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Lojban: An Artificial Language Seeks Status as the Lingua Franca : Communications: There have been several attempts to create a universal tongue. This is one of the latest.

November 17, 1989|DON OLDENBURG | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — Recently, as Bob and Nora LeChevalier prepared for dinner guests at their Fairfax, Va., home, they worried: Would party conversation diminish to small talk? Or, worse, would their guests find nothing at all to say to each other?

Common concerns for all hosts, of course. But this wasn't a typical dinner party. In fact, it is safe to say there had never been one remotely like it.

"It was an all-Lojban party," says Bob LeChevalier. No English allowed. All talk had to stick to a newly constructed tongue known as Lojban (pronounced LOZH bahn), now being developed as a culturally neutral, unambiguous and totally logical parlance.

"We maintained conversation for 4 1/2 hours," boasts LeChevalier, president of the Logical Language Group Inc., the organization that is trying to complete the unfinished language, polish it, promote it and offer classes in it. "Four and a half hours, and we're still recovering."

Over homemade pizza, five students gripping their Lojban word lists chatted haltingly about music, about translating poker terms, about how odd it is that here they were conversing in a language that, except for a handful of novices in other parts of the world, only they knew how to speak.

Knowing that even his most loyal and fastest-learning Lojbanists might be intimidated by an evening of exclusive use, LeChevalier labeled all of the food dishes, figuring to prompt dialogue. The pizza toppings included \o7 rectrpeproni \f7 (pepperoni) and \o7 cirla \f7 (cheese). Beverages? \o7 Sodva \f7 (soda), \o7 camska vanju \f7 (intense-colored wine, meaning red) and \o7 kandyska vanju \f7 (dim-colored wine, meaning white).

"Some of those are borrowings," he says, almost apologizing for words that blatantly resemble English equivalents.

Sometimes it can't be avoided, he explains, though Lojban is largely built from sounds and syllables lifted from most of the world's major languages, including Chinese, English, Hindi, Russian, Spanish and Arabic. One entree that was fully Lojban: \o7 zalvi ke nakni bakni rectu.

\f7 It is the logical extrapolation of hamburger, which everyone knows isn't logical at all in English because hamburger isn't made of ham. Lojban logic calls it ground type of male cow meat. "We can shorten that a bit," assures LeCheevalier.

Perhaps too much logic spoils the soup. "Nobody really got into a discussion about the food," says LeChevalier. Still, nobody had to use the designated "cheating room," where tongues could be untied and misunderstandings cleared up in English. "We exceeded our expectations," he says of the party prattle. "\o7 Mi'a lifri lei xamgu temci.\f7 " Literal translation: "Me and others, not including you whom I'm talking to, experienced some particular mass of good time interval," roughly meaning a good time was had by all.

If the concept of man-made linguistics seems unusual, Lojban is neither the first nor the most peculiar of the dozens, and by some counts hundreds, of attempts to construct languages since Descartes proposed a worldwide tongue more than 350 years ago.

Probably the most durable was invented in 1887 by L. Zamenhof, an idealist eye doctor using the pseudonym Dr. Esperanto ("one who hopes"), who had hoped to fashion a universal communication from bits and pieces of the European languages to encourage peace.

Today, Esperanto, as the language came to be known, claims more than 100,000 fluent speakers worldwide and between 8 million and 15 million people with some knowledge of it. Yet Esperantists are generally seen as verbal hobbyists who dream that Esperanto may one day become the international second language.

Most lesser-known and long-gone constructed languages had equally idealistic starts.

Typically, they have sought to simplify speech and gain cross-cultural acceptance. A 19th-Century musician named Jean Francois Sudre created a language of almost 12,000 words called Solresol, which used only combinations of the syllables of the musical scale--as in \o7 do, re, me, fa, so, \f7 and so forth. It got off the ground only briefly when some naval vessels used it to send musical communiques.

In 1879, a Catholic priest claimed religious inspiration in creating Volapuk (world speech), which is now on the endangered linguistics list.

And, in 1933, a New York group tried to standardize vocabulary shared in the Latin-based Romance languages to invent Interlingua, which never seriously challenged Esperanto but still lingers.

Lojban itself is a renegade language. University of Florida sociologist James Cooke Brown began creating a language he called Loglan 35 years ago, as an instrument to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a linguistic riddle that wondered whether the structure of language limits thought.

"The concept was to invent a language which is speakable but significantly different," says LeChevalier, "and then test its effect on thinking."

With the additional prospect of computer and artificial intelligence applications for Loglan, Brown continued to develop it.

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