties that we have not yet noticed. Either way, the Lojban project deserves to be taken seriously.
Author’s address: School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences
University of Sussex
Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QH