Principle of least effort

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The principle of least effort in languages allows you to say things shorter without unnecessary details. For example, you don't have to always think of what tense (past, present or future) to use in a verb when it's already clear from context. When you need details you add them.

The language or construct x1 is said to follow the principle of least effort in x2 (assertion) when the speaker isn't required to use it.

The wider understanding of the principle of least effort covers all ways of communication between live beings. Thus in terms of the speed of communication language isn't optimal if, for example, the listener doesn't speak the language of the speaker.

In Zipf's view, ambiguity fits within the framework of his unifying principle of least effort, and could be understood by considering the competing desires of the speaker and the listener. Speakers can minimize their effort if all meanings are expressed by one simple, maximally ambiguous word, say, ba. To express a meaning such as "The accordion box is too small," the speaker would simply say ba. To say "It will rain next Wednesday," the speaker would say ba. Such a system is very easy for speakers since they do not need to expend any effort thinking about or searching memory to retrieve the correct linguistic form to produce. Conversely, from the comprehender's perspective, effort is minimized if each meaning maps to a distinct linguistic form, assuming that handling many distinct word forms is not overly difficult for comprehenders. In that type of system, the listener does not need to expend effort inferring what the speaker intended, since the linguistic signal would leave only one possibility.

— Steven T. Piantadosia, Harry Tilyb, Edward Gibson - The communicative function of ambiguity in language


This phenomenon is known under different names:

  • Zipf's law of least effort[1].
  • Strategic ambiguity[2][3].
  • The principle of necessity and sufficiency. First discovered by Esperantists. Interestingly, Esperanto fails to fully pass this test as it has obligatory markers of tense, number.
  • Facultative precision. Hartmut Traunmüller mentions[4] Loglan as passing this test. But in fact Loglan forces the speaker to use bare verb to denote imperatives (just like English "go" alone always means "Go!").

If, in a conversation, you want to fulfill the maxims of appropriate quantity, quality, and relation, you have to say no less and no more than what is required. In order for this to be fulfilled, the language must give you the freedom to choose a more or a less specific expression, according to the circumstances. The corresponding principle of language planning is known as the principle of facultative precision.

— Hartmut Traunmüller - Conversational Maxims and Principles of Language Planning

  • Roman Jakobson expressed in 1956 a similar idea: "Languages differ essentially in what they must convey, not in what they may convey."
    Russian translation: "Языки отличаются друг от друга не тем, что они могут выразить, а тем, что в них обязательно должно быть выражено." (Роман Якобсон)
  • Fairly close to the Lojban Central party line actually: you can be as precise and unambiguous as you want to in Lojban, but you're not forced to in most things. The potential for disambiguation, rather than the enforcing of it, is the nice thing.

la nitcion, a Lojbanist


Lojban gives person a great amount of freedom in how they express themselves, for instance by not forcing them to specify such things as number, gender or tense. For instance, the sentence mi viska do can mean I see you (singular) right now, We will see you (singular) in the future, I have seen you (plural) in the past, It is always true that we can see you (plural), and so forth.

Lojban fixed the problem of Loglan with imperatives which are now explicitly expressed only by using additional words. CLL incorrectly describes selbri with missing first place as observatives, although, in reality they are just vague and can be used not only for observations but for imperatives too.

There is an idea of loosening rules for sumti-raising, apply auto-correction rule of filling sumti places[5]. These would make Lojban even more flexible in managing the precision of utterances.


  • An interesting comparison study of the grammars of many modern languages can be found in Joseph Greenberg's paper entitled “Some Universals Of Grammar With Particular Reference to the Order of Meaningful Elements.” The results of this paper help to illustrate a number of common trends that occurred in the development of natural languages, and it also shows how the grammars of those languages may constrain the speaker.[6]
  • RUS: Язык — это лишь средство выражения мысли и хотя отсутствие гибкости в языке может некоторым образом усложнять ход этих самых мыслей, полностью препятствовать им или в значительной мере "формировать мировоззрение" он вряд ли может. Если бы это было так, однажды выучив один язык, выучить и понять другой было бы ужасно сложно.
  • RUS: Например, в русском языке любой глагол имеет время. Либо прошедшее либо настоящее либо будущее. Но возьмите фразу "На этой картине художник изобразил, как девушки идут в библиотеку". Ну и когда эти девушки шли/идут? Сегодня? Вчера? В момент написания картины или когда этот художник их увидел? Но вот скажем, в токипоне или в китайском можно не ставить окончания, указывающие на время. Свобода да и только. Вот для этого и нужно изучать такие языки.


Due to the fact that Lojban follows the principle of least effort there is a new aphorism "In Lojban you can delete all but the last word from the sentence. If you remove the last word you get Zen philosophy".

See also