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Toki Pona
The Minimal Language
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(2019, revised in Oct. 2023) When I saw the Toki Pona video on Paul's Langfocus Channel on YouTube, I was amazed. This was not the kind of usual "conlang" (constructed language) like Klingon or Elvish or my own boring attempts in the Omega 5 novel. The kind that is nice for a joke or some atmosphere, but you would never want to learn it, because it's completely useless. Paul has a nice way of introducing languages and he certainly shares a general love for them. He explained that Toki Pona is an invented language and that it is special because it consists of only 120 words. What? What – was – this? While watching the video to the end I learned with sample sentences that "li" separates subject from predicate, that "e" introduces a direct object after a transitive verb and that you can order multifold compound nouns/adjectives via the separator "pi". But my mind was already detached from terrestrial spheres and going its own way. What – is – this?!

Minimalism is an attractive thing, be it in art or in life. It brings you to the core of things, the essence, without superfluous additions, without fat. Minimalism in linguistics is particularly interesting, because languages are super complex on the one hand – and a child's play on the other. Toddlers can learn it, while professors cannot fully explain it. Take case grammar: There were some thinkers in recent history who said: OK, we have different sets of cases in different languages, like nominative, genetive, accusative, dative, instrumental, locative etc. Couldn't there be a deep level where all languages meet? So one guy came up with a list of over 100 cases and others thought: Wait a minute! Let's take the minimum number and combine them! So they said: abs (absolutive), loc (locative), abl (ablative), erg (ergative). And then they combined them, like in the sentence: "The pirate [erg, abl] handed us [loc, erg, abs] the loot [abs]." Noam Chomsky had a similar approach when he developed what has become known as deep grammar: the similarity of languages on the deep level.

Semantics is a second factor to be considered when you're dealing with the essence of (a) language. George Lakoff's theories in cognitive linguistics are an eye-opener in this respect, when he talks about metaphors, metonymies, prototypes etc. Did you know, for example, that our bodies, our spatial disposition, determines our understanding of the world and thus our language? That we map our basic experiences onto abstract domains in order to make sense of them?

Those factors and more make it so difficult to produce good translation programs and it is only now, in the age of ChatGPT, DeepL & co. that we are getting closer to the point. Learning the Toki Pona language gives you an idea about how a basic language works, how words relate to each other and how you can produce meaningful sentences. This is why some computer language developers are part of the Toki Pona community. On the picture on the left you can see an excerpt of the three-page chart I produced, giving the words colors according to meaning (social activity, body parts, measurements, physical objects, etc.) and adding meanings from different online lists. You get the whole PDF when you click on it.

The relation between language and thought makes one wonder if an engagement in Toki Pona will reduce not only sentences, but also thoughts to an essence? Does it make sense, for example, to write poems in Toki Pona? Are there enough "atoms"?

Going Deeper

Concerning art and poems, the answer principally is yes. I saw poems on the net and translated one of my flea cartoons in order to test it myself. Sonja confirmed that the translation is correct. "Fleas" are "pipi lili" (little insect). The translation is: "Mama, why are the fleas in the sky all white?"

So OK, there are (slightly more than) 120 words to work with. The first interesting question is: which concepts are NOT included? Taoist question. No day and night – wow – no danger, part, joy, help, anger, peace, friend, sister. This means: even such basic seeming concepts can be broken down, like molecules into atoms. Does this really work? What started as a private game by Canadian linguist Sonja Lang was first publicized in 2001. Her official book "Toki Pona. The Language of Good" only appeared in 2014, and then the language became a ... what? Community, inspiration, whim without borders, computer language guinee pig, playground for freaks, addictive game? In any case, it obviously works and thrives.

There is a 40-minute interview by Kris Broholm (2014) with Sonja Lang (interview starts at min 5:00), where she explains, for example, that the language has developed due to usage. This is an adventure for everybody involved, most of all for Sonja.

How to Approach Toki Pona?

Toki Pona is special because you cannot turn on a news channel or radio stream (although there are some news videos, just not so many). You cannot listen to natives talking in their natural habitat because there is no such thing. So a way to approach Toki Pona is to translate and build your own sentences. Here is an example with noun phrases in orange, predicates in blue, prepositions and adverbial phrases and the rest in green. The small words are in lighter colors.

There is little grammar, as there is no (grammatical) singular and plural in Toki Pona, only one case marker "e" for the direct object, no conjugation, no gender, no tenses, no mode except for the imperative. Therefore, it is best to learn with examples like the ways to ask questions or to talk about time. Grammar in Toki Pona is syntax-focused.

In order to get a grip on the language it is helpful to look at (or produce) a list of Toki Pona compound words. There can never be a real dictionary because it is part of the tp philosophy and challenge to make things up according to context. But there are some very often used compounds you will have to know, anyway. The final element is texts. There are some collections with and without translations online. From experience I can say: It is true, you can really learn this mini-language to a considerable extent within a fortnight and you can get quickly back into it after a break. An amazing side-effect is that acquiring other languages becomes – or at least seems – somewhat easier after the Toki Pona experience.

Once you search for Toki Pona links you will realize how much is going on. There are dozens, no, hundreds of contributions: blog entries like this one here, descriptions in many different languages, poetry and prose, articles about grammatical details, link lists and meta link lists (this here is the most comprehensive one I found). There is a lot of love and passion in all this.

Try It Out Yourself!

There is a lot of learning material on the Internet. The 12 short videos lessons by jan Misali are a good start, together with these sentence translations and the 76 illustrated lessons by Eliazar Parra Cárdenas. When you feel that Toki Pona is your thing you should get the original book by jan Sonja.

The official website is tokipona.org. Wikipedia has a lot of material. See John Clifford, too. The YouTube channel seme li sin? (= What's New?) posts news bulletins in Toki Pona. There is a lot of motion and development in the field of Toki Pona. It surely is an established language by now and has gone through some minor changes. At the same time, there is a lot left to do for people who want to contribute in one way or another.

"Fingtam Languages" (YouTube) promotes the view that it pays to learn Toki Pona, this constructed language that does not claim to serve as a world language like Esperanto. To wrap it up: Toki Pona is extremely simple to learn, it shows you how language works, it is fun, it leads you to essential talk and thought, and it is quite a phenomenon.

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