Exploring Toki Pona: do we need more than 120 words?
Cupboard, fireplace, bookshelf. Just looking around the room in which I’m writing this, I can see plenty of objects that started life as separate words, then open compounds, and finished as closed compounds. That is, they once had a space between them and ended up without one. My point here is that new objects and ideas don’t always need new words – the English language has often built together existing pieces to make a new piece, and we no longer see the joins.
This happened gradually, of course, and following the usual trajectory of time – forwards (with apologies to any Gallifreyan readers). But what if the process happened the other way? Eliminating ‘unnecessary’ words and re-forming them from a smaller list of words. Warm might become uncold, if you’re feeling dystopian about it. Soldier might become person fight. Thus you have crafted an oligosynthetic language, from oligo– (Greek, meaning ‘few’): a created language with very few morphemes.
Have you heard of Toki Pona?
All of which leads me to Toki Pona – a language that was invented in 2001 (in draft version, online) and was considered complete when published in a book in 2014. The inventor of the language was Sonja Lang, in a happy piece of nominal determinism.
Relatively few languages have been ‘invented’; language, of course, evolves. With the majority of the most-spoken languages around the world, the earliest origins are lost to history – while we can trace the histories of individual words (may I recommend a resource called the Oxford English Dictionary?), there is no starting point for the language where it burst into life. That’s a given. OxfordWords has looked at various different invented languages over the years – from Esperanto to Dothraki – as well as the case of sign languages, which fall somewhere between the usual lingua-monoliths of ‘invented in one go’ and ‘evolved over centuries’. So what sets Toki Pona apart?
As an oligosynthetic language, Toki Pana has very few root words. It’s not possible to give a single answer to the question ‘how many words are there in the English language?’, but it’s certainly over 180,000. Japanese and Korean have been estimated to have at least half a million words each. Toki Pana has… about 120 root words. From these, Sonja Lang argues, we can make compound nouns (usually open compounds) that cover every need. The phonemes themselves are related to a variety of languages – Lang hasn’t just chipped away at an existing language, as in my example above – and their simplicity means there is pretty much a mapping with any world language. Toki Pona doesn’t go in for untranslatable abstract concepts – though something like tomo can mean ‘house’ or ‘space’; metaphor plays a significant role.
A very quick primer
The grammar of Toki Pona is designed to be as simple as possible. Verbs don’t change according to past, present, or future tense. There is no distinction between singular and plural. There are no articles. Toki Pona is ‘zero copula’ (which sounds vaguely Lysistratan), meaning that the subject and predicate are joined without an equivalent of ‘to be’ – for example, my name Simon rather than my name is Simon.
Li is a helpful cover-all, going between a subject and a verb or a subject and an adjective to show that they relate – and even li is omitted when mi (I) or sina (you) are used – while e introduces a direct object. An example sentence structure is: subject + li + verb + e + direct object. For example, mije li jo e kili = ‘the man has fruit’, as mjie is man, jo is have, and kili is fruit. Given the rules of the language, the same sentence could mean ‘the man used to have an apple’ or ‘the men will have pineapples’. Fruit-based anecdotes must take hours to decipher.
This is where you’ll want to start creating compound nouns from the 120 words Lang has identified as the core of communication. Her words include nouns (lipu, ‘paper’; nena, ‘mountain’; palisa, ‘stick’), verbs (moku¸ ‘eat’, sona, ‘know’, musi, ‘play’), and adjectives (wawa, ‘strong’; nasa, ‘strange’; ike, ‘bad’). A lemon might be a kili jelo (yellow fruit), while waso telo (bird water) could be a seagull. The modifier always comes after the word they modify. So, using the words pan (‘food’) and poki (‘container’), you might use poki pan for a picnic hamper and pan poki for an edible bread basket.
The distinction between a compound noun and a noun + adjective formation is interesting. Mije lili – literally ‘man small’ – would denote a boy, whereas throwing in that useful e to make mije e lili would presumably mean ‘small man’ instead. I can imagine these lines blur a little, and – in my somewhat fanciful imagination – I’m envisaging an angry 14-year-old insisting on being referred to as mije e lili rather mije lili because, for goodness’ sake, he’s not a child anymore.
Colours have been narrowed down to just five – white, black, blue, red, and yellow – while numbers (which I hear are infinite) are built up using just wan (one), tu (two), and mute (many) – though, metaphor striking again, luka (hand) is also used for five.
Incidentally, toki pona itself translates as ‘talk good’ – and pona also means ‘simple’. In Lang’s philosophy, simplicity and goodness are one and the same.
The virtues (and drawbacks) of simplicity
That is really the heart of the language. It harks back to the basics of civilisation, or at least what Lang perceives as the basics of civilisation. While it is possible to describe modern technology, this is done in a way that makes it feel strangely primitive: ilo (‘tool’) covers any technology. Ilo suno (tool + light) could be a lamp or a torch; ilo toki (tool + talk) could perhaps be a phone – though it could equally be a Dictaphone or two cans on the end of a piece of string. Toki Pona has rather a levelling affect.
Pona actually means rather more than ‘good’ or ‘simple’ – it extends to more or less anything positive. And people largely use the language in a positive way, to talk about positive things. One speaker, quoted in an Atlantic article, says: “It’s a language for cute and nice things. […] The word pona is everything that’s good in the world: pineapples, bananas, cute kittens. If I call my friend a jan pona, I’m calling him a good person. Often, if we’re both tired and everything is too much, we just say, everything will be pona.”
As a selection of good things, it rivals Julie Andrews’ choices in The Sound of Music. ‘Brown paper packages tied up with string’, in case you were wondering, might be said as palisa len li awen kepeken e poki lipu pi pimeja jelo in Toki Pona. The words in order are: stick cloth li keep use e container paper of black yellow. I used stick cloth for ‘string’, container paper for ‘paper package’, and black yellow is my ‘brown’. Kepeken is apparently used in the instrumental case to mean ‘with’, while keep was as close as I could get to ‘tied up’. There’s also insa, ‘inside’, but I’m not sure how to put that in a sentence. It’s deceptively tricky, isn’t it?
As well as levelling historical advances, Toki Pona also ignores some cultural norms. There’s no word for ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ – important building blocks of many languages – and no equivalent to markers of respect, like po in Tagalog, that are fundamental to conversations in many cultures. Equally vital to some cultures – oh hi there, my fellow Brits – is sarcasm or irony, and Nate Dimeo, on The Allusionist podcast, noted how difficult it was to use these in Toki Pona. Oh great, Toki Pona. Thanks a bunch. Pona.
A prescribed worldview?
Nobody has yet been raised with Toki Pona as their first language – indeed, its fluent speakers still only number in the hundreds – but it does pose the question: how would a native speaker’s worldview be affected by the language’s simplistic structuring?
A principle popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea, broadly, is that a group without distinct words for ‘blue’ and ‘green’ won’t be able to distinguish between the colours themselves – an example of linguistic determinism. As such, might Toki Pona speakers find themselves dividing the spectrum into five colours visually, as well as linguistically? Would this be true also for all manner of other feelings, objects, and actions that have less linguistic distinction than any other language?
On the other hand, like any language, users introduce variation. Initially Toki Pona seems curiously prescriptive – the firm parameter drawn around the number of phonemes slightly at odds with the peaceable worldview that Lang advocates; she is not posing as an Orwellian Big Brother. But the ways in which these phonemes create compound words gives opportunities for the speaker’s personality and situation to shine through.
That’s not simply whether you see brown as yellowy-black or some other combination but how you perceive and experience the things you want to describe. Would you describe your family as a sike jan wawa (strong circle of people) or a kulupu jan nasa (strange group of people)? Is – more facetiously – a doughnut a sike suwi (sweet circle) or a pan lupa (food hole)?
By limiting the number of phonemes, linguistic relativity can come to the fore, allowing your personal tastes and experience to inform how you label and understand the world around you.