Chapter 17: As Easy As A-B-C? The Lojban Letteral System And Its Uses

2. A to Z in Lojban, plus one

The first requirement of a system of lerfu words for any language is that they must represent the lerfu used to write the language. The lerfu words for English are a motley crew: the relationship between “doubleyou” and “w” is strictly historical in nature; “aitch” represents “h” but has no clear relationship to it at all; and “z” has two distinct lerfu words, “zee” and “zed”, depending on the dialect of English in question.

All of Lojban's basic lerfu words are made by one of three rules:

to get a lerfu word for a vowel, add “bu”; to get a lerfu word for a consonant, add “y”; the lerfu word for “”' is “.y'y”.
Therefore, the following table represents the basic Lojban alphabet:

'   a   b   c   d   e
.y'y.   .abu    by. cy. dy. .ebu

f   g   i   j   k   l
fy. gy. .ibu    jy. ky. ly.

m   n   o   p   r   s
my. ny. .obu    py. ry. sy.

t   u   v   x   y   z
ty. .ubu    vy. xy. .ybu    zy.

There are several things to note about this table. The consonant lerfu words are a single syllable, whereas the vowel and “”' lerfu words are two syllables and must be preceded by pause (since they all begin with a vowel). Another fact, not evident from the table but important nonetheless, is that “by” and its like are single cmavo of selma'o BY, as is “.y'y”. The vowel lerfu words, on the other hand, are compound cmavo, made from a single vowel cmavo plus the cmavo “bu” (which belongs to its own selma'o, BU). All of the vowel cmavo have other meanings in Lojban (logical connectives, sentence separator, hesitation noise), but those meanings are irrelevant when “bu” follows.

Here are some illustrations of common Lojban words spelled out using the alphabet above:

✥2.1  ty. .abu ny. ry. .ubu
“t” “a” “n” “r” “u”

✥2.2   ky. .obu .y'y. .abu
“k” “o” “”' “a”

Spelling out words is less useful in Lojban than in English, for two reasons: Lojban spelling is phonemic, so there can be no real dispute about how a word is spelled; and the Lojban lerfu words sound more alike than the English ones do, since they are made up systematically. The English words “fail” and “vale” sound similar, but just hearing the first lerfu word of either, namely “eff” or “vee”, is enough to discriminate easily between them — and even if the first lerfu word were somehow confused, neither “vail” nor “fale” is a word of ordinary English, so the rest of the spelling determines which word is meant. Still, the capability of spelling out words does exist in Lojban.

Note that the lerfu words ending in “y” were written (in ✥2.1 and ✥2.2) with pauses after them. It is not strictly necessary to pause after such lerfu words, but failure to do so can in some cases lead to ambiguities:

✥2.3  mi cy. claxu
I lerfu-“c” without
I am without (whatever is referred to by)
    the letter “c”.

without a pause after “cy” would be interpreted as:

✥2.4  micyclaxu
(Observative:) doctor-without
Something unspecified is without a doctor.

A safe guideline is to pause after any cmavo ending in “y” unless the next word is also a cmavo ending in “y”. The safest and easiest guideline is to pause after all of them.