LOJBAN AND THE SAPIR-WHORF HYPOTHESIS
CULTURAL RELATIVISM: From the introduction of a draft textbook on Lojban (author and date unknown)
What is Lojban?
Lojban is an artificial language, the major accomplishment of a 35-year research project into the nature of human language. Dr. James Cooke Brown, founder of this project, called it 'The Loglan Project'; Lojban is a specific version of the generic language called 'Loglan'. Brown originally designed Loglan to test a controversial idea in linguistics called the Sapir- Whorf Hypothesis. As others became involved in the research, a variety of other goals arose in linguistics research, computers and artificial intelligence, intercultural communication, and education. Loglan/Lojban is thus unique, among artificial languages, in having several useful purposes incorporated into its design. Because of this, Lojban attracts people with a variety of interests. Diversity will sustain Lojban's growth and ensure that it finds acceptance as a useful tool of analysis and communication.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is named for linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, who helped set forth the idea of 'cultural relativism'. Cultural relativism specifies that there is a close relationship between the structure of a language and the culture that uses that language. There are several interpretations of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. These versions differ on how strong the relationship is thought to be between language and culture, and what 'Sapir-Whorf effects' might be seen in a culture derived from a particular language. The 'version' of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis guiding Lojban development states that "the structures of language constrains the thought patterns of participants in the culture associated with that language." Lojban attempts to test this hypothesis by removing constraints in several areas of language use, while imposing other constraints not found in natural languages. Lojban was designed to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: "the structure of language constrains the thought patterns of participants in the culture associated with that language."
Much of linguistic academia abandoned the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in the late 1950s. They were unable to even agree on what the hypothesis meant, much less on how to test it. One problem was the difficulty in sorting out 'Sapir-Whorf effects' from other factors that might affect culture (like history and geography). Another was the difficulty of differentiating between language constraints on cultural thought, and cultural effects that dictate the evolution of a language.
Meanwhile, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis became intellectually (and politically) unfashionable, because some people used it to justify racist ideas regarding the supposed superiority or inferiority of specific cultures. In 1955, Dr. Brown suggested that a constructed language, free of ties to a particular culture, would help distinguish causes from effects. By engineering specific and unusual structural features into the constructed language, the effects of those features could be more easily detected. He chose to devise a language based on logic, a "logical language", hence "Loglan". ("Lojban" is the same contraction using words from within the Lojban language instead of English words).
Brown's language incorporated the well-understood concepts and structures of symbolic logic into its structure, and attempted to avoid ambiguities that could confuse those well-formed structures. Inventing a fully-expressive language from scratch is difficult. Inventing one that was both totally different from all other languages and still able to express the full range of ideas conveyed by language proved a daunting task. Brown and others re-engineered Loglan several times as they found weaknesses in the original design, and as the science of linguistics provided new knowledge of the essential properties of languages.
Finally, in 1987, the Loglan development effort passed to a new generation of Loglanists led by The Logical Language Group, Inc., who completed Lojban in ***. While it is no longer the sole reason for Lojban's development, the Sapir-Worf hypothesis remains an essential underlying concept behind its design. Interestingly, as Lojban is completed, renewed interest in the hypothesis has surfaced, for reasons related to those that caused its submersion in the 1950s.
Do specific properties of 'Black English' hinder the education of American blacks? Does the lack of a gender-neutral 3rd person singular pronoun in English, and the default of grammatical 'person' to masculine forms enhance inequality between the sexes and cause sexual stereotyping? For these controversial ideas to be true, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis must be true. Questions have arisen in other fields that seem related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, most notably in the computer industry. Would a 'natural-language-like' interface between computers and people enhance the understanding of computers and the productivity of their users? Does the icon- graphics-based Apple Macintosh interface lead to 'sloppier thinking' than the 'glass-typewriter' MS- DOS computer interface?
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has also permeated the study of literature. The hypothesis has been particularly significant in semiotics (the study of signs and symbols in language and literature). The Lojban effort has now added new goals totally unrelated to this original one. People have recognized the following, among others: - research into linguistics and the nature of language; - artificial intelligence; - human-computer communication; - computer translation of natural language text; - education in the use of language as a tool of thought; - education in language as a reflection of culture; - more rapid learning of foreign languages, with Lojban as a first step; - creative personal exploration of new ideas.
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