As a constructed, syntactically unambiguous language (Wikipedia), does Lojban also completely eliminate semantic ambiguity? If not, what are some examples?

  • Maybe edit to say colloquial, idiomatic Lojban, and not just the formal/official version? Oh wait, you're asking about semantic rather than syntactic. I doubt that colloquial Lojban is completely syntactically unambiguous, but they may not even be claiming semantic unambiguity. Good question still.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Feb 8, 2018 at 14:09
  • This quote from John Cowan on Wikipedia seems to indicate that Lojban does have semantic ambiguity: "Thus "heart pain" would refer to the literal heart and literal pain; what would be ambiguous would be the exact connection between these two. Is the pain in the heart, because of the heart, or what?"
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Feb 8, 2018 at 14:39

1 Answer 1


Let's take an element of Lojban's grammar, and see if it's semantically ambiguous.
In lojban, tanru are basically two predicates in adposition. The first one semantically modifies the second one; and that's all.


  • {lo zdani gerku cu barda}: The house dog is big.
  • {lo gerku zdani cu barda}: The kennel is big.

Where {zdani} (roughly) means "home", {gerku} means "dog", and {barda} means "big (the rest is grammatical witchcraft, don't bother).

In the first example, {zdani gerku} is syntactically a tanru, and {zdani} modifies {gerku}. However, the tanru is primarily about {gerku}.
In the second one, it's the reverse. {gerku zdani} is also syntactically a tanru, but {gerku} modifies {zdani}; and the overall tanru is about {zadni}, not {gerku}.

However, it isn't possible to make assumptions about the overall meaning of a tanru. Though it's syntactically not ambiguous, it is semantically ambiguous.
I've chosen the english “house dog” and “kennel”, but it was just my intent, and english translates this way. Officially, it's not possible to infer the meaning from a tanru.

You can even read yourself in the last official reference grammar that “All tanru are ambiguous semantically.”

For a surer version:

  • {lo gerku poi ta'e zvati lo zdani cu barda}: The dog that uses to live at the house is big
  • {lo zdani poi zukte ke'a lo nu stuzi lo gerku cu barda}: The house that is aimed so that dogs could live in is big.

EDIT: added an explanation on how it's ambiguous, and the surer examples.

  • The example you've given here seems quite clear in terms of scoping and what modifies what, so why do you/the official reference grammar say that tanru are ambiguous?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 13:21
  • 2
    It's not because it's the scoping the modifications are not ambiguous that the overall meaning is not ambiguous. Retaking {gerku zdani}, one can only be sure that 1) it's some kind of house (zdani) and 2) it's related to dogs (gerku) in some way; not that it's a specifically a kennel (it could be a pound or whatever in fact). Good remark still, I've added an additional explanation.
    – mklcp
    Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 13:40
  • Ah, gotcha. Well that ambiguity would exist outside of tanru wouldn't it? Or does each root only have a singular meaning (no polysemy at all), and you must compound roots to get further meanings?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 13:43
  • 1
    As for the roots (i.e. the gismu), I don't remember any of them to have multiple meanings; but it doesn't mean some of them aren't vague, e.g. {remna} which means "human", while "ninmu", means "woman" and "nanmu" means "[male] man". I don't really see what do you mean by "further meanings": more precise or more vaguer (since the topic is tanru as a mean to vagueness)? In fact, though tanru are ambiguous, they are used and I would even say designed to still precise the meaning; a "quick 'n dirty" way to precise it, as i've shown, more precision require more verbosity.
    – mklcp
    Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 14:55
  • 1
    But tanru can also be used to increase imprecision, e.g. by taking the word {co'e} (though not a gismu, morphologically speaking), which is just a generic predicate. By generic, it's totally generic, you can say {na co'e} or {co'e} (where {na} is a negative particle), it wouldn't matter since it's so generic and vague. The tanru {gerku co'e} is so even vaguer than {gerku} alone (a dog), since it means "a/any/all/some kinds of thingamajig related to dog [in some unprecised way]"
    – mklcp
    Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 14:59

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