Re: Lojban (was Copy paradox)

Wesley Schwein (
Sat, 22 Nov 1997 19:39:32 -0500 (EST)

Okay, so this is a little late.

On Mon, 17 Nov 1997, Lee Daniel Crocker wrote:

> But what better way to study them
> than by deliberately attempting to flout them? Indeed, how else
> /can/ one study limits and capabilities except by trying to exceed
> them (and learning from our failure)?

Linguistics in the transformational-generative tradition is trying to make
a theory which explains the hows and whats of natural language. The
Lojban program is doing something analogous to engineers trying to build a
hyperspace drive while ignoring quantuum and relativity theory. I'm not
that current theories in linguistics are as satisfactory as those two in
physics, but the point is you need to have some idea of the territory
before you try to landscape it.

> > The acid test for Lojban would be, can children learn it and not creolize
> > it?
> If those children do alter it, then /that fact/ will tell us more about
> the nature of the fundamental capabilities of the human mind than any
> amount of study on existing languages.

That depends on what they do with it. Chances are, they will creolize it.
Creoles conform in every way to UG after taking a pidgin as a starting
point, as do every other language with native speakers. This includes
the languages of Australian Aborigines and New Guineau highlands, who
were separated from the rest of the world's peoples for about 40,000
years. That kind of universality says a lot about the accuracy of UG.
If Chomsky & pals are right and a human language must, by definition,
conform to UG, children raised with Lojban will not turn it into anything
particularly interesting.

Far from being a failure of the
> Loglan project, it would be a great success (though it would be a
> failure of the language itself, perhaps). It is precisely because Lojban
> is so alien to the way things are done in evolved languages that makes
> it a useful data point. I also think it would be a useul language--
> perhaps not as a primary, but as a secondary one. Both of those
> conjectures are subject to experiment. I participate in the latter;
> I'll have to wait until I have children to participate in the former.

I don't think Lojban is alien to the way languages handle things but to
the way people express their thoughts. Language didn't appear for the
purpose of expressing propositional logic, and most people don't think in
terms of hairsplitting logical distinctions. If we want to make the
logical implications of our thoughts explicit, we can do so within the
confines of natural language. The point is, why bother? Teaching someone
a created language is not the simplest way of getting them to think

> My only argument with Chomsky is that he is treated as a God by much
> of the linguistics world. Specifically, his dismissal of the Sapir-
> Whorf hypothesis is taken as if it had been discredited, when it fact
> nothing of the kind has taken place.

As many people hate Chomsky's guts as follow research in his wake; what
can you say, he made it into a real science and not something
anthropologists and philologists did in their spare time. I really don't
see anyone as treating him like a god; he just made a lot of work possible
that other social scientists had ruled out due to logical positivism.

Many experiments have failed to
> show strong effects, and many /have/ show weaker effects--clearly
> showing, for example, that language can affect cognition even to the
> point of perception. These phenomena go largely unexplored today
> because Chomsky followers don't think they'll amount to anything, and
> that is a great loss.

Yes, there have been shown to be very, very weak effects of language on
thought, mostly unconscious and unimportant. For example, English
speakers need to explicitly say whether they learned something directly or
by hearsay; Navajo (IIRC) does this automatically, but doesn't specify

As for perceptual effects, I can only assume you refer to studies on how
the visible spectrum is named. Every language on Earth breaks up colors
into, at the very least "light" or "white" and "dark" or "black."
Thereafter is a distinct hierarchy of color names. If a third color is
distinguished, it is always red. Four colors adds green, yellow, or blue,
depending on how you ask. Five colors includes a second of those three,
and so on. And there is a hierarchy of implication: if a language has a
word for "brown" or "grey," it has the basics in the Crayola 8-pack.

Does this mean that speakers of different languages see different colors?
Of course not, as tests with chips tinted in colors not distinguised by
the testees' language show. People everywhere see the same colors; we all
have the same eyes and it seems improbable that language, however powerful
a system it may be, can reach down and rewire the retina. We see the same
spectrum; where the distinctions are drawn are different, but not
unimaginably so. Furthermore, even if, say, Hopi lacks the vocabulary to
talk about, say, libertarianism, speakers are very good at making new
words to express new ideas, either by compounds, abreviations, acronyms,
borrowing, or other such devices.

So you're right, linguistic determinism is dismissed by mainstream
linguistics except in a very weak form which surprises nobody anyway.
And until somebody demonstrates that the conceptual systems of some pair
of languages are different to the point where they CAN'T be translated
into each other, nobody will take Whorf seriously. His writings certainly
aren't impressive, and all his examples (e.g., the Hopi and their "utterly
different" view of time) were wrong.

> > Phonology is a tricky area; we hear phonological distinctions that aren't
> > there in the accoustics.
> Exactly my earlier point about the SWH: ask anyone here if they
> actually /hear/ word breaks in spoken English. Most people will
> unquestioningly say "yes, of course". You and I both know that
> those breaks don't exist in the acoustics, so their perception is
> being influenced by their learned language.

This has nothing to do with linguistic determinism. "Hearing the breaks,"
i.e., distinguishing words, is completely a result of the interference of
literacy, as studies with non-literate peoples and pre-literate children
have shown. Spaces between words were, AFAIK, a European innovation of
the medieval period; classical Mediterranean and Indian texts do not show
breaks between words. Literacy interferes with a lot of things, such as
getting people to make phonological distinctions. Ask someone to say a
word backwards; chances are, they'll pronounce the _spelling_ backwards.
"Sink" [singk] --> "k'niss."

These effects deserve
> more study. For example, would a child who grew up with Lojban
> phonetics "hear" word breaks where Lojban makes them optional
> (which is almost everywhere)?

Again, that's strictly a matter of orthographic fashion.

Would two children who grew up
> speaking Lojban to each other over email, but with two different
> native languages, end up using the same intonations, or might they
> even use Lojban text in different ways?

Not particularly interesting. Compare the spoken English of a German and
a Russian who use English to communicate by email; or any other
international language, such as Russian used in the former soviet
republics. More than this, there is study in the emergence of "world
Englishes" --the standard English of regions using English as a 2nd
language, such as Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and many other Commonwealth nations.
It doesn't particularly matter whence a language comes "originally"; local
environment prevails, asside from the leveling effect provided by
communication between regions.

> > The existence of a language like Lojban makes it possible to > study
questions like this in a way that would really not be > possible any other
way. Even if the language /as a language/ > is deeply flawed--and it may
well be, though I haven't found > so yet--it is still a great contribution
to the science.

It's an interesting project, but unless the research is carried out with
an understanding of contemporary theories in mainstream linguistics, it's
simply not going to go anywhere. Furthermore, there's a long history of
new, improved languages that utterly failed to catch on. Esperanto,
anyone? There's no need for something like Lojban when natural languages
have so much more communicative possibilities in terms of vocabulary and
literary heritage. To create an auxilliary language with as great
expressive ability as any real language would require an unimaginable
amount of work.

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