Re: Lojban (was Copy paradox)

Wesley Schwein (
Mon, 17 Nov 1997 14:56:48 -0500 (EST)

On Sun, 16 Nov 1997, Lee Daniel Crocker wrote:
[that I wrote:]
> > What are the qualifications of the creators of Lojban? Computer
> > scientists, logicians? If they they think that a human mind can process
> > "language" without nouns, etc., they are profoundly mistaken.
> > ... Nouns, verbs, deixis,
> > anaphor and other such principles are the algorithms and heuristics by
> > which we make language. Never confuse language with thinking.
> JCB and the other Loglanists are mostly linguists, and mostly
> pre-Chomsky (which is a plus in my book). "Universal Grammar" is
> the result of some very interesting empirical studies of human
> language /as it is/ (the only way it can be empirical), but I do
> not for a moment concede that it has anything to say about what /can
> be/.

Universal grammar is not the abstraction of the grammars of all known
human languages; it is the theorized "operating system" that is
_language_. If the software (Lojban, Anasazi, Sumerian) doesn't conform
to the needs of the OS, it won't run. Do the current UG theories,
government-binding and optimality, fully explain all details of syntax?
No. Are linguists all agreed in their use of the UG paradigm? No.
Linguistics is a young science and not yet in a period of "normal
science." This does not mean that the fundamental fact that Chomsky
recognized is invalid, namely, human minds are built for language, build
it in childhood using the terribly poor, incomplete examples around them,
and invariably build it along identical lines. This has earned him the
eternal wrath of cultural relativists who want human nature to be
alterable; of course, we want our nature to be alterable, too, but
transhumanists recognize we need to change the hardware to do so.

The acid test for Lojban would be, can children learn it and not creolize
it? If children are exposed to Lojban as a first language and what they
create based on the evidence available to them is basically the same, it
conforms to UG. If they alter it radically or minutely, then the
Lojbanists have made some fundamental mistakes about how to create a
language usable by humans which makes logical relationships explicit.

>The entire history of human language is a mere pittance of
> a few millennia, and the serious study of linguistics a tiny
> fraction of that. To draw any conclusions from such scant evidence
> is the height of irresponsible scientific hubris.

A few millenia? Most linguists and informed archaeologists reckon that
language in its current form has existed for 60,000 to 200,000 years and
language of less complicated structure (analogous to the stages children
go through while acquiring language --vague words, more focused words,
two-word sentences, telegraphic sentences) has existed since Homo erectus,
1.5 million years ago.

Age of a science is not a requisite for the accuracy of its theories.
Yes, linguistics is a young science. Our universe has existed for more
than 15 billion years; is it irresponsible or hubristic to draw
conclusions about the way it behaves because physics has existed for a
tiny fraction of that?

> My own advocacy of the language is based on my own study and use;
> I claim no credentials in the field, nor do I care what credentials
> anyone else may have.

That's certainly your right. Such credentials are not given for towing
the party line or sucking up any more (or any less) than in any other
academic field. Linguists as a population deserve to be listened to not
because they have impressive degrees but because they've spent millions of
hours paying attention to language in ways that others haven't; the same
goes for physicists, oceanographers and computer scientists.

I am not one who takes a such things as
> degrees or books sales seriously; I judge the final product, and
> for my money, the Lojban group has done about 10 times the valuable
> work in linguistics than any modern Chomsky-worshipper I know.

Why do you have such animosity for Chomsky or researchers working in his
wake? What, exactly, have Lojbanists actually done? Made a (possibly)
natural language that computers can parse better than English or Finnish?
That says more about the limitations of contemporary computers compared
to the parsing (and, more importantly, interpretation) ability of any
human being. Lojban aims to minimize ambiguity. Check. English contains
sentences like "Time flies like an arrow," which can be parsed any of a
number of ways by a computer. Check.

However if, in speech and not writing, I say to you "Hey, time flies like
an arrow," I sincerely doubt you'll take it as "'time-flies' enjoy a
particular arrow" or any other bizarre sense. Why? Because intonation
plays a very important role in communicating meaning --I will stress the
words differently depending on whether "time" and "flies" are a noun and a
verb, a compound noun, etc. Intonation and other prosodic features have
generally been ignored in computational linguistics because such features
are not as easy to quantify as word-as-symbol or phoneme-as-component.

Phonology is a tricky area; we hear phonological distinctions that aren't
there in the accoustics. Until we can get a computer to make the same
context-sensitive distinctions and interpretations that any neurologically
and anatomically normal 5-year-old can, we don't know enough about speech
perception and production to try and alter the basics of language.

Wesley Schwein That that is is that that is not is not.