Letter on Sapir-Whorf discussions at LogFest ’89 and other topics

by Ralph Dumain

The closest I have come to dealing with linguistics in a long time was attending a linguistics conference here in December. I queried a couple of friends about the current state of linguistic theory, who were rather cynical. They did not feel, however, that any given school of thought was being discriminated against in terms of research funding; the politics is more personal than doctrinal. The book exhibit was overwhelming; there is more going on than anyone can assimilate—books on syntax, discourse analysis, you name it—it's hard to get a grip on. I saw the new book that Mouton has published on interlinguistics (i.e. international planned languages like Esperanto), but it was too expensive to buy even at a discount. There were 6 books in a series on the DLT project, the machine translation system that uses Esperanto as the interlanguage. With two other books I know about, that makes 8 books in all. One of those books includes articles about other machine translation projects, including one that uses the purportedly logical Indian language Aymara as its interlanguage!

A few comments on articles in your recent newsletters. The lengthy article that compares Lojban to Esperanto struck me as much to-do about nothing, as no Esperantist today believes that his language only has 16 rules. That was used at one time as a propaganda device by careless people, but I think people are more thoughtful nowadays, at least on that point. Anyway, it is necessary to understand the historical origin of the "16 rules." They are not descriptive but prescriptive. They came from the effort to put and end to the constant attempts at reforming the grammar that people who are never satisfied with the form of Esperanto or any other planned language kept attempting to make. Adopted as part of the "Fundamento," the 16 rules declared those easily describable, non-negotiable, mandatory features of the language. Together with a basic lexicon and a set of examples illustrating the language in use (including syntactic features not explicitly described elsewhere), the "16 rules" formed the Fundamento. Of course, Esperanto like all other languages contains thousands of syntactic rules, some of which are captured in prescriptive grammars, and many more of which the speakers are unconscious. Esperanto is learned as other languages are learned, without complete formal grammars at hand, and non-Europeans do not have to learn an Indo-European language before they learn Esperanto, any more than they would have to learn French before they could learn English. Also, Esperanto can borrow words from any language, not just European ones.

On the alleged non-competition between Esperanto and Lojban. They are non-competitive if Lojbanists refrain from pushing Lojban as an international language, since the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is of no concern to Esperanto. However, the minute someone makes a claim for a new international language, several issues arise. Anyone coming forth with a new language who looks like a crackpot automatically discredits the international language movement in the eyes of the public, hence Esperantists have a stake in the matter. In the past, this means that somebody hides in their attic for 15 years creating a language, self-publishes a little book describing his new language, and announces in a press conference that he has just created the now world language. It is one thing to have a hobby, it is another to make bombastic proclamations that one's creation (whether of a language, a new monetary system, or any utopian scheme) will change the world when the lack of social realism is so obvious to all. Those kind of people are obvious cranks, and hence they compromise Esperanto whenever they claim that they have concocted a new world language, as if the adoption of an international language were some kind of magic. Hence Esperantists have justifiably reacted negatively.

Now, I do not claim that Lojban/Lojban is guilty of this extreme behavior. The Washington Post article did not cast Lojban in such a light. You have not yet claimed Lojban to be the future international language. But you have already resorted to dubious propaganda in order to make yourself look good and Esperanto bad.

You suggest that, as Lojban is a superior engineering effort than Esperanto, it can quickly catch up even though Esperanto has a century-long head start. The creators of Ido also thought they were superior language engineers, and where are they today? There are social, political and economic reasons why no planned language, Esperanto or otherwise, has been universally adopted, and those obstacles cannot be surmounted by the most able of engineers. Here the narrow, blinkered mentality of the computer specialist is so painfully evident.

There is also the supposed cultural neutrality of Lojban that makes it superior to Esperanto. But Lojban has not only neutrality, but cultural nullity. Esperanto had social roots (and still does today) in the circumstances of late 19th century Eastern Europe, and in spite of the provinciality of the Warsaw Ghetto, Zamenhof and Esperanto still managed to attract the admiration and loyalty of people throughout the world. The European "bias" of Esperanto's grammar is a non-issue, as that is the part of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that has been thoroughly discredited. The European lexicon of the Esperanto language is advantageous to technologically oriented non-Europeans, though it may ideologically repulse others. But the speech community of Esperanto is most diverse, whereas the community of Lojban is extremely uniform and narrow—computer nerds, sci-fi buffs, people interested in logic and semantics—not much of a basis for an international culture, and certainly not an ideologically neutral or even diverse culture. Esperantists, in spite of the European bias of their language's lexicon, have risked and even sacrificed their lives in fighting racism and fascism; no Lojbanist I know would ever make such a sacrifice.

What is most irritating is misusing facts in order to support misleading generalizations. I accept as truthful the statement that while sitting next to the Esperanto booth at a sci-fi convention, you did not overhear the Esperantists speaking Esperanto to one another. You dishonestly suggest by that example that Esperantists are not even accustomed to speaking the very language they are advertising to others. What hypocrisy, in light of the fact that Esperanto conversation has been going on for a century in the most diverse of circumstances, while no Loglan/ Lojban conversation in the context of any normal social interaction has ever taken place! I too have staffed an Esperanto booth upon occasion, and I too have only used English to speak to my fellow American Esperantist booth-mates, because it is basically an English-speaking environment, and I do not generally speak Esperanto in an English-speaking setting although I am perfectly capable of speaking the language.

So it seems that in spite of your lip service to non-competition, you are already pitting Lojban against Esperanto in a competitive fashion, and you have also resorted to duplicity in doing so. Under those circumstances, you cannot realistically expect amicable relations between Lojban and the Esperanto movement. You know that I do not tolerate dishonest propaganda on the part of Esperantists, as evidenced by my disagreements with Don Harlow. I surely am not going to let the young upstarts of Lojban get away with any nonsense, especially when they are highly educated people who claim to be able to use their language in order to improve their thinking and their world view.

I enclose a photocopy of a commentary on Loglan/Lojban from Rick Harrison's The Alembic. I pass this along for the completeness of your archives, not to torment you. Mark Tierisch's reasoning leaves something to be desired in many parts of this article. Although this article makes Esperanto look good in comparison to Loglan, its reasoning doesn't hold up, especially since Esperanto like all other languages has a lot more than 30 grammatical rules, let alone 16. The only place where I unequivocally agree with Tierisch is where he refers to Loglan as not culturally neutral but as a reflection of the "culture of nerds." The disparaging term "nerd" is hardly necessary, but the description accurately pinpoints the subcultural basis (and hence metaphysical bias) of Lojban: science fiction and computer buffs and the like.

SOURCE: Dumain, Ralph. Letter on Sapir-Whorf discussions at LogFest '89 and other topics, Ju'i Lobypli, no. 13, August 1990, pp. 32-34, with reply from Bob LeChevalier: pp. 34-36.

Note: Title was supplied after publication. Citation comes from a later bibliography. Page numbers apparently conflict with page numbers found on web page. Minor formatting changes and typographical corrections have been made. Boldface has been added, highlighting remarks later cited by others.

Other references:

Dumain, Ralph. "Some comments on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Loglan", Ju'i Lobypli [newsletter of the artificial language Loglan/Lojban], no. 6, 1988, pp. 39-42, with further comments on p. 39, 42-43.

Dumain, Ralph. "Bibliography on Language and Thought," ju'i lobypli, no. 11, March 1990, pp. 36-38. On this site with additional note.

Annotated Bibliography on Language and Thought by Ralph Dumain

Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes: Selected Bibliography

Esperanto & Interlinguistics Study Guide / Retgvidilo pri Esperanto & Interlingvistiko

Reflexivity & Situatedness Study Guide


Lojban revisited by R. Dumain

Lojban and Esperanto: Extracts from from ju'i lobypli
(including this article from #13)

Some comments on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Loglan,
with "Further Remarks on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and Other Matters" &
"Bibliography with Commentary in Progress on Language and Thought: Part 1"
by R. Dumain
(Why Lojban: Extracts from ju'i lobypli #6 - 8 / 1988)

The Alembic, no. 2, Summer 1989
(Includes "Retorts" by Mark Tierisch on Lojban & R. Dumain on childish anarchism)

A Working Bibliography by Robert Gorsch

Lojban in Perspective by Todd Moody

Book Review of Loglan 1 by Bob LeChevalier and Athelstan

insult: Lojban

The Emergence of Lojban Nationalism

Lojban site


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