Re: Phonetic alphabet[wasRe: Bill Gates]

Lee Daniel Crocker (
Mon, 6 Oct 1997 14:44:17 -0700 (PDT)

>>A person whose first language is japanese apparently has a grat deal of
>>difficulty thinking about syllables that do not fit into this scheme.
>>Does this constrain the way the japanese think? If so, how are english
>>speakers constrained? Will we need some other representational method
>>to relieve these constraints?

I'm not sure that "constraint of thought" is the problem so much
as constrained communication ability. It is simply more difficult
for a person raised on Japanese sounds to distinguish others, as it
is very difficult for Amercian to distinguish the many vowel sounds
of some European and Asian languages. That constrains cooperation,
but I don't think much else. My Japanese co-worker calls me Mr.
"kuraku", but once I understood that we cooperated just fine.

I am more likely to believe that /grammar/ plays a much more important
role in constraining thought itself, because complex relationships
are part of the nature of thought. One can diagnose certain mental
problems, for example, by examining the grammar of the patient.

> Complete sentences in English have a subject, a verb, and (generally)
> a predicate -- implied if not spoken. Perhaps a language in which this
> was not true would be difficult for us (I, strangely enough, can't think
> of one off the top of my head).

Several Asian languages use a "topic-comment" structure rather than
subject-verb. In Chinese, for example, "Fish: eat" is a perfectly
valid sentence, but must be disambiguated by context (one does not
know whether the fish is the eater or the eaten without more info).

Lojban allows both forms, and some others such as the prenex. So
one can say "Fish: eat", or "Joe eats the fish", or "There is a fish,
such that Joe eats it." The semantics of the first form are just as
ambiguous in Lojban as they are in Chinese, but the grammar is not:
the grammar unambiguously describes where the semantic ambiguity lies.

> How about a language with no representations of past, present, and future?

Don't know of any offhand. Lojban /does/ allow you to leave out that
info if you want, so you can say "Joe [eat] fish" without committing
yourself to whether this happened in the past, present, future, or
other tenses (where English requires you to pick one).

> Or a language with no distinction between declarative, interrogative,
> imperative, and subjunctive (or some subset thereof)?

Don't know of any there either. Even in Lojban, one /must/ decide
ahead of time whether you're asking a question or making an assertion
or issuing a command.

> That said, I think that English speakers are among the least constrained
> on the planet, since we steal words from so many different languages.
> We do, however, seem to have problems with melodic and clicking
> languages.

And fine vowel distinctions. That's one reason the French laugh at us:
no Amercian can say "En peu" with anything close to the right vowels.

And finally, there is the obvious thought-constraint of gender, and
the parts of speech themselves: nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. Classical
Chinese had no gender, but regrettably one of the "modernizations" it
suffered this century was to make it more European by using the male
words as generic pronouns, the female ones as female-specific, and the
neutral ones fell out of use. I don't know of any other natural language
that is gender-neutral. Most artificial languages are.

Lojban is the only one I know of with no distinction between nouns,
verbs, and adjectives.


One can learn more about the Lojban language, and order the recently
printed textbook, at <>.

Lee Daniel Crocker <> <>
"All inventions or works of authorship original to me, herein and past,
are placed irrevocably in the public domain, and may be used or modified
for any purpose, without permission, attribution, or notification."--LDC