(Originally appeared in Lognet 94/3)

Profile of Robert A. McIvor

by Wesley Parsons

Bob McIvor was born on 17 December 1924, in Long Beach, California (American mother, Canadian father), which will make him 70 at the time of the appearance of this profile. His family moved to Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, Canada when he was about 18 months old, and he attended grade school there.

In 1941 he matriculated at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, and graduated with a B.A. in Chemistry in 1944. After a short period of civilian employment, he enlisted in the Canadian Army, and served in the occupation of Germany, victory in Europe having just been declared after his arrival.

Bob was discharged in 1946, and spent a year recovering from tuberculosis contracted in Europe, and pursuing an interest in languages. He reentered the University of Saskatchewan, acquiring a M.A. in 1949. He entered L’Universite Laval in Quebec City in 1949 and acquired a D.Sc. in Biochemistry in 1951. He had a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the National Research Council in Ottawa, Ontario until 1953, then joined the Defence Research Board as a research chemist until 1962, when he was posted to London, England as a scientific liaison officer until 1965.

Bob continued as a research chemist in Ottawa until 1969 when the research line he was following was discontinued. He transferred to the Defence Scientific Information Service, and mainly worked on developing a computerized information system on a minicomputer. (For those used to the megabyte systems of today, Bob’s system operated in batch mode on a computer with 32K, and eventually 64K, of RAM, called core then. When he started using computers, memory cost $2,000/K!) In 1974 he became Director of the organization. Bob enjoyed the work when he was able to participate in it himself and direct a small group. However, when he was promoted to Director he found he had no taste (and he claims little talent) for managing a rather large group (60-70), and since he was not enjoying the work any more, he decided on an early retirement in 1979. He continued part-time consulting for the Canadian government and industry until 1987 when he retired for good. Bob holds two patents (one Canadian, one U.S.) for chemical preparations.

Bob lives in Nepean, a suburb of Ottawa. Although the winters there are less severe than in Saskatchewan, Ottawa is the second coldest capital in the world (after Ulan Bator, Mongolia), so since 1987 he has been spending more and more time in Florida during the winter months, and in 1991 acquired a home in Ormond Beach. Bob likes Ottawa, which has no heavy industry (mainly government and high-tech), boasts a 50-50 mix of French and English Canadian cultures in the metropolitan area, and is large enough to have all the amenities that he enjoys.

Bob enjoys travel, reading, programming, Loglan, and other languages. He puts considerable importance on maintaining Ontario residence requirements to ensure his continued membership in the Canadian National Health Insurance plan.

Bob’s first exposure to Loglan was James Cooke Brown’s (Jim’s) original article in Scientific American in 1960. Bob kept his eyes open through the years, and saw the Scientific American advertisement in 1975. He wrote immediately for the books and dictionary, subsequently subscribed to The Loglanist, and soon afterwards began a correspondence with Jim. After his retirement he started to analyse the data from some of the “taste tests” The Institute was then doing on the morphology of the language; and he did this on his Imsai home-assembled computer. Later he obtained a source code listing of YACC (the famous “Yet Another Compiler Compiler”) and adapted it for a CP/M microcomputer. In 1982 he worked with Jim in San Diego on the GMR (“Great Morphological Revision”) and with Jim and Scott Layson Burson (then Scott Layson) on the disambiguation of Loglan grammar with YACC. A few years later he was put in charge—and more important, accepted the charge—of updating the 1975 Loglan dictionaries, which he has since transformed into the shape we know as “LOD” (the “Loglan Online Dictionary”). Later Bob spent two winters in Gainesville in a geodesic dome on the land Jim owns in Florida. This was during the time when The Loglan Institute was again located in Gainesville (1983-1991); he and Jim worked mainly on the dictionary project during those two productive winters, serving as the “jury” on the Eaton Interface metaphors that had been created by other word-makers.

Bob is, of course, the Institute’s Chief Grammarian. He is also a permanent member of the “Keugru”, Loglan’s Academy. His interest in grammars arose after porting YACC to CP/M, which gave him the tools for exploring Loglan’s grammar. When he got back into Loglan in 1985, he saw some possibilities for modifications that would simplify the then-complex structure of the Loglan grammatical system—then consisting of a Preparser, a Parser, and a Postparser, as well as the Grammar from which the Parser was generated—with the aim of making it simpler and easier to understand; and so he offered to take charge of the grammar; and The Institute accepted. (There are some Loglanists (the author included) who are regularly awed by the skill and familiarity with which Bob extends, modifies, and polishes Loglan’s grammar, all the while maintaining its freedom from syntactic ambiguity!)

Bob’s original interest in Loglan was the claim than it could perhaps improve the clarity of one’s thinking, and in this regard he was also interested in the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis. By the time of the first GPA (“Going Public Again”) in 1975 he was more interested in the possibility of communicating with computers with a spoken unambiguous language. Bob credits Loglan with providing the intellectual stimulation needed to keep his mind active, something many retirees seem to lack.

Bob is disappointed that producing logically correct Loglan has proved far more difficult than he had hoped. As Jim discussed in Lognet 94/1, some aspects of Loglan’s structure do not map well onto human brain structures. Bob is also frustrated that after so many years there is so little certified Loglan text, an essential to becoming fluent in the language. Happily, there is for the brave, Bob says, now a well-established route—the “LOD route”—for making the many complex words that are so necessary for writing thoughtful text.

Bob is rather pessimistic about any widespread use of Loglan. He believes people tend to be rather chauvinistic about their native language and are not likely to spend time learning another unless they see clear economic or other benefits accruing therefrom. On the other hand, Loglan may find a niche in universities as a tool for investigating language and brain function. He also points out that there are quite a few things that started small, and remained small for some time, and then took off. Bob points out that few would have guessed even ten years ago that in 1994 40% of Canadian households would have a personal computer with 20% more intending to purchase one. In 1969, when the first minicomputers began to appear, Bob would not have believed that he would in his lifetime be able to afford one for himself; yet his current personal computer is perhaps 1,000 times faster, has 2,000 times more memory, and cost about one-fiftieth of the minicomputer he once used at work.

Bob likes almost everything about Loglan, but does have some quibbles in regard to particular choices made in refining the morphology of the language. He suggests that some of the vowel pairs in Loglan are difficult to produce understandably, and would have been helped in many cases by retaining the consonant. He find forms such as matmatma much easier to communicate orally than matmaa. Bob conducted a study some years ago on vowel groups in English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, and Italian and found that the number of distinct vowel-pairs and -triples that occur in these languages is very small, and most of them involve a [y] sound. Triple consonants are also rarer in most natural languages than in Loglan, and almost all involve an [s].

Bob thinks that what Loglan needs more than anything else right now is a large expansion of the amount of Loglan text available for the new learner. The trouble is that few, if any, of us Loglanists can reliably produce text meeting the rigorous usage requirements we are still discovering are needed in a logical language Without LIP constantly at his side, Bob could not consistently write even grammatical Loglan; and there is no machine—yet—that can help Bob or anyone else choose logically correct usages. There have been historical examples of languages that were bootstrapped into widespread spoken use, for example Hebrew; but they at least had a fairly large corpus of written material to work from.

Languages need many ways of saying the same things (so matters can be explained in the language itself, as well as because the spoken channel is very “noisy” in the information sense...and becomes a lot noisier with the age of the listener, so considerable redundancy is needed to get unusual messages across. Often, originators of constructed languages see conciseness as a virtue to be religiously pursued. “We don’t need all that baggage; why use four syllables if one will do?” is often the sentiment of language-builders...to the detriment of communication.

Loglan, Bob opines, also needs a considerable effort to develop fluent speakers of the language. This is particularly difficult since Loglanists are so scattered, and Bob fears not too many Loglanists have spouses or children that are also interested in the language. Bob sees considerable promise in the Internet connection that The Institute has been emphasizing recently, since the World Wide Web offers an opportunity for persons who may not yet have encountered Loglan to learn about it easily. Also, Loglan, being audio-visually isomorphic and syntactically unambiguous, would seem to be a perfect test bed for continuous speech recognition technology, which has been plagued with problems parsing natural languages such as English.

—Hue Ues Parsnz

Copyright © 1994 by The Loglan Institute. All rights reserved.