Re: Lojban, nouns/verbs

Wesley Schwein (
Sat, 22 Nov 1997 19:28:45 -0500 (EST)

On Tue, 18 Nov 1997, Lee Daniel Crocker wrote:

> Ironically, you make a very good argument for UG, but not
> by the content of your text; by the very fact that such
> an intelligent mind still maps the Lojban concepts of
> sumti and bridi onto the traditional actor/action form
> of most languages--when no such mapping is necessary or
> implied by the language in any way--demonstrates how
> wired-in that structure is.

We both claim to understand one another, but I still feel I'm utterly
failing to get my point across. Lojban, in order to be parsed by a
linguistically-capable human mind, must have nouns and verbs. It DOESN'T
MATTER that Lojbanist's don't call them that; these categories are, as you
admit, a wired-in structure. They're simply a part of how language works.
It doesn't matter that Lojban's creators don't make phonological
distinctions between noun and verb forms, or that you can use the word
for "blue" as a noun or as a verb or as an adjective; all those parts of
speech are how the pieces of information are relayed and relate to one
another. Read on.

It may well be that I and
> other Lojban speakers also internally make that mapping
> when we produce sentences; but that is a function of how
> our brains are wired, not something that actually exists
> in the language itself.

All I'm trying to say is, if you parse a string of phonemes in a way that
corresponds to a verb in a natural language, it's a verb. Period. I've
read everything that the Lojban site offers, and I still see nothing that
distinguishes its not-verbs from verbs. Give me some examples of
predicates that don't correspond to a verb phrase (confusingly labeld "the
predicate" in syntax) and I'll do my best to understand how they're not

Many other verbs--even
> those that express very non-verb-like things like spatial
> relationships, properties, associations, etc., are still
> expressed in a verb-like way (or else escape doing so by
> using the copula): "I belong to this group" (as if that
> were an action I'm taking, not a state of existence),
> "This document supercedes that one" (as if the documents
> were actor and acted upon), "I married Jane" (not referring
> to the ceremony but the state), "Stones surround the fire"
> (as if it were their choice).

Ah, I start to see the problem. Being a verb doesn't have anything to do
with volition, intention, motion, or time. This is the fault of those
damned lies we're taught in elementary school. "A noun is a person, place,
thing, or idea. A verb is an action." As I've written many times now, a
verb is something that acts verby. Well, if we agree that "belong,"
"resemble," "surround," etc., are verbs in English and other natural
languages but don't demonstrate "action" in the sense of movement,
intention, etc., what does that leave? The relationship between
"actors." And that, philes, is all verbs are.

BTW, it may be that verbs for abstractions, mental states, and
relationships have the same form as normal things we think of as verbs
(run, kiss, walk, excoriate) because language evolved primarily to
communicate social information and was later expanded to communicate other
things (hunting, gathering, where to find water, how far away the nearest
cave is) by metaphorically extending intension, etc., to non-social
topics. In other words, the groundwork was already there for showing
action and relationship ("Hey Grok, you won't believe what Zog just did!
Ook found her giving berries to Lop from the clan on the other side of the
valley!"); these algorithms were expanded by using the same patterns for
describing things outside of the social world.

> So while I agree that verbness may very well be built into
> the way our brains work, I'm not ready to give up on a better
> idea just yet, because I /can/ see the difference, and I
> think humans (if not me, then maybe my children or a later
> enhanced me) will be able to use this structure as easily as
> I use verbs. I'm not yet convinced that this isn't possible,
> and I think it's important because language is by far the
> single most important technology we have, and optimizing it
> is likely to produce great benefit.

I've never been convinced there's anything wrong with language. I can't
even remember the last time anyone said anything I found ambiguous because
of the structure. It's been my experience that people have to work
to come up with a string that _anyone_ would find ambiguous. Let's see...
"The man wrote the letter on train." Now, this _could_ mean that Mr
Vandal took some paint and wrote the letter "Q" on the side of a
locomotive, but that meaning would be made clear by the context.

"A man in a trainyard thought about the letter Q. He wrote the letter on
a train."

"After leaving Shanghai, the traveler thought about her brother and
decided to write him. She wrote the letter on a train."

Real speech isn't an assortment of bizarre propositions made in isolation.
Context, context context!

There's plenty of ambiguity around, but that has more to do with foggy
thinking than the words those thoughts are framed in.

On the other hand, I can imagine some ways that language could be better.
For example, it would be very useful to be able to follow three or four
discourses at once; say, hearing two people talking at the same time while
reading two braille books, or to be able to produce several streams at
the same time.

Wesley Schwein Art is not a mirror; art is a hammer.