Recently, as Bob and Nora LeChevalier prepared for dinner guests at their Fairfax, Va., home, they worried: Would party conversation diminish to small talk? Or, worse, would their guests find nothing at all to say to each other?
Common concerns for all hosts, of course. But this wasn’t a typical dinner party. In fact, it is safe to say there had never been one remotely like it.
“It was an all-Lojban party,” says Bob LeChevalier. No English allowed. All talk had to stick to a newly constructed tongue known as Lojban (pronounced LOZH bahn), now being developed as a culturally neutral, unambiguous and totally logical parlance.
“We maintained conversation for 4 1/2 hours,” boasts LeChevalier, president of the Logical Language Group Inc., the organization that is trying to complete the unfinished language, polish it, promote it and offer classes in it. “Four and a half hours, and we’re still recovering.”
Over homemade pizza, five students gripping their Lojban word lists chatted haltingly about music, about translating poker terms, about how odd it is that here they were conversing in a language that, except for a handful of novices in other parts of the world, only they knew how to speak.
Knowing that even his most loyal and fastest-learning Lojbanists might be intimidated by an evening of exclusive use, LeChevalier labeled all of the food dishes, figuring to prompt dialogue. The pizza toppings included rectrpeproni (pepperoni) and cirla (cheese). Beverages? Sodva (soda), camska vanju (intense-colored wine, meaning red) and kandyska vanju (dim-colored wine, meaning white).
“Some of those are borrowings,” he says, almost apologizing for words that blatantly resemble English equivalents.
Sometimes it can’t be avoided, he explains, though Lojban is largely built from sounds and syllables lifted from most of the world’s major languages, including Chinese, English, Hindi, Russian, Spanish and Arabic. One entree that was fully Lojban: zalvi ke nakni bakni rectu.
It is the logical extrapolation of hamburger, which everyone knows isn’t logical at all in English because hamburger isn’t made of ham. Lojban logic calls it ground type of male cow meat. “We can shorten that a bit,” assures LeCheevalier.
Perhaps too much logic spoils the soup. “Nobody really got into a discussion about the food,” says LeChevalier. Still, nobody had to use the designated “cheating room,” where tongues could be untied and misunderstandings cleared up in English. “We exceeded our expectations,” he says of the party prattle. “ Mi’a lifri lei xamgu temci. " Literal translation: “Me and others, not including you whom I’m talking to, experienced some particular mass of good time interval,” roughly meaning a good time was had by all.
If the concept of man-made linguistics seems unusual, Lojban is neither the first nor the most peculiar of the dozens, and by some counts hundreds, of attempts to construct languages since Descartes proposed a worldwide tongue more than 350 years ago.
Probably the most durable was invented in 1887 by L. Zamenhof, an idealist eye doctor using the pseudonym Dr. Esperanto (“one who hopes”), who had hoped to fashion a universal communication from bits and pieces of the European languages to encourage peace.
Today, Esperanto, as the language came to be known, claims more than 100,000 fluent speakers worldwide and between 8 million and 15 million people with some knowledge of it. Yet Esperantists are generally seen as verbal hobbyists who dream that Esperanto may one day become the international second language.
Most lesser-known and long-gone constructed languages had equally idealistic starts.
Typically, they have sought to simplify speech and gain cross-cultural acceptance. A 19th-Century musician named Jean Francois Sudre created a language of almost 12,000 words called Solresol, which used only combinations of the syllables of the musical scale--as in do, re, me, fa, so, and so forth. It got off the ground only briefly when some naval vessels used it to send musical communiques.
In 1879, a Catholic priest claimed religious inspiration in creating Volapuk (world speech), which is now on the endangered linguistics list.
And, in 1933, a New York group tried to standardize vocabulary shared in the Latin-based Romance languages to invent Interlingua, which never seriously challenged Esperanto but still lingers.
Lojban itself is a renegade language. University of Florida sociologist James Cooke Brown began creating a language he called Loglan 35 years ago, as an instrument to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a linguistic riddle that wondered whether the structure of language limits thought.
“The concept was to invent a language which is speakable but significantly different,” says LeChevalier, “and then test its effect on thinking.”
With the additional prospect of computer and artificial intelligence applications for Loglan, Brown continued to develop it.
By the mid-'80s, however, Loglan had undergone upheavals and periods of inactivity, according to critics. Membership dwindled. Fearing erosion of his authority, Brown copyrighted Loglan as “intellectual property,” forcing a schism.
A year ago, LeChevalier, a Loglan volunteer since 1979 and a systems engineer who’d been laid off by Unisys Corp., together with other former Loglanists, began altering the vocabulary and reshaping the grammar of Loglan into an independent sister language, Lojban.
“The artificial-language efforts attract people who are idealists and who have strong opinions about language and other things,” says LeChevalier. “Inevitably, when you get strong-willed people, you are going to get conflict.”
For the past year, the Lojban group, headquartered at LeChevalier’s home, has steadily labored at re-creating Loglan into Lojban, writing the first Lojban textbook and attracting people who want to learn the language. “We need a body of speakers to test Sapir-Whorf,” says LeChevalier, referring to the language-thought hypothesis. “We’ve got to get people from different backgrounds and cultures.”
Although most of the Lojban materials are written in English, LeChevalier has recruited about 40 members overseas--five or six of them in Germany, a few in Austria and Switzerland and one in Italy.
But most of the 500 or so members are Americans and Canadians, and only a few of them so far are working toward fluency.
One problem is that while LeChevalier insists Lojban is easy, there are no idioms to shorten expressions, no exceptions to its rules, no standard parts of speech.
“Lojban seems complex only because the varieties of human thought are complex, and Lojban is designed to minimize constraints on those thoughts,” reads the introductory brochure.
Consider the philosophical principle Occam’s razor, which in English reads: “The simplest explanation is usually the best.” In Lojban, it’s Roda poi velciksi so’eroike ganai sampyyrai gi xagrai. Translated back to English: “All somethings-which-are-explanations mostly are if superlatively-simple then superlatively-good.”
LeChevalier admits that seems difficult. “The thing is that the English in that case is not simple,” he explains. “The gimmick with Lojban is not trying to be simple. The gimmick is it takes and makes the logical structure of an expression explicit.”
One Lojban student named Athelstan says he was “irresistibly drawn” to the language for that reason. “I like the idea that I can say logical and mathematical things a whole lot easier without giving up saying regular things fairly easily,” he says.
A landscaper and artist living in Keyser, W. Va., Athelstan adopted as a legal name the Anglo-Saxon alias (meaning “noble stone”) he used as a member of a medieval re-creation group years ago in college.
Dead languages are his specialties, having dabbled in Latin, Old English and Old Norse. Now he is among the best speakers of Lojban. He sees it as a language that already has changed his way of thinking.
“I’ve begun to observe how what I say can be transformed into this notation of things as being related,” he says of Lojban, which structures sentences around the relationships within the expression. “I seem to be able to switch back and forth between the world of actions and things in English, and the new way, through relationships, in Lojban.”
T. Peter Park answered an ad LeChevalier had placed in the May issue of Discovery magazine.
“I’ve always had a great interest in linguistics,” says the librarian in Garden City South, N.Y. A native Estonian, Park is bilingual and has studied five natural languages, as well as Esperanto and Interlingua.
But what impresses him about Lojban is its culturally unbiased design. “It does make a nice try at culture fairness,” says Park, who likes the idea of an international auxiliary language. “Maybe it will survive as the fittest, but if not, it may inspire somebody to devise something better.”
Reasonable expectations for Lojban? John Parks-Clifford, a philosophy professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, who is helping to fine-tune its logic, uses words such as “enlightenment” and “human betterment” when speculating about what might result from a properly conducted Sapir-Whorf experiment.
But he has doubts. First Lojban must be perfected. Then, he says, to conduct the experiment requires a “second generation of learners. . . . From the time the language is finished and all the bugs are ironed out, it is 10 years to do the experiment.”
Though not fluent in Lojban, Parks-Clifford is optimistic it may become the language of dialogue between computers and humans.
“It is a language that could be totally read off by a machine,” he says. “A large part of the technology is already in place. People have been trying to do it with English or Russian, but they’re ambiguous languages. The computer doesn’t know which meaning of words to read. . . . Lojban isn’t ambiguous.”
Guy L. Steele Jr. says that’s “a very plausible conjecture that hasn’t been tested.” A senior scientist at Thinking Machine Corp., in Cambridge, Mass., and a pioneer in computer languages, Steele says “to get a new language started takes a really motivating reason. Computers might be enough reason for Lojban.”
“When it comes down to it, I am hoping that this thing isn’t just a pipe dream,” says LeChevalier. “The language is truly in its infancy. The Library of Congress is monitoring us. It is the first chance that somebody can archive the complete development of an artificial language. . . . We’re talking about getting involved in a language that is so new there is no language.”
There was enough, however, for LeChevalier to propose to his wife, Nora. He was trying to debunk science-fiction novelist Robert Heinlein’s contention that it is a language you can’t whisper into your lover’s ear.
“It has a rather nice feature for private conversations,” he says. “Nobody else knows it.”