3.3. The Special Lojban Characters

The apostrophe, period, and comma need special attention. They are all used as indicators of a division between syllables, but each has a different pronunciation, and each is used for different reasons:

The apostrophe represents a phoneme similar to a short, breathy English h, (IPA [h]). The letter h is not used to represent this sound for two reasons: primarily in order to simplify explanations of the morphology, but also because the sound is very common, and the apostrophe is a visually lightweight representation of it. The apostrophe sound is a consonant in nature, but is not treated as either a consonant or a vowel for purposes of Lojban morphology (word-formation), which is explained in Chapter 3. In addition, the apostrophe visually parallels the comma and the period, which are also used (in different ways) to separate syllables.

As a permitted variant, any unvoiced fricative other than those already used in Lojban may be used to render the apostrophe: IPA [θ] is one possibility. The convenience of the listener should be regarded as paramount in deciding to use a substitute for [h].

The period represents a mandatory pause, with no specified length; a glottal stop (IPA [ʔ]) is considered a pause of shortest length. A pause (or glottal stop) may appear between any two words, and in certain cases – explained in detail in Section 3.1 – must occur. In particular, a word beginning with a vowel is always preceded by a pause, and a word ending in a consonant is always followed by a pause.

Technically, the period is an optional reminder to the reader of a mandatory pause that is dictated by the rules of the language; because these rules are unambiguous, a missing period can be inferred from otherwise correct text with all words separated by spaces. Periods are included only as an aid to the reader.

A period also may be found apparently embedded in a word. When this occurs, such a written string is not one word but two, written together to indicate that the writer intends a unitary meaning for the compound. It is not really necessary to use a space between words if a period appears.

The comma is used to indicate a syllable break within a word, generally one that is not obvious to the reader. Such a comma is written to separate syllables, but indicates that there must be no pause between them, in contrast to the period. Removing a comma has no effect on how a text is pronounced or parsed.

Here is a somewhat artificial example of the difference in pronunciation between periods, commas and apostrophes. In the English song about Old MacDonald's Farm, the vowel string which is written as ee-i-ee-i-o in English could be Lojbanized with periods as:

Example 3.1. 

  • .i.ai.i.ai.o

  • [ʔi.ʔaj.ʔi.ʔaj.ʔo]

  • Ee! Eye! Ee! Eye! Oh!


However, this would sound clipped, staccato, and unmusical compared to the English. Furthermore, although Example 3.1 is a string of meaningful Lojban words, as a sentence it makes very little sense. (Note the use of periods embedded within the written word.)

If glides were used instead of glottal stops, we could represent the English string as a cmevla, ending in a consonant:

Example 3.2. 

  • .i,ia,ii,ia,ion.

  • [ʔi.ja.ji.ja.jonʔ]


If apostrophes were used instead of commas in Example 3.2, it would appear as:

Example 3.3. 

  • .i'ai'i'ai'on.

  • [ʔi.hai.hi.hai.honʔ]


which preserves the rhythm and length, if not the exact sounds, of the original English.