Loglan, Lojban, and Bible Interpretation

by Feb 21, 2013Exegesis, Linguistics7 comments

I thoroughly enjoyed Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented LanguagesOne of the stories that stuck with me was Okrent’s description of how the megalomaniacal inventor of the language “Loglan” thought he could come up with a worldview-neutral language. “Loglan” is short for “Logical Language,” and the idea stems from some famous (or infamous, depending on which linguist you talk to) ideas generated by early twentieth century linguist Benjamin Whorf. But Whorf is not the megalomaniac; that honor goes to a linguist named James Cooke Brown who thought of a way to test Whorf’s theories.

Whorf was known for his “linguistic relativity principle,” which argued that “users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world.” In other words, Hopi Indians—the group Whorf studied—necessarily view the world differently from English speakers not merely because of their culture, their heritage, or their living conditions, but because of their language itself.

For example, the word “day” cannot be pluralized in Hopi, because plurals have to be “observable all at once” (as Okrent summarizes Whorf). So, ipso facto, the Hopi must view time differently than do English speakers. Makes sense, right?

Well, not necessarily. Whorf’s ideas fell out of favor not long after he died and, despite something of a comeback, are certainly not considered rock-solid by the linguistics community as a whole. One of the reasons for this failure is that this idea is not empirically testable. How can you know that Hopi ideas of time are different because of their language, and not the other way around? In other words, correlation does not prove causation.

That’s where James Cooke Brown and Loglan come in. Brown invented Loglan in the hopes that “a tiny model language, with a grammar borrowed from the rules of modern logic, taught to subjects of different nationalities in a laboratory setting under conditions of control, would permit a decisive test” of Whorf’s hypotheses. If a Hopi Indian and a Hopewell Iowan can learn a perfectly logical language in a lab, we can see if that language affects their thinking—or if their thinking affects their language.

Loglan attempts to provide tools to speakers so that they can communicate with perfect precision. You don’t say you’re feeling “low,” because the Loglan word dizlo speaks only of relative height as measured by a ruler. The metaphorical extension of low feelings is not allowed. You have to use the precise word created for low feelings. As Okrent puts it, “In terms of vocabulary, this means that definitions should be unclouded by connotations and metaphorical extensions that may not be shared from culture to culture.”

Brown was something of a character, however, and without delving into all the fascinating details, his “followers” eventually wrested control of Loglan from its founder, christening their knock-off “Lojban,” from the words in Loglan for “logical language.” (I’m not making any of this up!) Lojbanists get together for conferences and (sort of) speak their impossible language; mostly they just argue about the properly logical way to say things.

I found Okrent’s comments about the “Lojban culture” she witnessed at their Logfest conference (which attracted exactly twelve people) enlightening:


2011 Logfest, courtesy of the Lojban website

Lojban culture? A language, of course, once it gets off the drawing board and into the hands of people who use it, can never be culture-free. Loglan, and Lojban after it, were bound to develop a culture of their own. They attracted a self-selecting group of people who already shared many of the same interests and thought about things in similar ways. As one of them put it in an early issue of the Loglanist, Loglan speakers “have a prior weird-ness that ruins any whorf-test.” To become a Loglanist, you had to, in a certain sense, already think like a Loglanist. James Cooke Brown did not see this as too much of a problem, though, because the experimental tests that were expected to eventually occur would be performed not on the Loglanists who had developed the language but on “normal” subjects, who would learn Loglan in the (culturally) sterile environment of the laboratory. Some Lojbanists still dream of the day when the laboratory tests will finally be implemented, but it is unclear whether even they themselves are capable of learning Lojban to a level of basic proficiency, much less any “normal” people.

Loglan, Lojban, and Bible Interpretation

Blogs are allowed to be a little free-form. You can meander toward your point as long as you do so entertainingly. If you’ve read this far, hopefully this post qualifies.

Here are my take-aways from the above story:

  1. Don’t necessarily dismiss claims that the Bible contains ambiguities. Don’t necessarily hear in that kind of claim a postmodern, relativistic, dodging of what God is trying to say. Sometimes what God says is capable of more than one understanding—because God wanted it that way. “The love of Christ constrains us.” Is it our love for Christ or Christ’s love for us? In Loglan you’d have to specify it. So if you were a Loglan translator, which meaning would you specify? How certain are you that you’re right? Can anyone be 100% certain and yet be fair with the exegetical facts? The fact is that God didn’t use Loglan for the New Testament (though some interpreters use Greek as if He did); God used a normal human language, Κοινή (i.e. common) Greek.
  2. You can’t transcend your God-given linguistic limitations. You can’t speak a language that is exhaustively precise; it is, too hazard a bad pun, too exhausting! Linguists speak of “extension” and “intension.” The more extension a word has (the more things to which it applies) the less “intension” it has (it means less). For example, “furniture” has fairly large extension but fairly low intension. “Chair” has more intension. “Chaise longue” has even more; in fact, it has very little extension at all. (See chapter 6 here.) I think careful theological definition of concepts is very important—but not every use of the word sanctification in Scripture matches our rich understanding of the concept. Sometimes it’s hitting one or the other of the elements of the concept. Context will tell you.
  3. There are no culturally sterile environments once people arrive. The moon was culturally sterile, I suppose, until July 20, 1969. But down here on earth cultural sterility is hard to come by. People are inescapably relational, because the God in whose image they are made is a Trinity of persons. Also, our ways of relating tend to form patterns within individual groups. Does this mean that what the Hebrews wrote in their sacred books is impossible to understand by modern Westerners, who have different relational patterns? Manifestly not. I understand Psalm 51 both in English and in a deeply personal way. I’m sure I get it. Absolutely perfect translation may not be possible from language to language or culture to culture, but sufficiently good translation is.

One last thing; I didn’t tie up the threads about the Whorf hypothesis. I’ll say only this: you know a lot of English speakers. Do they all share the same worldview?

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  1. gleki

    coi (which mean “Hi!” in Lojban). Thank you for your interest to Lojban.

    I have to debunk one common myth about Lojban. You write

    ” “The love of Christ constrains us.” Is it our love for Christ or Christ’s love for us? In Loglan you’d have to specify it. ”

    I don’t know much about Loglan, but in Lojban you DON’T have to specify that.

    In fact Lojban is capable of being the most VAGUE language in the world.
    And of course we shouldn’t confuse vagueness with ambiguity.

    You write “You can’t speak a language that is exhaustively precise”
    I completely agree with you and should say that Lojban implements the principle of facultative (controlled in both ways) precision to it’s fullest extent. People tend to be as vague in speech as possible. And this is what Lojban pays great attention to.

    I’ll be glad to answer other questions that you might have.

    You can also write them directly to https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/lojban-beginners

    mu’o mi’e la gleki

  2. Michael Turniansky

    As the translator of the book of Esther into lojban ( http://www.lojban.org/tiki/Esther ), I feel uniquely qualified to answer some of your questions (although as an Orthodox Jew, I’ll obviously disagree with a few of your tenets, but that’s unimportant for the discussion at hand). First, as gleki says, semantic ambiguity (vagueness) can indeed exist in lojban, and in particular, the sentence that he cites works well “lo za’i prami pe la xristos ma’a rinju” –> the love that is associated with Christ constains us.

    So, for my translation of Esther, I used my own personal background of years of Biblical Hebrew study, (and decades of its use in daily prayers and study), five different English translations (Jewish and non-Jewish), three different Hebrew-English dictionaries, and a medieval Jewish commentary to reach a consensus on what the translation should be in lojban. Stylistically, I kept as close to the Hebrew as practicable (which was a task in itself, since the Hebrew it was written in is more archaic and flowery than most books of the Bible, being that it was emulating the formal style of royal annals of the period). In places where the text was vague, I left the vagueness in. Where it was precise, I was precise. I then had the translation vetted by several other lojban experts who went over it with their own eyes, questioning my choices and either convincing me to change, or being won over by my arguments that my choices were valid.

    Translations of sacred works are indeed a challenge like no other, but lojban is up to the task.

    –Mike Turniansky

  3. Mark L. Ward, Jr.

    Wow, this is truly awesome! A few actual Lojbanists dropping into my humble blog! I’m totally willing to be corrected on any point. I am basing all my comments on what Arika Okrent said in her book.

    But I have a question: was she totally off in saying that the purpose of Loglan and Lojban was to create a fully precise language? Or are you merely saying that Loglan/Lojban are equally capable of precision and ambiguity? That is, where English is limited in its ability to be precise, Lojban is able to be precise. But where English is vague, so can be Lojban. Would that be a better way to put it?

  4. Michael Turniansky

    I don’t necessarily think that she was off-base in that one of the original design goals of Loglan was precision, but like any language, its precision is scalable — that is, you can be as precise as you care to be, at the cost of being more verbose, and that in some instances, Loglan/lojban enables that with a bit less effort than natural languages. So, yes, I could have been precise with the question at hand:
    “lo za’i prami pe la xristos ma’a rinju” (the original, vague way: “the love associated with C constrains us”)
    “lo za’i prami la xristos kei ma’a rinju” (“the state of loving C constrains us”)
    “lo za’i se prami la xristos kei ma’a rinju” (“the state of being loved by C constrains us”)

    It’s also more precise with how things like pronouns are handled. “Bobby tackled Kenny, ripping his shirt”, would leave no question of whose shirt was ripped (but there again, there CAN be if you want there to be)

    –Mike Turniansky

  5. Mark L Ward Jr

    Very cool. Thanks again for stopping by.

  6. Gleki Arxokuna

    Please, not the difference between ambiguity (which often presents problems, indeed) and vagueness.

    In fact no language can avoid vagueness. When you say “I was fine” you specify the time: “was” (past tense) but English doesn’t force you to specify the temperature, atmosperic pressure, time of the day etc. This means English is vague in that regard.

    It would be an absurd to specify that of course. So vagueness is okay.

    However, when you say “light” the listener can’t be sure what meaning of “light” is used: is it “light in weight” or “light from the Sun”? This homonymy can be evil. Lojban doesn’t have it.

  7. Mark Ward

    Not quite sure I’m following this comment. Context—both textual and actual—lets me know what sense of “light” or “fine” someone intends. One of the skills all normal speakers of language have is gauging how much linguistic information they must supply to a hearer to achieve their intended communicative effect. If “I was fine” is sufficient, people will generally stop there. If they need to add, “I was fine, but I had to take off my sweatshirt because I was too hot,” they’ll do so.