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response to parmenter for review and posting
- To: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Subject: response to parmenter for review and posting
- From: uunet!cbmvax!snark.thyrsus.com!lojbab
- Date: 9 Sep 90 22:38:51 EDT (Sun)
I'm enclosing some additional comments on Dan Parmenter's recent sci.lang
I don't understand the protocol of cross-references, but since you wrote or
responded to these, I presume you can identify them by whatever means
are necessary (or correct my identification) or appropriate. Then please post
them in my name. (If you think I really put my foot in our mouths on any
issue, please don't hesitate to call me.) Feel free to break this into
multiple postings, if this is appropriate.
In article <9009042357.AA06435@gnu.AI.MIT.EDU> dan@GNU.AI.MIT.EDU writes:
DP> This fails to predict variations of accent, as well
as the language-specific biases of speakers - english speakers for instance
will probably continue to mark yes-no questions with a rising tone. Of
course this isn't indicated in the written form, so already the idea of
audio-visual isomorphism is weak at best.
Yes, English speakers probably will. But Hindi speakers probably won't.
Thus rising tone (pitch) will not be a significant indication in Lojban.
Now, in the English 'dialect' of Lojban, such supersegmentals will probably be
redundant and reinforcing information to the truly significant version of the
questioned contained in the words. And if for some other reason, your voice
rises in pitch, if there is no 'xu', it is not a yes/no question.
As an advantage, I suspect that it will be a lot easier to get computers
voice-processing the Lojban phonemes than the English supersegmentals (Anyone
have any actual knowledge on this?)
DP> Furthermore, the idea of a language that assumes all of its speakers will
have precisely the same accent is too terrifying to contemplate, yet
Lojban's writing system would seem to depend on this fact.
Lojban's prescription says nothing about 'accent'. Each of the sounds
we've defined as phonemic has a certain range wherein it is phonemic. Lojban
'r' can range from a full trill to a simple flap, for example, and we've made
no prescription regarding dark 'l' vs. light 'l'. Difference in these
phonemes will result in different 'accents'. There will probably be less
spread than most natural languages, but there will be some spread.
DP> Sapir/Whorf is tacitly asumed by almost everyone that I've talked
to in connection to Lojban.
Assumed to be what? True? No. Important enough to test? Yes.
If Sapir-Whorf is important enough to test, then Lojban must be designed with
features that will likely have a noticeable effect, while being >sufficiently<
culturally neutral that non-Lojban variables can be at least statistically
The Lojban design HAS to assume that Sapir-Whorf is true, or that design
will be meaningless for experimental purposes.
As to whether those working on the language 'tacitly assume' Sapir-Whorf,
I doubt it. There are no doubt many who believe SWH true, and a couple I
know of who believe it false, but are willing to see. Most are fairly open-
minded. In any case, if we are being 'good scientists', our individual
opinions on the hypotheses we investigate shouldn't matter, since some degree
of professional detachment is expected. When I work on Lojban as a researcher,
I try to turn off that part of me that does 'Lojban promotion' (admittedly a
bit more biased). I rely on peer review to catch any biases from my personal
views that slip into my work. Given the wide disparity of views among Lojban
workers, and our sensitivity towards avoiding unnecessry bias, I'm confident
that there is no problem.
DP> This isn't unusual, since it's also assumed by an astonishing portion of
the world at large.
If Sapir-Whorf (or its equivalent - since a lot of people assume it
without even knowing it exists) is tacitly assumed by the world, it seems
an especially important question to investigate >scientifically<. If SWH
is used by some to justify racism, some concrete data to attack such use
is more effective than personal distaste. Just because a scientific
question has political ramifications based on its possible outcomes does not
mean that the question shouldn't be asked, or moreover, shouldn't be answered.
DP> a schoolteacher, made the utterly absurd claim that speakers
of Black English were unable to grasp concepts of mathematics. She
even went so far as to criticize linguists who had closed the door
on the Whorfian hypothesis 30 years earlier.
I've heard of this book, but never read it. On the surface, it sounds
racist, and it might indeed be. Presumably it was based on the author's
personal experiences. IF SWH is true, it is conceivable that a language
or a dialect of a language might affect the ability of its speakers to
learn mathematics. Whether Black English is such a language is a valid
question for scientists to investigate, though in this case I doubt that
any amount of fact would overcome the emotional prejudice associated with
any question of this sort (such prejudice is of course racism, whether or
not it is aimed at 'protecting' blacks, or attacking them).
DP> What I'm getting at is that there is a serious danger that people
who believe in the S/W hypothesis will use this belief to make claims
about their language being superior to someone else's.
Yes, there is. But there is also the chance that if SWH is true, that
the reverse will happen. Based on the natural selection paradigm (also
perhaps questionable with regard to languages - but the analogy is
useful), if one language is 'superior' to another in some small area
(such as mathematical thinking - as in the previous example), the fact that
the other language survives indicates that it also has some compensating
advantages that suit its niche.
Thus Sapir-Whorf might help us see the virtue in all languages and
cultures. I certainly don't think that if Lojban was proved able to
assist or improve logical thinking, that it should displace English or
any other language. To borrow someone else's line, Lojban becomes
another tool in the linguistic tool chest. You learn it like an English
speaker learns French or FORTRAN, to meet a commmunication need that
is not well served by English.
DP> The principles of Universal Grammar do not seem to
produce unambiguous languages
Whether UG is 'real', a question better discussed by others, I know of
no useful evidence for this claim. That there is no unambiguous language
today is irrelevant, since nearly all languages evolved from some earlier
language, interacting with other languages, etc. Most sources of ambiguity
probably can be tied to these evolutionary processes. Lojban might also
succumb to such ambiguity, but as an apriori language constructed after
the printing press, having (unlike other languages) a complete prescription
it has a lot better likelihood of resistance to 'undesirable' change.
There is no way to tell if the >misuse< of 'hopefully' or split infinitives
would have entered English if a) there had not already been a tolerance in
English for non-standard usages of this type and b) either of these truly
resulted in mis-communication. Note that 'misplaced modifiers', which
can in some instances cause miscommunication, are a different question, and
are probably frowned on by most speakers IF they become aware of the
ambiguity. In Lojban, of course, the speaker WILL be more aware of the
ambiguity - at least so we hope.
DP> ... it is quetionbable how easy it would be for a child to learn
In typically blundering fashiom, the lojban
engineers have ignored this issue, concentrating entirely on the
learnability issue for SECOND language acquisition, that is, adults
learning a second language, with no native competence.
We've hardly ignored the question. However, from what I've read, children
learn languages from adult role models. We need adult fluent speakers
therefore in order to teach children. Within the next two decades at least,
all such adults will be 2nd language speakers. So why not concentrate now
on what we can do something about.
There are several Lojbanists that have indicated intent to try to raise
their children as bilingual Lojban/natural-language speakers, probably the best
that can and should be attempted until/unless Lojban proves its value. I
certainly wouldn't ask anyone to raise children solely Lojban-speaking; it
would smack of human-experimentation to me (an issue I'm fairly sensitive on).
DP> Some lojban propaganda claims that the language has been characterized by a
transformational grammar, but this has never actually been demonstrated
The claim I made is that John Parks-Clifford, a linguist involved with Loglan
since 1975, told me that he investigated 1970's Loglan using TG techniques
during the 70s and was able to demonstrate to his own satisfaction that all
features of Loglan were amenable to TG analysis, and that he found no 'unusual'
transforms. More recently, a student in Cleveland has been attempting to
develop a more formal TG description of the language. This will undoubtedly
take a while, but he reported to me earlier this year that not only had he
found nothing unusual, he had identified some elegant features of the language
using TG techniques. The features he reported are indeed consistent with the
language definition, and included aspects that the student had not been taught
(i.e. that we had not put into any published documents that the student had
In article <1990Sep6.email@example.com>
firstname.lastname@example.org (Dan Parmenter) writes:
DP> Is the purpose of Lojban to be spoken in a dull monotone? Or do you expect
the writing system to evolve to account for any variations in tone that
might come along? Suppose some third-generation Lojban speakers always
mark yes-no questions with a falling tone accompanied by a series of
elaborate hand-jives (gestures are expressive too), will you mark this
in the written version as well? How do you determine what a "significant"
feature of the language is?
That would be a truly odd purpose for a language - to be spoken in a monotone.
The writing system would not need recognize variations in pitch, gestures, or
any other feature of spoken language unless these came to convey variations in
meaning that were not already reflected (and reflectable) in the written
language. In addition, since human-computer interaction using Lojban is
intended to be significant in its usefulness, it seems unlikely that there
will evolve variations that cannot be >easily< recognized AND reproduced by a
A significant feature of a logical language, of course, is one that affects
the truth conditions of its statements. A change or variation in the language
would not be 'significant' unless it affected such truth conditions. A change
which introduced ambiguity would obviously be significant.
DP> In English, a sentence
like "Every man loves a fish" is ambiguous. If Lojban merely paraphrases
such utterances, to two separate utterances along the lines of:
"For all x, There exists a y such that x loves y"
"There exists a y for all xsuch that x loves y"
while tolerating some version of the original utterance, than nothing has
been accomplished. I can do the same thing in English.
I disagree. For one thing, if Lojban can express the multiple meanings
better and more clearly than English, and if the expressions can be more
easily manipulated logically, this would presumably 'enhance logical thinking'
if SWH is true.
Lojban doesn't 'tolerate some version of the original' in the sense that the
parallel translation to "Every man loves a fish" - "ro nanmu cu prami pa
finpe" is not equivalent to >both< English paraphrases.
You cannot 'do the same thing in English'. Even if the two English
paraphrases are considered 'standard English' (and many linguists do not,
identifying them as a jargon), neither is the same as Dan's original.
Fill in 'man' for 'x' and 'fish' for 'y', and the result is ungrammatical:
*"For all man, there exists a fish such that man loves fish."
*"There exists a fish for all man such that man loves fish."
It takes some extensive manipulations to turn these into grammatical sentences,
and the results are not 'obviously' the same as the English original. These
same manipulations do not suffice for all possible substitutions: if 'x' is
'George' and 'y' is 'fish', or if 'x' is 'George' and 'y' is 'Mary', you
have to perform different transforms. In Lojban, the transforms are
independent of the value.
DP> See what I mean about arbitrary? The Lojban engineers have decided
that tone isn't important and that pauses are the same as glottal stops.
This is lunacy!
Tone is reflected poorly or not-at-all in writing systems of the world, as
as is pitch and speech rhythm. Audio-visual isomorphism therefore precluded
these being critical to disambiguation and we chose better ways to convey
the equivalent meanings. In each case where we did so, a similar mechanism
is found in some natural languages. For example, in French "est-ce que"
almost exactly parallels Lojban 'xu'.
Pause in Lojban is used only to preserve morphological distinctions. For
example, you must pause before a vowel to protect against it being absorbed
into the previous word either as a final vowel in a consonant final word
or as a diphthong. A glottal stop provides similar separation of sounds;
hence it is phonemicly equivalent to a pause.
In neither case was the decision arbitrary; we had a good reason for each.
This is in general true throughout Lojban - a decision to choose one form
over many was primarily to achieve unambiguity. In other circumstances,
we chose the least restrictive form possible (thus making tense, number,
gender, etc. optional and hence more highly marked forms).
DP> Yes, but if there is a theory of phonological universals, then it is
argued that certain combinations simply won't ever occur. Did the
Lojban engineers take this into account, accept at the most rudimentary
level? I doubt it.
An interesting conditional, that first sentence. Is Dan claiming that there
is a theory or not? Is he claiming that certain combinations won't occur?
He seems to be claiming that Lojban has combinations that cannot occur
but gives no examples. He'll have trouble finding them.
We did indeed take phonological universals into account in several ways.
In the first place, as John Cowan mentions, the set of permitted sounds
was selected as a subset of those found in many languages. We constrained
consonant clusters by restrictive rules that recognize phonological
properties like voiced/voiceless assimilation and included redundancy as
a criteria in assigning words, reducing the number of minimal pairs
distinctions. We added the apostrophe to prevent unwanted diphthongization;
it represents devoicing of the glide between two adjacent vowels.
In addition, the frequency of sounds in predicate words should statistically
parallel the sum of the corresponding frequencies in our six source languages.
(For those unfamiliar, most of Lojban's predicate root words are formed by
maximizing the appearance of phoneme patterns found in those source languages
weighted by approximate number of speakers.)
I would say that more time has been spent overall during Loglan/Lojban's
history on the interaction between phonology and morphology than on any
other single feature of the language. This is probably because it is
the best documented feature of the design and also the most easily compared
to other languages.
DP> In English, or any other natural language,
grammaticality is also defined by what we can say and understand.
"I ain't got none" is perfectly grammatical, because people use
and understand it all the time. Only English teachers and guys
like John Simon sit around and contemplate (by their own arbitrary
standards) whether or not it's okay to split infinitives and use
"hopefully" right. The rest of us just do it.
Org! What a mess! "Correct" linguistic behavior? Lojban will be a
linguistic battlefield with prescriptivists running around telling people
that they can't say such-and-such a sentence, because it can't be parsed
by lojban's computationally sound grammar (verified by a genuine computer!).
Not true for English, really, nor for all natural languages. English is
of course not even a single language in the sense that there are many
dialects spoken around the world. Many of these do not use constructs
found in the 'standard language', even though they are obviously
understood by their listeners. But how could we say this if we didn't
have a concept of what the 'standard language' is, which is distinct from
what we say and understand. (of course, the definition of standard
language varies from country to country, too. British speakers would
even less accept some of Dan's Americanisms, and in some cases might
misunderstand them. (Actually, there is some variation among 'standard
Englishes', as well, as evidenced by differences in the various published
In addition, each language has registers, in some of which certain constructs
may be permitted, but which in others are unacceptable. Try using
"I ain't got none." in a journal paper. In other languages, such as
Japanese, registers are so structured and formalized as to almost make for
independent languages. Understanding is not a sufficient criteria for
And of course, for many nations there are academies that dictate the standard
language for that nation (I use nations instead of languages since, for
example, Brazil has an academy separate from that of Portugal, although both
work together at times.) English has no academy, but this is an exception.
Therefore we end up with individuals setting themselves up as a self-appointed
This does not make 'academies', or language prescription 'wrong'. Dan's
libertarian view of language is understandable given his American and English
language cultural values. In addition, there is a difference between the
prescriptive/descriptive debate from the point of view of linguists as
opposed to that of regular speakers. Most people, for example, expect a
dictionary to be prescriptive, even thought the linguists who write them
Lojban has a valid reason (unambiguity) to prescribe its standard form. If Dan
chooses to learn Lojban, and then chooses to deviate from those standard forms,
he may be expanding the language. Of course, he also may have trouble getting
his computer to understand him. Since ideally Lojban's target 'speaker'
population may include computers, failure to express himself so that the
computer understands him (unambiguously) means Dan is speaking ungrammatically
even by his own definition.
Some other 'natural languages' are indeed defined exactly as Lojban is, by
an apriori 'committee' that selected the valid forms. Norse, Modern Hebrew,
and several African languages were defined by some nationalists taking
features from other languages used by the target population (and in the case
of Hebrew, from incomplete knowledge of a dead language), and arbitrary
features sometimes where the several languages collided. These all became
living natural languages. Why can't Lojban, which is merely doing the same
on a grander scale?