A Little Language Called Toki Pona

The Good Language

Recently I read about a conlang called Toki Pona (which literally translates to good language) and it looks really interesting! It was constructed with the goal of simplifying your own thought and speech by forcing you to explain things in simple terms. It accomplishes this by providing a greatly reduced vocabulary, which incidentally also makes it quite easy to learn (as opposed to easy to understand as is Esperanto). From what I understand it has only 137 words in its core vocabulary, with a few others that have sprung up since then, but still under 150 total words.

Note: this is not an introduction to Toki Pona’s grammar nor does it contain any relevant examples. This post just contains my thoughts about the language. If you’re already convinced you want to learn Toki Pona then check out the section at the end of this post, where I share some useful resources.

I find it fascinating that a language can have so few words and still be functional. By necessity each word will either have to have multiple meanings or, on the other hand, have a very broad meaning.

How to properly express ideas then? Is it possible to hold a philosophic discourse? Maybe it’s even easier since there are no “shader words” that muddle whatever it is you want to say. Maybe the speaker would be forced to explain everything in simple terms? Or maybe the resolution of the meaning is so hard (given the myriads of shadings of meaning) that it’s actually more error prone.

It’s impossible for me to answer any of these questions right now since I’ve only read very little about it, but there seem to be people actively speaking it. From a comment on Reddit (hardly the most trustworthy source of information there is) there are more speakers of Toki Pona than any other conlang on the popular language learning app Duolingo .

Right now I’m motivated to learn more about this language, at least enough to know first-hand how easy it is to use in real communication, or to talk about complex things. I saw another post on Reddit where someone asked exactly this question, and one of the comments redirected the OP1 to a YouTube video explaining non-Euclidean geometry in Toki Pona. I can’t attest for how good the explanation actually is (since it’s all in Toki Pona), but it does look like a good indication that complex knowledge can be transmitted, although it might take more words than in English. The author of the video also has an interesting article claiming that a person can give all knowledge with Toki Pona, which has an English translation and the arguments are sound.

From the little I’ve seen, the language is really elegant, and after a while of reading it (for example, by skimming through the lipu tenpo magazine) you get a good sense for its rhythm. Though I’m not a fan of how it sounds in my head, although that might be because I’m not used to the reduced number of sounds. I find other conlangs like Klingon or Tolkien’s Quenya or Sindarin to be more flowing to the ear of the uninitiated2.

Toki Pona is still definitely artistic in nature, but I think it’s curiosity lies more in philosophy than art. The question in my mind is how does having such a reduced vocabulary affect my thoughts? It might make it simpler or clearer, or more verbose, or a mixture of these. For example, take the term kalama musi which is used to denote music and literally means entretaining noise.

Real-world languages like English are nice because the speaker has a lot of freedom in coloring whatever it is they want to say with different shadings of meaning: different words that might affect both the meaning and musicality of the speaker’s utterance. This freedom is in itself beautiful, but it does have two important drawbacks:

  1. Both the speaker and listener need to have the same understanding of possibly obscure words (e.g. myriad, serendipity) for the message to come across successfully / entirely.
  2. It is required for one to have an advanced vocabulary to be an able to freely create literary works of art. At least to me it happens frequently that I know exactly what I want to say, and I know there is a term for it, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it is.

Supposing that the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is true (that the structure of a language affects it’s speakers worldview and cognition) then it might be interesting to think what would the mind of native Toki Pona speaker look like. For example, in the dictionary the word moku has multiple definitions:

  • noun: food, drink, something that can be consumed, a meal.
  • verb: to consume, eat, drink, or use up. To swallow or ingest.
  • adjective: something edible. Something related to food, drink, or consumption.

As English speakers we tend to think that when we see moku it has one of multiple meanings, defined by its context. But would it be the same for native speaker? Maybe the internal resolution algorithm used by this individual to assign meaning to words looks very different from an English speaker’s, where the possible meaning of a word is much narrower by comparison?

It might be that each word is more like a cloud of possible meanings, that take on a specific coloration once the whole sentence is known. I wonder if it’s even possible for someone to grow up in our culture using exclusively Toki Pona. Probably not, but who knows, there are people using it to fell stories and explain complex concepts, so it could be.

Resources for learning

Here are some resources I’m finding useful during my process of learning Toki Pona.

  • lipu sona pona — written tutorial that covers the grammar of the language.
  • jan Misali – toki pona lessons — similar to the above in content but it’s a series of YouTube videos. At the time of writing, the series is not yet complete but the existing videos are really good.
  • The official Toki Pona book — from what I’ve seen it’s not required to read this to learn the language, but it is really helpful in that it clearly explains the grammar and provides a large amount of examples.
  • linku.la — an invaluable resource/website to quickly look up words and their meanings, as well as details about their usages in the community.
  • o pilin e toki pona #opetp — very nice YouTube playlist where the host tells simple stories completely in Toki Pona while using images as well as his hands to illustrate what’s going on.
  • kama sona - jan Kekan San — another nice YouTube video series that covers all the basics of grammar, with plenty of examples and using sitelen pona (glyphs).

  1. OP meaning Original Poster ↩︎

  2. That’s really not a fair comparison for Toki Pona. There are few languages as beautiful to the ear as Quenya or Sindarin, which were (in part) made with the goal of being pleasing to the author, more than that of covering a functional necessity. ↩︎

See also

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