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What is Lojban

This is an excerpt from a Draft Lojban Textbook by Robert LeChevalier

This excerpt is an introduction describing the purpose of the language and how to use the textbook.

Note; The complete textbook isn't yet publicly available

What is Lojban?
la lojban. mo
(/lah,LOHZH,bahn. mo/)

Lesson 0
nomoi seltadni
(/NO,moy sehl,TAHD,nee/)

Introduction to Lojban
pamoi nu cilre la lojban.
(/PAH,moy noo,SHEEL,reh,lah,LOHZH,bahn./)

What is Lojban? Lojban is an artificial language, the major accomplishment of a 35-year research project into the nature of human language. Dr. James Cooke Brown, founder of this project, called it 'The Loglan Project'; Lojban is a specific version of the generic language called 'Loglan'. Brown originally designed Loglan to test a controversial idea in linguistics called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. As others became involved in the research, a variety of other goals arose in linguistics research, computers and artificial intelligence, intercultural communication, and education. Loglan/Lojban is thus unique, among artificial languages, in having several useful purposes incorporated into its design. Because of this, Lojban attracts people with a variety of interests. Diversity will sustain Lojban's growth and ensure that it finds acceptance as a useful tool of analysis and communication.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is named for linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, who helped set forth the idea of 'cultural relativism'. Cultural relativism specifies that there is a close relationship between the structure of a language and the culture that uses that language. There are several interpretations of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. These versions differ on how strong the relationship is thought to be between language and culture, and what 'Sapir-Whorf effects' might be seen in a culture derived from a particular language. The 'version' of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis guiding Lojban development states that "the structures of language constrains the thought patterns of participants in the culture associated with that language." Lojban attempts to test this hypothesis by removing constraints in several areas of language use, while imposing other constraints not found in natural languages.

Lojban was designed to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: "the structure of language constrains the thought patterns of participants in the culture associated with that language."

Much of linguistic academia abandoned the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in the late 1950s. They were unable to even agree on what the hypothesis meant, much less on how to test it. One problem was the difficulty in sorting out 'Sapir-Whorf effects' from other factors that might affect culture (like history and geography). Another was the difficulty of differentiating between language constraints on cultural thought, and cultural effects that dictate the evolution of a language. Meanwhile, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis became intellectually (and politically) unfashionable, because some people used it to justify racist ideas regarding the supposed superiority or inferiority of specific cultures.

In 1955, Dr. Brown suggested that a constructed language, free of ties to a particular culture, would help distinguish causes from effects. By engineering specific and unusual structural features into the constructed language, the effects of those features could be more easily detected. He chose to devise a language based on logic, a "logical language", hence "Loglan". ("Lojban" is the same contraction using words from within the Lojban language instead of English words). Brown's language incorporated the well-understood concepts and structures of symbolic logic into its structure, and attempted to avoid ambiguities that could confuse those well-formed structures. Inventing a fully-expressive language from scratch is difficult. Inventing one that was both totally different from all other languages and still able to express the full range of ideas conveyed by language proved a daunting task. Brown and others re-engineered Loglan several times as they found weaknesses in the original design, and as the science of linguistics provided new knowledge of the essential properties of languages. Finally, in 1987, the Loglan development effort passed to a new generation of Loglanists led by The Logical Language Group, Inc., who completed Lojban in ***.

While it is no longer the sole reason for Lojban's development, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis remains an essential underlying concept behind its design. Interestingly, as Lojban is completed, renewed interest in the hypothesis has surfaced, for reasons related to those that caused its submersion in the 1950s. Do specific properties of 'Black English' hinder the education of American blacks? Does the lack of a gender-neutral 3rd person singular pronoun in English, and the default of grammatical 'person' to masculine forms enhance inequality between the sexes and cause sexual stereotyping? For these controversial ideas to be true, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis must be true.

Questions have arisen in other fields that seem related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, most notably in the computer industry. Would a 'natural-language-like' interface between computers and people enhance the understanding of computers and the productivity of their users? Does the icon-graphics-based Apple Macintosh interface lead to 'sloppier thinking' than the 'glass-typewriter' MS-DOS computer interface? The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has also permeated the study of literature. The hypothesis has been particularly significant in semiotics (the study of signs and symbols in language and literature).

The Lojban effort has now added new goals totally unrelated to this original one. People have recognized the following, among others:

These are only a few possibilities. New uses for Lojban are continuously being proposed as more and more people learn the language.

Now, Lojban is ready for you to learn and apply to your goals. You will be a pioneer in a new language, just as Chaucer and Shakespeare were pioneers in the literary use of English. You can work toward any of the above applications for Lojban, or you can devise new ones that suit your interests. You will learn to think clearly and analytically, when it is important to do so. Yet you also will discover creative uses of language, thought and expression.

Lojban is an extraordinary language. Unlike any other language intended for human communication, Lojban has an unambiguous grammar. Unlike any other language, Lojban has the basic structures of formal logic embedded in its architecture. Yet Lojban is a language that transcends grammar and logic, having a potential expressive power superior to any single natural language.

That power is only a potential. A language must be used - for communication, for expression - in order to live. This book seeks to teach you to use Lojban, to make it alive.

Exercise 0-1
larnuntoi nopi'epamoi
(/lahr,NOON,toy NOH,pee,heh,PAH,moy/)

The following questions are especially suitable to group discussion, but are worth thinking about on your own as well.

  1. Can you think of any ways not mentioned in which language might affect the thought patterns of those who use it?
  2. Is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis racist? Why or why not?
  3. Exceptional individuals like Einstein break new ground in thought, though they may use the same language as everyone else. Is this evidence against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?
  4. Could Sapir-Whorf effects be detected in individuals, or only in an entire culture raised from birth speaking the same language? Is there a middle ground?
  5. Does learning any new language invoke Sapir-Whorf effects in individuals by providing new and different structures around which to frame our ideas? Would a language more different in structure from your native language be more effective in invoking such effects?
  6. Are such effects as those implied in 5. of the same scale and significance as culture-wide effects that might be caused by constraints in language?

In the remainder of this lesson we will examine two key concepts underpinning Lojban's design that are key to understanding several aspects of that design. These are cultural neutrality, and avoiding constraints on thought. We will then discuss how you can tailor your use of this book and your efforts at learning Lojban to your goals.

Cultural Neutrality
kulnu ka nutli
(/KOOL,noo kah,NOOT,lee/)

All major goals for Lojban rely on a key design principle, cultural neutrality. What does this mean, and why is it important?

There are an enormous number of features of language that we use without being conscious of them. Some of these features are common to all languages; others are unique to specific languages, or even to specific people who use those languages.

Cultural neutrality is the attempt to avoid language usage favoring forms used by one culture, at the expense of equally valid forms used in other cultures. For Lojban, neutrality also includes attempting to make the language approximately equal in learning difficulty for people of different cultures. There is particular effort toward preventing biases in favor of American English forms in Lojban, since most of the Lojban developers and early students are native speakers of that language. English speakers trying unfamiliar expressions in Lojban are prone to incorporate familiar usages from English into Lojban when they aren't appropriate.

Cultural neutrality is the avoidance of language usages that favor the forms used by one culture.

Among these usages are idioms, set expressions that have a meaning not necessarily implied by the words and their grammar. Thus, in greeting someone with the 'question' "How are you?", we do not expect to be answered by a statement of the respondent's personal situation. On the other hand, if we are visiting a person in a hospital, that is exactly what we seek with the question. As another example, consider what it means to "make do"?

There are more subtle idioms as well. The saying "time flies like an arrow" has at least four totally unrelated English meanings:

"Down" has associations with the opposites of each of these properties. Another example: English speakers associate "blue" with sadness, "white" with 'good', "black" with evil, "green" with envy, and so forth.

NOT ALL LANGUAGES MAKE THESE SAME ASSOCIATIONS. Some languages associate the future with "down"; others make no association at all. If Lojban's effects are to be detectable in all cultures, only metaphors derived directly from the meaning of the words in context can be permitted.

These metaphors may be important to how we think. In English, we talk about arguing using the metaphors of war ("He shot down all my arguments."). Might such language encourage arguments to lead to violence? If the language we use to talk about arguments refers to them as ways of resolving disagreements through communication and cooperation, or as means of evaluating different points of view (not necessarily seeing "differing" as "competing"), might violence be less common?

Related to these metaphors are the symbolic effects of words and ideas. Sex and various bodily functions are taboos in our culture; there are similar taboos in other cultures, but with varying degrees. Western culture associates black with evil and death; white with virtue, purity, and life. Chinese culture associates white with death and illness. In China, owls symbolize death, and bats symbolize life.

Words and their meanings aren't the only cultural biases in language. Grammar also has effects, often more profound. Japanese women use vastly different language than Japanese men. Japanese also has 'honorific' words relating to social rank; omitting these causes offense. English uses forms of "have", "be" and "will" as auxiliaries to modify tense ("I have eaten." "I am eating." "I will eat."); Italian often uses the equivalents of "come" and "go" in addition to "have" and "will", and Rumanian uses "wish" as a future tense auxiliary. Other languages have totally different methods of conveying subtleties of time and order relationships.

There are languages where it is impossible to make direct claims about another person's feelings. One can say the equivalent of "I want this.", but only "John seems to want this." Most people with any knowledge of foreign languages know that many languages have more explicit systems of declensions that convey much grammatical information. (We tend to think English is free of declensions; it is not. In some aspects, English is more complex and more irregular than most languages.) These declensions convey information about person (whether the speaker, the listener, or someone or something else is being discussed), number (where what is being discussed is singular or plural, but dual is a separate 'number' in Arabic and other languages), tense (the time and sometimes the location of an event), gender (masculine and feminine, but also sometimes neuter; grammatical gender may have little correlation with the actual gender of the person or creature; Swahili has over a dozen different grammatical genders.), and mood or modality (how the speaker relates to the statement - whether it is claimed, hypothesized, or asked about).

You also may be familiar with case, which conveys the role within the sentence of different pieces of that sentence. English has the nominative case for 'subjects' of sentences, and the accusative case for most of the other 'objects' in a sentence. You can recognize these cases by the choice you subconsciously make between "I" and "me" when referring to yourself. English also has the genitive case, known to many of us as the possessive. Other languages have 8 or more cases, and attach significant differences in meaning to the use of each.

Still other languages have case systems that work entirely differently than English's. Some languages do not have 'nominative' or 'accusative' cases. Often, these languages make significant grammar distinctions between active or ergative causing of an event as opposed to being a passive subject of the event. In such languages, "Jack fell down the hill" must distinguish grammatically between whether he jumped intentionally, slipped, or was pushed.

English speakers seldom recognize the use of language features such as animism (using different words or grammar for less 'advanced' forms of life, and for non-life). Animism is present in English, though not important. For example, we often talk about a pet animal or even a human baby as "it", when "he" or "she" is clearly more appropriate (and known to us). We very rarely use a gendered pronoun in talking about insects. Yet we would never talk about another adult human as "it" except in insult. We are more careful about the gender of pronouns when talking about 'higher' forms of life. Other languages have more profound 'animism' effects, changing both word structures and words, depending on how adult-human-like the referent of the pronoun is. The list of differences between languages could go on indefinitely. The examples given, however, show that we are often unaware of important distinctions that we make in language. We often judge the ideas and people of other cultures based on these hidden distinctions. Khrushchev's statement "we will bury you" heightened Cold War tensions. English speakers interpreted this as a statement of aggression. The Russian usage meant merely that Khrushchev expected communism to outlast capitalism, on the Russian metaphor that longer-lived people bury those who die before them.

Significant cultural biases could have devastating effects on whether Lojban can meet its goals. Accidental Sapir-Whorf effects from bias might dwarf or conceal the effects from the intentional effects from design feature built into the language. The Khrushchev example shows how computer-aided translation would suffer if figurative usages cannot be recognized as such. Similarly, biases would seriously reduce Lojban's usefulness for intercultural communication. Lojban will be less acceptable to other cultures if they perceive the language as too much like 'Imperialistic English'. As you learn Lojban, you will often compose expressions that reveal these biases. Every Lojban speaker born to another language will do so. It is important that you try to catch these biased usages as often as you can, but also to accept your limitations. Equally important is to watch for biased usages by others and politely and gently to correct them (but not in a way that interferes with communication). Learn to accept similar correction from others as helpful assistance. Try to learn these skills when speaking Lojban with native speakers of your language. You will then be much more effective at communicating in Lojban with those from other cultures. Those others will be similarly working to avoid the different biases present in their native languages.

Exercise 0-2
larnuntoi nopi'eremoi
(/lahr,NOON,toy NOH,pee,heh,REH,moy/)

For thought and discussion:

  1. Devise English examples using 'down' as a metaphor for each of the opposite values of those described in the section for 'up'.
  2. Devise examples for the English metaphors of love as a 'journey', as a 'physical force', as 'insanity', as 'magic', and as 'war'.
  3. Devise examples for the English metaphors of ideas or theories as 'buildings', 'food', 'people', 'plants', 'products', 'commodities', 'resources', 'money', and 'fashions'.
  4. If the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis were true, how might the culture using a language differ from yours if gender was totally absent from the grammar, even from pronouns? (This is true of Lojban.)
  5. If the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis were true, how might the culture using a language differ from yours if there was no distinction of number between singular and plural? For example, would people lose their individuality if they could not distinguish between "I" and "we"? (This is partially true of Lojban. Lojban has no grammatical singular and plural. Lojban can distinguish between "I" and "we", but not at the most basic level of usage; the normal contextual assumption is that a speaker speaks only for herself.)
  6. If the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis were true, how might the culture using a 'logical language' differ from yours? Is your answer (and those of others you talk with) colored by stereotypes of 'logical thinking' as dull or mechanical (or possibly as clear and incisive)? What do you see as the primary characteristics of a logical language?
  7. If the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis were true, how might the culture using a language based on an expressive and elaborate set of emotional expressions differ from yours? Assume that expressions clearly indicate the speaker's emotional state and distinguish ideas from the speaker's attitudes toward those ideas. (Lojban is both logical and has such a set of emotional indicators.)
  8. How can learning to recognize biases in language help you in learning other languages? In understanding the people of other languages?

Avoiding Constraints on Thought
nu rivbi le pensi rinju
(/noo,REEV,bee leh,PEHN,see,REEN,zhoo/)

Lojban seeks to avoid unnecessary constraints on thought. We've just explored some of those constraints, those imposed by cultural biases. How does Lojban avoid other constraints? The most important answer is that Lojban avoids assumptions that might limit how we use the language. As noted above, in English and other languages, there are grammatical concepts of gender and number. English statements usually imply something about the gender (or lack of gender) of whom or what you are talking about, and also how many people are involved. Lojban's grammar does not require either.

Similarly, English requires that all statements reflect a time in the past, present, or future, or a combination of these. Lojban sentences can omit the specification of tense in sentences. It is hard for an English speaker to recognize that tense is unnecessary; we are so used to it. But speakers of languages with complicated declension systems do not easily see how one could make sense of a sentence without those declensions, while English speakers have no trouble doing so. You will see many examples of English assumptions that are not automatically made in Lojban as you progress through this book.

One way of avoiding constraints on thought requires your direct attention as a Lojban speaker interacting with one or more listeners. This textbook will attempt to teach you to recognize that your listener is not you. He/she/it will naturally apply his/her/its own unique experiences to interpreting your statements. Thus the onus is on you, the speaker, to express your ideas in a form that will be understood by the listener. (Wondering about the 'it'? Suppose you are talking to a computer. In making the above statement, I did not make the 'usual' assumption that you are planning to speak Lojban only to people.)

Lojban permits vague statements and even 'figures of speech'. Unless you are sure that your listener will interpret such a statement exactly as you intend it, you risk misunderstanding. You must not force your listener into trying to think as you do; it isn't always possible. If you do not know your listener well, as for example in writing for mass distribution, you should make few assumptions and be very specific.

Why not require the listener to figure out what you meant? Simple. The listener does not know what you know; the purpose of communication is to transfer information. If you don't transfer all information needed to understand what you say, you might not be understood. In written expression, the listener may have no way of questioning you if your statements make no sense. Thus, when we read classics of English literature, we often miss nuances requiring knowledge of the writer's culture. The writer of course took his/her cultural environment for granted.

Exercise 0-3
larnuntoi nopi'ecimoi
(/lahr,NOON,toy NOH,pee,heh,SHEE,moy/)

  1. The debate over abortion rights is an excellent example of ignoring others' cultural assumptions in the use of language. One side defines 'life' to include the period before birth; the other does not. Can you think of other words or phrases used in the abortion debate for which you need to know a specific definition in order to understand the proponent's position?
  2. Can you think of examples from other controversies where you must know the speaker's cultural background and the cultural associations of the speaker's words to understanding the argument?
  3. Advertising makes heavy use of the cultural associations of words, and advertisers often target a specific audience. Can you think of an advertisement that you found difficult to 'identify with' because the targeting used associations not familiar or relevant to you?
  4. Often, advertisements make incomplete statements, leaving the listener or viewer to insert the implied information (often the listener does not notice this, but fills in the assumed information subconsciously). Can you think of an example of an advertisement where the advertiser uses vague information in this way? (Hint - most uses of the words "new" and "improved" beg the question of what the words "old" and "unimproved" might refer to.)
  5. Examine the simple English sentence "Judy swims." Does this sentence imply that Judy is swimming now? How do you know? Does this sentence imply that Judy has swum in the past, or that she will swim in the future? Is it possible to say "[name] swims" about someone who has never swum and never will? Rephrase the original sentence so that it is clearer even in the absence of any clarifying context.
  6. As a variation on the last sentence, examine "Sandy dog-paddles." Do your answers to 5. change for this sentence? Do your answers change if you find out that Sandy is a dog? How about if Sandy is a cat or a fish? Can you rephrase the sentence for someone who does not know what 'dog-paddles' means?
  7. Now examine: "Peter works in Peoria." Does this sentence mean that Peter is at this moment working in Peoria? Could it be true if Peter worked in Peoria yesterday and will work there tomorrow, but is not working today? Is it still true if he is on a one-day business trip to Chicago? Does this sentence imply that Peter worked in Peoria last year? Might he have worked somewhere else last year? Would your answers to these questions change for the sentence "Peter works in Peoria now"? Rephrase one interpretation of each sentence ("Peter works in Peoria" and "Peter works in Peoria now") so it is clear in the absence of any clarifying context.
  8. Say the sentence "Peter works in Peoria now." aloud in a bored tone of voice. Repeat the sentence as if you were answering the question "Where does Peter work?" Repeat the sentence as if you were answering the question "Do you know anyone who works in Peoria?" Repeat the sentence as a question (without rephrasing it), as if you wish to confirm the rumor that Peter is working in Peoria. Repeat the sentence in disbelief because you thought Peter was living in New York. Repeat the sentence in disbelief because you thought Peter was a ne'er-do well who can't hold a job. Listen to how your voice and tone changes in each of these versions. How would you convey these various expressions or attitudes if you were writing a book? If your book were intended for a foreigner who is learning English through reading books, how would you make sure she/he understands which expression implied which attitude?
  9. Examine: "William ran out the door and hurdled the tricycle in the walkway." Does this imply that the sentence "William is a runner and a hurdler." is true? Given the latter sentence first, might you have thought of the first sentence as describing a situation where the second one is true. Construct a similar pair of sentences using the word 'build' and 'builder'.
  10. Examine: "Lions come from Africa." Is this a true statement? Is it still true when you are reminded of the new cub born at the zoo yesterday? If lions come from Africa, where do they go to?

When trying to speak Lojban, it is often a good idea to think about how your listener might misinterpret your statement without full knowledge of the context. Then - provide that context.


Last modified: Mon Jun 27 23:10:38 PDT 2005

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