If you're a speaker of English, which is pretty likely since you're listening to this podcast, you may have found yourself occasionally frustrated by its arbitrary nature, and the difficulties and ambiguities this sometimes causes. Why are there so many ways of spelling "their" there? Why should you have to twist your tongue if you want to sell sea shells by the seashore? And if you talk about a little girls' school, why should listeners be confused about whether the school or the girls are little? It may not surprise you to learn that the desire for a more well-defined and mathemtically sound human language has been around for a long time. In fact, it has been over 50 years since Dr. James Cooke Brown first defined the language Loglan, a new human language based on the mathematical concepts of the predicate calculus. Later iterations of the language, after an internal poltiical struggle against Dr. Brown by language enthusiasts, were renamed Lojban. In theory, Lojban, unlike English and other natural languages, is claimed to be minimal, regular, and unambiguous.
How do they define Lojban as such a clean language? First they made a careful choice of phonemes, basic sounds, chosen from among the ones most common in a variety of world languages. Each distinct-sounding phoneme is connected to uniquely defined symbols, removing any possible confusion about how to pronounce a given word: a word's sound is completely determined by how it is spelled. Then they defined a set of around 1,350 phonetically-spelled basic root words using these phonemes, being careful to not create homonyms or synonyms that could lead to confusion. The number of letters in a word and its consonant-vowel pattern determine what type of word it is: for example, a two-letter word with a consonant followed by a vowel is a simple operator, while five-letter words are what is known as "predicates". Replacing many aspects of parts of speech such as nouns and verbs from traditional languages, the formation of sentences is based around the predicates, which are in many ways analogous to the logic predicates of mathematics. For example, the predicate "tavla" means "x1 talks to x2 about x3 in language x4", with x1, x2, x3, and x4 being slots that may be filled by other Lojban words.
To get a better idea of how this works, let's look at a specific example. In the opening I alluded to the sentence "That's a little girls' school", which is ambiguous in English: is it a school for little girls, or a little school for girls? In Lojban, if it is the school that is little, the translation is "Ta cmalu nixli bo ckule". The predicate "cmalu" defines something being small. "Nixli" means "girl", and "ckule" means "school". The connector "bo" groups its two adjacent words together, just like enclosing them in parentheses in a mathematical equation, showing that we are talking about a school for girls, and it is that whole thing which is small. Alternatively, if we said "Ta cmalu bo nixli ckule", the virtual parentheses would be around "cmalu" for is-a-small and "nixli" for girl, showing that what is small is the girls, not the school. If there were no "bo" at all, there is a determinstic order-of-operations just like in a mathematical equation: the leftmost choice of words is always grouped together. So "Ta cmalu bo nixli ckule" and "Ta cmalu nixli ckule" are equivalent. Pretty simple, right? Well, maybe not, but after you stare at it for a while it kind of makes sense. And it does eliminate an ambiguity we have in English, at least for this case.
The adherents of these logical languages claim many potential benefits from learning them. They were originally developed to test the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which claims that a person's primary language can determine how they think. Whatever the merits to this idea, I have a hard time seeing Lojban as a valid testing tool, unless a child is raised with this as his primary language without learning any natural languages-- and that would be rather cruel to a child, I think! But many other virtues are claimed. Since the language is fully logical, it should facilitate precise engineering and technical specifications; a goal I can sympathize with, since I regularly deal at work with challenges of interpreting plain-English design specs. It is also claimed as a building block towards Artificial Intelligence, since its logical nature should make it easier to teach to a computer than natural languages. It is also claimed as a culturally neutral international language, though it has fallen far short of other choices like Esperano in popularity. And its adherents also enjoy it as a "linguistic toy", helping to research aspects of language in the course of building an artificial one.
At this point, I should add that I actually have a bit of a personal perspective on the viability of this kind of approach to technical specs. It is claimed that the logical and precise nature of Lojban will mean that if engineers would just learn it, all our specs would be clearer and unambiguous, leading to great increases in engineering productivity. But I work in the area of Formal Verification, where we are trying to verify chip designs, often having to convert plain-English specs into logically precise formats. For many years there were different verification languages proposed for people to use in specifications, many offering minimal, highly logical, and well-defined semantics. But the ones that caught on the most in the engineering community and became de facto standards have not been the elegantly designed minimal ones, but the ones that were most flexible and added features corresponding more to the way humans think about the designs. So I'm a little skeptical of the idea that engineers would willingly replace English with a language like Lojban in order to gain more logical precision.
In any case, I think the biggest failure of Lojban has been that there are not enough people willing to learn it. Perhaps the human brain's language areas might just not be hard-wired in a way that naturally supports the predicate calculus. Even the lojban.org page states "At any given time, there are at least 50 to 100 active participants... A number of them can hold a real-time conversation in the language." So out of 50-100 people who are paying attention, only a subset of these can actually speak it? In comparison, Esperanto, an artificial international language designed by idealists in the late 19th century, has tens of thousands of speakers, and an estimated thousand who learned the language natively from birth. And even Klingon, an artifcial language invented for "Star Trek" and of no practical use to anybody, is rumored to have more fluent speakers than Lojban.
So, if you want to learn a cool way to think differently about language and make it more mathematically precise, go ahead and visit the Lojban institute online and start your lessons. But if you're hoping to make your engineering specifications more precise, communicate with your neighbors, or bring about world peace, you're out of luck. So remember to teach your children English as well.
And this has been your math mutation for today.