6.2. The three basic description types

The following cmavo are discussed in this section:



the, a, some



the, some specific



the one(s) named



elidable terminator for LE, LA

The syntax of descriptions is fairly complex, and not all of it can be explained within the confines of this chapter: relative clauses, in particular, are discussed in Chapter 6. However, most descriptions have just two components: a descriptor belonging to selma'o LE or LA, and a selbri. (The difference between selma'o LE and selma'o LA is not important until Section 6.1.) Furthermore, the selbri is often just a single brivla. Here is an elementary example:

Example 6.5. 


the market(s)

a market

some market(s)

markets in general

As can be seen, a single lo can cover a wide range of meanings. Usually context is sufficient to know what was meant; if not, there are other words that can narrow it down.

The general purpose of the descriptors is to create a sumti which might occur in the x1 place of the selbri belonging to the description. Thus lo zarci refers to something which might be found in the x1 place of zarci, namely a market or some markets.

Example 6.6. 


The market is big.

A market is big.

The markets are big.

Markets are big.

Note that English-speakers must state whether a reference to markets is to just one (the market) or to more than one (the markets). Lojban requires no such forced choice, so all four colloquial translations of Example 6.6 are valid. Only the context can specify which is meant. (This rule does not mean that Lojban has no way of specifying the number of markets in such a case: that mechanism is explained in Section 6.1.)

The second descriptor dealt with in this section is le. Descriptions using le refer specifically to what the speaker has in mind:

Example 6.7. 


the market(s)

some particular market(s)

Now consider the following strange-looking example:

Example 6.8. 


The ball is full here and empty there.

The balls are full here and empty there.

Balls are full here and empty there.

The balls here are full and the balls there are empty.

Example 6.9. 


The ball is full here and empty there.

The balls are full here and empty there.

le has a subset of the meanings that lo has. In particular, lo descriptions can refer to either what fits the specified predicate in general or to some specific referents intended by the speaker, while le descriptions always refer specifically. (The generic reference that lo permits is also called a mass individual or Mr Broda, as in Loglan.) Thus, in Example 6.8, the full and empty balls need not be the same ones, while for Example 6.9 to be true, some filling or emptying needs to happen.

Note that many speakers go without using le at all, and some use it with a meaning other than the one described here. When first hearing someone use le, it is advisable to ask which definition they are using.

The last descriptor of this section is la, which indicates that the selbri which follows it has been dissociated from its normal meaning and is being used as a name. Like le descriptions, la descriptions are implicitly restricted to those the speaker has in mind. For example:

Example 6.10. 


Bear wrote the story.

In Example 6.10, la cribe refers to someone whose naming predicate is cribe, i.e. Bear. In English, most names don't mean anything, or at least not anything obvious. The name Frank coincides with the English word frank, meaning honest, and so one way of translating Frank ate some cheese into Lojban would be:

Example 6.11. 


English-speakers typically would not do this, as we tend to be more attached to the sound of our names than their meaning, even if the meaning (etymological or current) is known. Speakers of other languages may feel differently. (In point of fact, Frank originally meant the free one rather than the honest one.)

It is important to note the differences between Example 6.10 and the following:

Example 6.12. 


A bear wrote the story.

The bear wrote the story.

Bears wrote the story.

Bears wrote stories.

Example 6.12 is about what is actually said to be a bear – described as fitting in the x1 place of cribe – a much stronger condition than being called Bear for the purpose of identification.

(The notion of fitting in the x1 of cribe” raises certain difficulties. Is a panda bear a real bear? How about a teddy bear? In general, the answer is yes. Lojban gismu are defined as broadly as possible, allowing tanru and lujvo to narrow down the definition. There probably are no necessary and sufficient conditions for defining what is and what is not a bear that can be pinned down with complete precision: the real world is fuzzy. In borderline cases, one may add hedges such as sa'e nai, pe'a or za'e to express this uncertainty.

So while Example 6.10 could easily be true (there is a real writer named Greg Bear), Example 6.12 is, barring figurative speech, false.

There is another type of description, fundamentally different from those described here, that counts how many values can fill a certain place. These quantified descriptions are described in Section 6.1.

The elidable terminator for all descriptions is ku. It can almost always be omitted with no danger of unintended parses. The main exceptions are when a description immediately precedes a selbri, and in certain uses of relative clauses, which are discussed in Section 6.1. In the former case, using an explicit cu before the selbri makes the ku unnecessary. There are also a few other uses of ku: in the bridi negator na ku (discussed in Chapter 6) and to terminate place-structure, tense, and modal tags that do not have associated sumti (discussed in Chapter 6 and Chapter 6).