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This article was written on 27 Apr 2003, and is filed under Miscellania.

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Vizka la Spat! On Basic English and Loglan

Chris Crawford (you may know him from such games as “Balance of Power” and “Trust and Betrayal”) gives an overview of some of the artificial languages created over the years in “Little Languages”. The one that interests him the most is Solresol, which changes syntax expression drastically by having only seven “letters.” I’m more intrigued by the ones that have implications more on the semantic side: Loglan, which condenses words down to a bare minimum size and overloads grammatical data into every aspect of word construction, and C.K. Ogden’s Basic English, which shrinks English down to 850 words and ostensibly gives you a true generative grammar. Neither seem workable to me, but they’re good testing grounds for a few hypotheses.

Basic English, as Crawford points out, runs into trouble when it has to construct new (i.e., idiomatic) meanings for combinations of words to express ideas that simply won’t fit into constructs of the basic set of 850 concepts. It’s fair to say that you can get “red” (not a Basic English word) out of “blue,” “green,” and the other colors that it does provide, but getting “internet” and “metempsychosis” are slightly trickier, and so on and so forth.

But consider the source of the parsimony:

The greater part of the things we generally seem to be talking about are what may be named fictions: and for these again there are other words in common use which get nearer to fact.

The greater part of the statements we make about things and persons are unnecessarily colored by some form of feeling: They do, no doubt, say something about things and persons, but most common words are colored by our feelings — or the feeling by which the thought of our hearers is to be consciously or unconsciously guided; and it is frequently possible to keep thought and feeling separate.

The most important group of ‘shorthand’ words in European languages is made up of what are named ‘verbs’ — words like ‘accelerate’ and ‘ascertain’; ‘liberty’ and ‘blindness’ are examples of fictions; ‘credulous’ and ‘courteous’ say something about our feelings in addition to their straightforward sense.

The emphasis is mine. Aside from assuming a brute-force representational theory of language, which is an argument I don’t want to touch, Ogden is quite a utopian, believing that he can extract a language of pure representation out of English and remove prejudice and emotion. He takes the dream of a common language, implicitly sees a problem in the emotional biases built into a good chunk of the vocabulary, and seeks to fix that as well. I.e., he would probably see a need for “Basic Esperanto” as well.

Basic English is mechanistic in its approach to minimal, objective representation; Loglan is mechanistic in its word construction (if it’s pronounceable, use it), and its context-free grammar. Loglan was designed to help knowledge representation, though there is not an explanation of why a grammatical language is needed instead of a clearer set of logical axioms, the approach that’s been used by the CYC project and other massive modelling projects. The deeper agenda seems utopian again:

Many loglanists believe, too, that their adopted language is ideally suited to become a lingua franca for the world. Its clarity and lack of cultural bias are just what is needed to cement international cooperation. That leaves each of us with a Mother Tongue that we would use for jokes, poetry, and making love. A further bonus is that our Mother Tongues could be much more locally based: not merely English but Liverpool Scouse, not just German but Hamburger Platt, not just French but Occitan. To maintain the linguistic and cultural diversity that minority and regional languages enshrine could be just as important in the long run as maintaining the diversity of life.

Basic English was designed as a supplemental, agnostic second language to be used for people who didn’t have the time to live inside full English. The mission of Loglan seems to be to create a neutral language to allow ever more diverging local languages. I don’t know how this is accomplished either, but it seems to be a step backwards from the all-encompassing aims of Volapuk and Esperanto: instead of the Tower of Babel, it’s a hut.

This can get silly, but I don’t know that it’s so much worse than what the universal grammarians claim about D-structure: roughly speaking, what Loglan (not quite Basic English) set out to do should be accomplishable. Loglan makes you think twice about the project. English particularly has engendered so many dialects across drastically different cultures and countries that the study of gesture, affect, and inflection is becoming increasingly prominent.

(As a follow-up, the only context-free, ambiguous languages I know of are mathematical and computational ones, which have some theoretically crazy ideas of their own (like Tcl’s use of whitespace as an disambiguating mechanism). Question to argue over: are they representational?)

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