Lojban - a logical language
1. Welcome to Lojbanistan!
Lojban, in Lojban, means "logical language" (the j is pronounced
as in French bonjour) Lojbanistan is both an imaginary country
where Lojban is spoken and, in practice, the international community
Lojban itself came out of an earlier language project called Loglan,
and it shares Loglan's interest in the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" -
the idea that the language you speak affects the way you think. Most
people who have learnt a foreign language, or have grown up speaking
two languages, will be familiar with this idea, having found
themselves thinking and speaking in one language or the other
because something is easier to say in that language. One of the main
ideas behind the Loglan/Lojban project was to create a language
which is both highly expressive and as culturally neutral as
possible, then see what people from different cultures do with it.
To give an example, in most European languages time and gender are
very important - you can say "She goes," "It went," "He'll go" and
so on, but just to say "She/he/it go," with no particular gender or
time in mind, sounds strange. In Chinese, on the other hand,
ta qu (he/she/it go) is perfectly normal. In Lojban there are
plenty of words to show the time of an action, its length, how it
happens and so on - but you don't have to use any of them. If I
really wanted to, I could say:
- le ninmu puzuze'udi'i klama
- the female-human past-long-time-distance-long-time-interval-regularly go
- A long time ago, for a long time, she went regularly.
But normally I'd just say:
- [someone / something] go
Notice that you can translate the first example into English
(more-or-less) but the second one just won't go into English, or most
European languages. If you're European and this strikes you as odd, you
may have just witnessed a Sapir-Whorf effect!
However, if Lojban only existed as some kind of experiment to test
the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, probably very few people would bother to
learn it. In fact, Lojban's other uses have taken over so much that
quite a few Lojbanists who don't believe much in Sapir-Whorf still use
the language because of its other benefits. Some that I've heard
- It encourages you to think clearly and logically.
- It lets you express ideas precisely, but allows you to be vague when you want to.
- It can easily express a much wider range of emotions than most natural languages.
- It helps you step out of your cultural conditioning.
- Computers can understand it.
- It's good for discussing philosophy.
- It's good for writing poetry ...
... and so on. Not all Lojbanists would agree with all of these
statements - we are not language missionaries
- but there's something in the language for almost everyone.
In the long-term, Lojban has more ambitious goals. Some ways that people have
suggested Lojban can be used are:
- As a language for human-computer interaction and artificial intelligence research.
- As an interlanguage for translation - it would probably be easier and more accurate to translate from, say, Korean into Lojban then from Lojban to German, than directly from Korean to German.
- As a "meta-language" i.e. a language for describing languages.
- As a language for international law.
- As a way of improving our understanding of different cultures.
- As a tool in psychotherapy and other forms of self-development.
- As an international language.
This last point needs some clarification. There are already dozens of
"international languages", the most famous being Esperanto. Although
Lojban can (and in my opinion, should) be used as an international
language, it is not in direct competition with any of these, because it
is not only an international language. Of course it would be
nice if the whole world started speaking Lojban, but if the United
Nations decided to adopt Esperanto or Interlingua or whatever, most
inhabitants of Lojbanistan would rush out and learn that language ...
and still go on using Lojban for its other benefits.
2. Lojban Words
Constructed languages create words in two main ways. There are some,
mainly fictional languages like Elvish or Klingon, which make up all the
words from scratch. Most international languages, however, take their
vocabulary from existing languages (in practice, European languages) and
sometimes modify them to suit the spelling and grammar of the new
language - Esperanto is a good example. Lojban falls half way between
The root words (gismu in Lojban) were created
by a computer from words in the six most widely-spoken languages in the
world: Chinese, Hindi/Urdu, English, Spanish, Arabic and Russian. This
is one of the advantages of Lojban - it doesn't give a privileged
position to European languages. These are also languages that have had a
lot of words in common other languages; for example, French and Italian
share a lot of words with Spanish, and although Turkish is not on the
list, I found in Lojban a lot of elements of Turkish which had come in
from Arabic and Persian (which is quite close to Urdu). And of course
English words like "television" and "taxi" have spread all over the
All root words have five letters. For example:
- prenu - person
- cukta - book
- vanju - wine
Although these don't look much like any particular word in any language, you
can see bits of different languages in each of them. For example, prenu has
the "per" of English "person" and the ren of Chinese. cukta has the
"ook" of English "book", all of Chinese shu (c is pronounced "sh"), and
part of Arabic (and Turkish) kitap. vanju is like French vin and
Chinese jiu. This makes learning words easier for the largest number of
There are 1,300 root words. This might sound like a lot, but it is nothing
compared to the roughly 20,000 words a native speaker of a natural language
knows. Because you can't say everything you want with such a small number of
words, Lojban allows compound words (lujvo in Lojban). For example, there
is no root word for "nurse", so I created a compound, kurmikce (c from
kurji (take care of) and mikce (medic). Lojban speakers have the
freedom to create these compound words to express anything they want to say -
if it catches on, it passes into the general Lojban vocabulary, and might even
make it into the dictionary. The important thing is that somebody learning
Lojban doesn't have to learn every lujvo someone makes up, because you can
nearly always guess what they mean (if you can't guess, there's a neat little
program on the Web which does it for you - remember what I said about computers
being able to read Lojban?).
This leaves the cmavo, or structure words. Many languages put their grammar
into their words, so that, for example, in Latin you have
amo, amas, amat, amamus, amantis, amant. This kind of thing
comes naturally to native speakers, and is horribly difficult for
the rest of us. Lojban (like Chinese) makes every part of the
grammar a separate word. In English you have to change "go" to
"went" to put it in the past, but in Chinese you just say qu le,
and in Lojban you just say pu klama. This brings us to ...
3. Lojban Grammar
"Grammar" is a word with painful memories for many of us. I learnt German at
school, and was constantly amazed at how complicated and illogical the grammar
was (not that English is much better!).
Lojban grammar seems strange at first sight, but is actually quite simple. It
is based on a system called predicate logic, which states that in any sentence
you have a relationship (selbri in Lojban) between one or more
arguments (sumti). An argument can be a thing, event, quality or just
about anything (quite how you can have a relationship of one argument is one of
the mysteries of predicate logic!). To give an example, the English sentence
"Robin adores Juliette Binoche"
has a relationship (or "function"), "adore", between two arguments, "Robin" and
"Juliette Binoche". In Lojban this would be
"la robin. prami la julIET.binOC."
or, if you prefer,
"la robin. la julIET.binOC prami"
(the capital letters show non-Lojban stress for foreign words, the full stops
mean that you have to pause slightly to separate the words -
You might be thinking "Well in that case a function is a verb and an argument
is a noun, so why bother with special terminology like selbri and whatnot?"
However, in Lojban I might describe my feelings about Juliette like this:
- la julIET. melbi
- Juliette is-beautiful
In English you have a verb ("doing word"), "is", and an adjective ("describing
word"), "beautiful". In Turkish, you would say Juliette güzel, which
is a noun and an adjective, with no verb required. In Chinese you would use
meili, a "stative verb" ... but enough! In Lojban you don't need all this.
A philosophical / psychological point: some people (such as the philosopher
Alfred Korzybski and the psychologist Albert Ellis) have claimed that the
English verb "be" has a bad effect on our thinking. For example, if I say "Jim
is bad" (or good, or a Communist or whatever) it implies, if only
subconsciously, that there is something bad about his very essence, that he
always has and always will be bad, and that everything he does is bad. More
Sapir-Whorf effects, perhaps. In Lojban, there is a different word for "is"
(du) meaning "the same as" (as in "Three and four is seven" or "That is the
Eiffel Tower"). To say la djim. du xlali would meaning something totally
different in Lojban ("Jim is equally bad"), and even la djim. xlali would
be pretty bad Lojban - you would have to say:
- le nu la djim. gasnu cu xlali
- the event-of he/she/it do [cu] is-bad
- He does something bad(ly)
... or be more specific and say, for example, le nu la djim. darxi le ninmu cu xlali - "the event of his hitting the woman is bad." Note that cu does not translate as "is", or indeed as anything in English. It is simply there to separate the function xlali from what goes before: le nu ko'a gasnu xlali would be "her/his/its doing-kind-of bad-event," just as le lunra gusni would be "the moon-kind-of light", or "moonlight".
Getting back to my obsession with a certain French actress, if there are no
nouns, verbs, subjects or objects in Lojban, how do we know that la robin. la julIET.binOC prami means that I adore Juliette and not the other way round (a
nice thought, but not realistic). Different languages handle this problem
differently. In English it is done with word order, and when that isn't enough,
with prepositions (words like "at", "from", "to", "with" and so on). In other
languages, like Latin or Turkish, it's done by changing the form of the words
e.g. Juliette'i Robin sever means "Robin loves Juliette", not "Juliette
In Lojban this is built into the meaning of the word. For
example, the word dunda means "give",
but its full meaning is:
x1 gives x2 to x3
So mi pu dunda le cuska le ninmu means "I gave the book to the woman" not "I gave the woman to
the book" (of course).
But enough of grammar for now. The important point is that
Lojban has a lot of what we would call "grammar", but nearly all
of this is contained in the cmavo (structure words), and you can use as many or as few of them as
4. Lojban is not Vulcan
As I've said, Lojban means "logical language". Unfortunately, in
many cultures we have the idea that being logical means having
no emotions, rather like Mr. Spock in Star Trek. In fact
"logical" is not the opposite of "emotional", but of "illogical"
- in other words, saying things that don't make sense.
In Lojban you can of course use "emotional" words like prami ("love/adore") but there is also a
special class of words set aside for expressing feelings. Some
- .a'o - hope (pronounced "aho")
- .ui - happiness ("wheee!")
- .oi - complaint (like "Oy vey!")
- .u'u - regret (and the normal Lojban way to say, "I'm sorry")
Each of these has a negative - .uinai means "unhappy" - and degrees of feeling - .uicai means "extremely happy" or
"delighted". You can also combine the words in any way you like,
which means you can invent words for emotions that don't have a
word in your native language. For example, to express the
feeling in a lot of Turkish pop songs (arabesk), I invented the word .iucai.uinaicai (pronounced
"you-shy-we-nigh-shy") meaning something like "I am deeply in
love and deeply unhappy."
It doesn't stop there, though. .iu means "love", but "love" can mean a lot of things. If we need
to, we can modify these basic emotions. .iuro'i is emotional love, what we most
commonly understand by the word. .iuro'a is social love
- what you might feel for a good friend. .iuro'u, however, is definitely sexual, while .iure'e is spiritual love, the kind of
thing mystics feel, maybe. You can even have .iuro'e - mental or intellectual love -
if, for example, you had a passion for physics.
Lojban also has a lot of words for handling the general
business of conversation. Some examples are:
- coi - hello
- co'o - goodbye
- mi'e - this is (+ your name)
- pe'u - please
- ta'o - by the way
- mu'a - for example
- zo'o - humorously, just kidding, ;-)
Because there are no native speakers of
Lojban (well, not yet) there are very few rules for
Lojban conversation and writing. Anyone who has tried
speaking in a foreign language will know how easy it is
to be rude without intending to. In English, for
example, you have to choose between "Can you come over
here?" "Could you possibly come here, please?" "Come
here, will you?" or even "Hey you!" Lojban simplifies
this considerably by separating the emotional and social
content of a sentence from its literal meaning. I can
- ko klama ti
- you! come here
or I can make it polite by saying pe'u ko klama ti - I don't have to
disguise it as a question about your ability to come.
5. The State of the Art
Lojban is a fairly new language, and it is possible that as
it is used more, and used by more people, some parts of it will
change. However, to avoid the endless discussions about how to
"improve" the language that have plagued some other constructed
languages (including Lojban's predecessor, Loglan), it was
agreed, after an a long initial period of developing and testing
Lojban, that absolutely no changes to the language would be made
for at least five years after the publication of
The Complete Lojban Language (which eventually came out in
1998). Because the language was tested and debated so much
before this "baseline", it is also unlikely that any major
changes will occur after that period - what will probably happen
instead is that people develop the language by creating new lujvo (compound words) and exploring some of
the less-used aspects of Lojban grammar. There are also a few
areas of the language that have been deliberately left open for
In addition to the published The Complete Lojban Language, there is an HTML version of an earlier draft of
the book, which is essentially the same. Other materials
available from the Lojban website are wordlists, a draft
textbook, and a large number of Lojban texts, both original and
translated. There is also a small but rapidly developing body of
Lojban software. The main plans afoot in Lojbanistan at the time
of writing this are:
- to publish the English-Lojban dictionary;
- to publish a selection of Lojban texts;
- to write a textbook;
- to start translating Lojban materials into other languages.
If you feel motivated by any of
this to learn more about Lojban, please check out the Lojban
homepage at http://www.lojban.org . There
is also a Lojban beginners' course under construction.