Lojban Wave Lessons/28

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Lojban Wave Lessons: Foreword | ← Lesson 27 | Lesson 28 | Lesson 29 →

Lesson 28: Types

This lesson along with the following three lessons will be on semantics - how to interpret the meaning of certain constructs. This lesson is on the meaning of different types of sumti, and will get philosophical and a bit hazy. The following two will be on abstractions, which, even though you already became familiar with them twenty-two lessons ago, will become more technical as I attempt to explain their semantic and grammatical properties.

Teaching (and learning) semantics is much more tricky than teaching grammar, especially in Lojban, where grammar is black-or-white, but semantics isn't. Therefore, I find it necessary to repeat an earlier disclaimer the following is not official, but rather an (educated) opinion on the language.

Bad grammar is easy to spot in Lojban - in fact it's unambiguously correct or not. In contrast, saying that a jufra is semantically wrong is the same as saying that the speaker is using Lojban to think wrongly about the world. It's not saying "You can't say X" as much as "You can't interpret X in this way. You should interpret it this way". Placing these restrictions on composing and understanding language is a slippery slope leading to restrictions on creativity, and even presupposing of certain metaphysical viewpoints while excluding others.

Then why include semantic standards in a textbook? Shouldn't any speaker be free to say anything, and any listener be free to let that speech mean whatever they want?

This is a matter of measure. Given that extreme, that is, if no semantic standards were set, everything could mean anything, and all communication would be meaningless. In any language which aims to facilitate communication, one must be able to express oneself in such a way that one can trust that one’s message is interpreted in the desired way. Semantic rules of Lojban do not exist in order to prevent people from saying A. They exist to prevent people from saying B and having others think they meant A.

This lesson is on types. The word type, informally translated to klesi, is used by Lojbanists to describe the existential nature of the things sumti describe. This nature is, and must be, the same as the nature of the things described by other languages such as English. However, in Lojban, the different ways of making sumti denote which type a sumti belongs to, so while the exact natures of sumti can be ignored in English, Lojbanists have to deal with them.

When speaking of types, Lojbanists often mention what type a sumti really is. When beginning from the beginning, we have to remember that this certainty is not philosophically well grounded. Taking a materialistic viewpoint, the natural world of particles and waves does not correspond well with human understanding of say, hatred, which is not defined by any specific particles, nor any specific brain activity. It is a purely abstract concept. Similarly, in an extreme inductionist viewpoint, such as that taken by Hume, all we humans experience are subjective impressions over time - a long string of events, or, some people argue, a bunch of qualia (This is green. This is crispy. This is round. This is tasty. => "This is an apple".) This viewpoint, however, does not correspond well to human understanding of say, a cat, whose existence must be presumed to continue even when it invokes no qualia in humans, whose qualia vary among different cats, and whose death smoothly strips it of its catlike qualia.

In other words, while one can take philosophically consistent worldviews where objects and concepts don't exist, such world views are unfruitful for conducting human affairs: In our lives, we simply need to refer to objects, and pretend that they actually exist as such. One famous story tells of a philosopher, Samuel Johnson, who, frustrated about the philosophical soundness and un-refutability of a fellow philosopher's belief that the physical world does not exist, furiously kicks a rock yelling, "I refute it thus!"

In Lojban, most sumti are made from selbri one way or the other, which means that at the core of most sumti lies a selbri, an action, something which something does. The Sun is not usually referred to as la solri, "The Sun", but often lo solri, "something which is being a sun". There are many confusing philosophical implications of this: As stated before, it's hazy at best what it means "to cat" and when something begins catting or "stops catting". A fictional language with similar properties is described in a neat short story, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (where "The Moon rose over the ocean" is phrased using similar verb/adverb-derived nouns: "Upward behind the onstreaming it mooned"). In that short story, the language is about to lead to the collapse of society because the worldview which such a language implies is unfit for dealing with the realities of Earth.

The take home point of all this is: Precise definitions of the different types of sumti are impossible, because these categories do not correspond to the real world. Nonetheless, we need these categories when speaking.

There may possibly be an infinite amount of types, but I'll go through the ones which are dealt with most often in Lojban:

Material objects are perhaps the easiest to understand, even though they're hard to defend philosophically. They always have a place in both time and space, but they're considered to be a constant existing through time. That is, objects are not considered temporally: A banana carries with it its unchanging banana-ness even as it ages, until it begins breaking down and stop being a banana at all. If one could freeze time for all bananas, they would stay bananas during that frozen time.

Events are, like objects, places in space and time, but events are considered as unfolding over time: The temporal aspect is as important as the spacial. A banana can be considered an event, but in that case, the event of being a banana is composed of the changes the banana undergoes over time, whereas what makes a banana an object is all that which doesn't change. Freezing time would also freeze the event of being a banana.

Functions are a term used by a few Lojbanists to describe a group of types. All functions are abstract concepts and as such don't really exist in the real world on their own. The nuts and bolt of functions is the subject of lesson thirty; here, we focus on their semantics alone. There are a few types of functions:

Selbri are something you're already well familiar with. It describes an act of doing or being. crino understood as a selbri means "being green", darxi means "to hit". A selbri on its own is devoid of the sumti who's doing or being that selbri. As such, they're divorced from any particular instance of being green or hitting, and can therefore be understood as a kind of generalized events. They're used for sentences where no particular instance of that selbri being applied comes to mind. For instance, if I'm looking forward to my wedding next Wednesday, I'm thinking about some event placed in space and time (even if the wedding never actually takes place for some sad reason), whereas if I'm saying that I'd like to become married one day, I desire the act of marriage, and thus I desire the selbri, or rather, that the selbri be applied to me.

Amounts have almost the same grammatical properties as selbri, as you'll see in two lessons. Semantically, however, they're quite distinct. An amount is how much something fits a selbri, which is something completely different from the selbri itself. An amount is some kind of number, or can be represented by some number, exact or inexact, no matter whether what is quantified is practically measurable.

There is some disagreement about whether it's correct to use an amount abstraction to quantify something which is in principle unmeasurable. Thus, the amount of my greenness is certainly valid, since that could be measured by say, a digital camera, but speaking about the amount of me being Bob's friend may not be accepted philosophically. A great example which demonstrates the difference between amounts and selbri when applied to specific sumti is the following: "I change in blackness": When "blackness" is considered a selbri, it means that change from being black to not being black or the other way around. When "blackness" is considered an amount, it means my skin turns more or less black (as it does during the winter when there's little sunlight).

Concepts are maybe functions and maybe they're not, depending on who you ask. Their position as maybe-functions is explained in lesson thirty. Concepts, unlike selbri and amounts, cannot be applied to sumti. There can be no talk of fitting a concept, like there can be of whether or not you are fitting a selbri or measuring the amount of fitting a selbri. A concept does not exist in the real world. A concept is not even represented in the real world, like amounts or selbri can be when they’re applied to sumti. A concept, say warfare, exists only in the minds of people, and is understood as the meaning of the word war. Thus "love" understood as a concept is the idea of what love is, no matter who loves and who is being loved.

Perhaps an example can demonstrate the difference between amounts, selbri and concepts:

In "I like loving" and "I like being loved", we are speaking of a selbri.

In the sentence "I like how much I love", I like an amount, and when saying "I like love", I refer to the concept of love.

Bridi is a type which you're also familiar with. A bridi is certainly not a function, but it does bear some relation to functions, as we'll see later. Bridi themselves are imaginary; they exist not in the real world, but inside texts, the next type to explain. However, bridi are not composed of whichever specific symbols are used to express them - because bridi are imaginary, different sentences may express the same bridi. It can be that the sentences are in different languages, that the word order is changed, or that different words are used to refer to the same sumti. Thus mi do prami/mi prami do, "I love you", mi ko prami and do mi prami (when spoken by the person to which do refers in the first sentence) all refer to the same bridi. Bridi always have their full place structure filled by something with a non-zero value.

The concept of a text is close intertwined with the concept of a bridi. All bridi are contained in texts, though not all texts contain bridi. Indeed, one might define a text as something that can contain a bridi, but this can easily lead to circular definitions when attempting to define what bridi are. The current understanding of what things should be considered texts is vague at best. Like bridi, texts are something ethereal, something we can imagine exist in a realm outside the physical world. While these lessons certainly are a text, the text is not made of the paper these lessons are printed on, nor the magnetic fields which constitutes the bytes it's stored on. Those physical media only represent the text. But what exactly can represent a text? Words, certainly. But what about body language? And do actions really speak texts louder than words? This is not an issue I'll attempt to answer or even give a shot in these lessons.

Sets are much easier to deal with. They're a kind of meta-type: A imaginary box, in which a group of sumti is packed into. This box has very little to do with what's inside it. A big set does not mean that the things in the set are big, but that there are many things in the set. Sets have very few properties, therefore sets are only used when speaking about the number of things in a given category, the number of things shared between several categories, the criteria for including things in the category etc.

The last used type is the truth value. I've only seen it in use a handful of times, and only include it here because it'll be relevant when discussing a certain abstraction in the next lesson. A truth value is some verdict that a bridi is true, false, or anywhere in between. The nature of a truth value is a verdict, "True", "False", "Mostly true" or the like. It's often represented by a number, such as 0 (false), 1 (true) or 0.5 (halfway true), but this a simply a representation of the truth value, and not the value itself. One might as well represent it by a color, ranging from red to blue.

Lojban Wave Lessons: Foreword | ← Lesson 27 | Lesson 28 | Lesson 29 →