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- To: snark.uu.net!lojban-list
- Subject: Tidbits
- From: marob.masa.com!cowan (John Cowan)
- Date: Tue, 24 Apr 90 15:26:24 EDT
Herewith a few tidbits that may interest Lojbanists.
In describing Lojban to a group of friends, I mentioned as a virtue the
default tenselessness of Lojban sentences. An English-speaker and an
English/Spanish-speaker both expressed puzzlement: "Why would you want
to say something without mentioning tense?" Rather than replying directly,
I chose to describe a little bit about the Navajo language. I don't
know Navajo, so what I say here is subject to correction.
In Navajo, it is necessary to mention all sorts of things that English
finds unnecessary to specify. The sentence "You eat blueberries", for
example, must be rendered as "You [pl.] eat separable objects one at a
time." The vagueness of English about singular/plural in the case of
"you" is impossible to render in Navajo, as is the vagueness of "eat".
The Navajo fence-rider cannot simply report "Fence broken"; he must
mention whether the breakage appeared to be accidental, deliberate,
or the result of an animal's act. Likewise it is impossible to say
"They went thataway!" in Navajo. The direction of motion must be
nailed down, as must the mode of travel, as must the distinction
between going >to< a place and going >toward< a place, or going to
a place and passing it on the way to another place, etc. etc. etc.
By comparison, English is downright sloppy. The Navajo-speaker's reaction
to English is "How can I know what the >belagana< are talking about?"
From within English itself, this sloppiness seems more like a freedom.
It is not necessary to pin down all these details to make a grammatical
English sentence. Lojban, although it can be as precise as Navajo, can
also be even vaguer than English, leaving even the details English thinks
are fundamental unspecified. This gives Lojban an additional range of
expressiveness not present in any natural language.
It seems there has been much dispute recently about the ' character, which
the Lojban materials say is pronounced like the English h. "Why not use
the letter h, then?" In JL10, lojbab gives a number of reasons for not
using a letter. It seems to me that confusion might be avoided by explaining
the role of the buffer sound differently. (I have checked this with lojbab.)
Consider the word "co'o". An English-based view of this would be that it
contains four sounds, "c", "o", an h-like sound, and another "o". This
is also the view of the current Lojban material. Another view, however,
says that the four sounds are "c", a standard "o", an >unvoiced< "o", and
then another standard "o". In other words, the two "o" sounds are separated
by an interval of time when sound is being produced, the vocal tract is
in the position for "o", but voicing has been "turned off". In the
sequence "o'o", the three sounds are separated only by boundaries between
voicing and non-voicing.
What about words where the ' separates two distinct vowels, for example,
"ko'a"? In this case, there is the same pattern of voiced vowel +
unvoiced vowel + voiced vowel; the unvoiced vowel may be either "a"-like
or "o"-like -- I myself tend to make it "a"-like.
This makes for a nice symmetry between . and '. . signifies a period of
no sound production at all -- voicing turned off, exhaling turned off.
During ', voicing is turned off but exhaling continues, producing a voiceless
vowel. Exactly which voiceless vowel does not matter, since Lojban does not
distinguish between the different possibilities.
Note: I am not proposing that this long-winded explanation replace the
basic instruction to beginners of "Pronounce an 'h'"! It is merely available
in reserve, to be trotted out when the student asks "If it sounds like an
'h', why not use the letter 'h'"? Then you can reply, "It's not >really<
an h-sound at all, it's a voiceless vowel."