Considerations on writing

This chapter in intended for people who may wonder if using another alphabet than latin to write Lojban doesn’t raise some fundamental issues. If you are not interested in a discussion on the topic, you may skip right ahead to the next chapter.

Relations between a language and its writing form

For most western language users, writing is nearly a synonym for writing with latin letters. Indeed, nearly all western languages have, during their evolution, adopted the latin alphabet as their written form, and this happened so long ago that we now find difficult to even imagine other writing forms.

As a matter of fact, the use of the latin alphabet is so strongly linked to the history of those languages that it has nearly become one of their characteristics. The same applies for the vast majority of tongues across the world: a particular writing mode is associated to each of them, either the one that has been used for the longest time, or, in some cases, the one that has been used by the most people of whom it is the natural language.

There are so few reasons to actually argue on these associations, that even during the teaching of foreign languages where a change in alphabet is necessary, the teaching of the new alphabet itself is considered part of the teaching of the language.

Let’s take Greek as an example. Greek is probably the only language to use the alphabet with the same name as its writing form, and it also describes its alphabet as its only official writing form. One who learns Greek as a foreign language therefore is taught to associate the language to the alphabet, and it becomes a natural link. The same can also be observed for Thai and Japanese, among others.

On modern constraints of some languages

Native Japanese or Greek speakers probably have noticed an interesting fact in the previous section. While it is true that the association between a language and its alphabet is natural for users of the latin alphabet, it might curiously not be so natural for users of other alphabets.

Many inhabitants of english-speaking countries might not be aware of it at all, but many languages have been lately facing several retranscription issues. Indeed, while people were handwriting, one just had to learn how to draw and read letters, and use them to write texts, and all was well for communication. However, lately mechanical and digital writing have appeared. As these types of communication have been invented mainly by users of the latin alphabet, other languages have had to adapt. Of course, one may argue that we today know how to digitalize very complex writing styles, but still, many languages have had to invent ways to express themselves in a latin form. For example, latin writing modes for Chinese and Japanese have appeared, where the transcription is phonetic or uses latin clusters to represent complex original signs.

Nowadays, especially for people of asian countries, the idea that language might not be so strongly linked to writing has begun to spread. Like in Thailand, where natives now learn to write with the latin alphabet at school, in addition to the traditional thai alphabet. For them, there now exist two writing modes for the thai language: a traditional mode, used for handwriting and local documents, and a mode for use with computers and tourists.

For this type of language, one can say that the oral form is now the main language specification reference.

Levels of language definition

The writing issue introduced above actually corresponds to a linguistics issue. Afterall, the whole thing is about the relation between a language and the way one writes it.

For languages like English or French, the use of the latin alphabet is obviously tightly linked to the language itself. Actually, languages of this type are very old, and have been possessing their writing modes for long. Moreover, their long history even contains cases where the structure of the writing systems altered the language (see for example, the various literary effects made out of writing styles). The same applies for Chinese or Japanese, where again the alphabet has been linked to the language for so long that we don’t really know now whether they are characterized by their spoken or written form.

For these types of languages, we can say that the spoken and written forms are nearly interdependent; however, there do exist some languages where the two are distinct. Let’s take for example the case of numerous dialects of central Africa, which are used by very small populations. These dialects were basically mainly spoken means of communication, with, when any, a very rudimentary and incomplete written form. During the western colonization, they were brought the latin alphabet, and today, while they are still used, they are only written using latin letters.

Opposedly, in the case of dead languages, like ancient Latin or Egyptian, we only know their written form. There are so few (if any) remains of their spoken use that today we use them (especially latin) in various undecided fashions, while their writing is fixed for good.

As a partial conclusion, we can say that a language can be somehow specified by either its spoken or written form, or both, and that adjustments between the two are built, when necessary, afterwards.

The case of Lojban

The first sentence of chapter 3 of the Lojban Textbook, which is a chapter that speaks of Lojban writing, is:

Lojban is designed so that any properly spoken Lojban utterance can be uniquely transcribed in writing, and any properly written Lojban can be spoken so as to be uniquely reproduced by another person.

The previous predicate has been a working direction during the development of Lojban. After deciding only to use pure sounds, Lojban linguists have decided to choose the latin alphabet to define its written form, using remarkedly the same letters as in the IPA.

However, one must note that the fundamental rule of Lojban is being culturally neutral. This rule allowed the most part of the language to be specified by means of phonetics, insisting on the sound (phonemes) of words rather than the way they are spelled. Also, while the latin alphabet is probably the most used alphabet worldwide, it is still mainly specific to western civilizations, and using it as the only writing system for Lojban would break the fundamental rule.

Lojban is therefore a language which somewhat doesn’t set clearly its alphabet (it rather sets the “audio-visual isomorphism”). Moreover, following what was just said before, Lojban should eventually use its own alphabet, which would be as culturally neutral as its structure.

Please proceed