Have you felt that English wasn’t rationally constructed? Do you ever wonder, for instance, why we made “affect” and “effect” seem so similar when they mean two different things? Or why “you’re” are “your” sound identical, but are dissimilar in meaning? Couldn’t we have designed something little bit more simple? About two decades ago, a group in Washington, D.C. attempted to do just that.
In 1987 the Logical Language Group began constructing a language based entirely on mathematical logic. As a foundation for their work, they used James Cooke Brown’s research from 1955. Brown had created a language called Loglan in order to test the effects of language on the speaker’s thought. The LLG adopted many of Loglan’s concepts to create their own language. Their goal was to invent a language that would be able to express complex ideas simply and without ambiguity. They aspired to remove the restrictions that ambiguity imposed on creativity, thought, and communication. By 1998, they had created an entirely new language according to those precepts: they named it Lojban. That same year they published a complete grammar and vocabulary of Lojban under the title The Complete Lojban Language.
So how exactly did Lojban’s creators attempt to make language less ambiguous? First the LLG invented 1,350 basic root words. The creators made sure that they included no words that sound alike but have different meanings (like “your” and “you’re”). They also made sure that they did not include words that have multiple but unrelated meanings (like “bank“), or words that differ only in punctuation but not in sound (like “its” and “it’s”).
Beyond word selection, however, Lojban’s creators made other decisions to remove ambiguity from language. For instance, all of Lojban’s parts of speech have easily identifiably structural characteristics, so that one can unambiguously recognize which word is which part of speech just by the way it appears. Also spelling in Lojban is completely phonetic. This means that a word will sound exactly the way it looks. Finally, Lojban’s grammar is regular: the language’s rules have no exceptions. In all of these ways Lojban’s creators attempted to design a language that was unambiguous and easy to learn. But they went one step further to ensure the language’s success.
The creators wanted to make sure that Lojban would be accessible for speakers of diverse languages, so Lojban’s vocabulary was invented using the roots of the six most widely spoken languages in the world: Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, and Arabic. The result is a highly unique language, which Lojban speakers say has “a smooth, rhythmic sound, somewhat like Italian.”
After Lojban was created, LLG declared that no new Lojban words or idioms could be made for five years in order to create a baseline lexicon and reference grammar while language usage expanded. This period was called “the freeze,” and it ended in 2002. Lojban speakers are now free to alter and build upon the language as they see fit.
So what is the point of inventing a language like this? Well, for one thing, Lojban’s creators think that the language helps humans communicate more directly and expressively. But also, they think Lojban might help humans communicate better with computers. Unlike natural languages, computers are able to process Lojban with ease. This is due primarily to its unambiguous grammar and simple structure. Lojban supporters assert that this may make it possible for Lojban to be used in the future for computer-human interaction, and perhaps conversation.
Today, Lojban is spoken all over the world. The highest concentrations of Lojban speakers are in Australia, Israel, and the United States. Every year, since 1990, Lojban speakers have gathered for Logfest, an event which features technical discussions, lessons in Lojban, conversation hours, and the annual meeting of the LLG.
But Lojban is not the only constructed language out there. Lojsk, for instance, is a single-syllable-oriented language developed by Ari Reyes. There is also Voksigid, a language based in mathematical logic and influenced heavily by Japanese. And, of course, there is Klingon, the constructed language spoken by the fictional Klingons in the Star Trek. If you are interested in creating your own language, check out this great language construction kit.
What changes would you make to English to make it a clearer language?
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