Does language need a purpose for existence?

Many reasons have been posited for the existence of natural languages: perhaps people were just imitating the sounds of nature; perhaps it arose out of a need to communicate; perhaps it came from God. Generally speaking, this is a slow process. Like living organisms, languages evolve over time and eventually die.

Other languages, called constructed or artificial languages, exist because someone saw a need to create them. Languages have been created by people for use in fictional stories, as exercises in linguistics, and even with the lofty goal of unifying the world in language.

This post introduces one of those constructed languages, known as Toki Pona.

What is Toki Pona?

Created in 2001 by the Canadian linguist Sonja Lang, Toki Pona is a minimalist constructed language. It contains only 120 (official) words, 14 letters (9 consonants and 5 vowels), and an intentionally simple grammar: words do not change according to number, tense, or subject.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis posits that the language we speak influences how we think. Believing this, and inspired by Taoist philosophy, Sonja wished to create a language that would “help users concentrate on basic things and to promote positive thinking.” (Wikipedia).

While Sonja did not see herself as attempting to create a language that would unify or facilitate international communication (as was the goal of Esperanto), Toki Pona has nevertheless built a global following.

Word as ideas: Toki Pona vs “natural” languages

Toki Pona strives to deliver maximum meaning while requiring minimal complexity. Initially, it had only 120 words; later it was updated to include 137 words.

To put that into perspective, native adult speakers of English know 20,000–35,000 words, and you need to know 8,000–9,000 words to comfortably read a novel like The Great Gatsby. (Note: it's a bit finicky to define what a word is and isn't. See this article for more information.) This isn't just English, either. Japanese students learn 2,136 Kanji characters as part of their schooling, and these characters are used to form tens of thousands of words.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso / Unsplash

We have so many words because language is essentially a system of shortcuts: the word apple lets me refer to apples and be perfectly understood even when there isn’t one nearby to point at. It wouldn't be the end of the world if we didn't have a word for apple — I could just say crunchy red fruit instead — but that's a mouthful and not quite as clear. Some people might mistakenly think I was talking about cherries, cranberries, grapes, or some other reddish fruit.

Toki Pona essentially eliminated this "words as shortcuts" notion. The most basic words aside, you always have to describe/talk around the word that you want to say. (This concept, employed by dictionaries, is more formally known as circumlocution.)

How Toki Pona reduced the human experience to 120 words

It's important to recognize that languages evolve over time. The English language we speak nowadays is not the one that our ancestors spoke. New words are constantly being born, and they come into existence in several ways. To give just a few examples:

  • Derivation: A new word is formed by adding a prefix or suffix to an existing word. For example, the suffix -ness turns adjectives into nouns (empty —> emptiness)
  • Nonce words: Some words, such as bling, are literally just pulled out of thin air, and then, (for whatever reason), popularized
  • Portmanteaus: A new word is formed by combining already-existing words. For example, smog is a combination of smoke and fog
  • Eponyms: A new word is formed by naming something after a person or place. For example, Alzheimer’s is named after the scientist Alois Alzheimer

Toki Pona, by contrast, approaches words in a few main ways:

  • Loanwords: All of Toki Pona’s 120 (or 137) “base” words are loan words: they were borrowed from other languages. For example, pona (good; positive) comes from the Esperanto word bona, which comes from the Latin word bonus
  • Compounding: Two simple words can be adjoined to create a new “compound” word. For example, the word for friend is jan pona; jan means person and pona means good — a friend is a good person
  • Conversion: Some words can fulfill multiple jobs. The word tawa means “go” when used as a verb but “to” when used as a preposition

This extreme limitation of words forces speakers of the language to simplify their thoughts, reducing complex ideas into strings of simple components. For instance, there are only five words for colors in Toki Pona: pimeja (black), walo (white), loje (red), jelo (yellow), and laso (blue). If you want to say purple, then, you need to say either laso loje (reddish blue) or loje laso (bluish red).

This in mind, 120 words does not mean that users are limited to 120 ideas. With creativity and context, it’s possible to communicate a surprisingly wide amount of ideas. There is a Toki Pona version of Wikipedia, for example.

Toki Pona's Grammar

Toki Pona’s minimalist nature extends to its grammar. Everything you need to know to speak Toki Pona can be condensed into two pages (one for grammar, one for vocabulary.) The cost of this simplicity is ambiguity: it is often necessary to know the context of a sentence in order to determine what the sentence means. The word moku might mean eat or consume as a verb, but can also refer to any sort of food when used as a noun.

A flexible yogini doing a backbend pose in the middle of a white archway. Photo by Oksana Taran.
Photo by Oksana Taran / Unsplash

Like English, Toki Pona sentences follow subject-verb-object word order. As all words can have multiple meanings, a series of markers (particles) is used to help clarify what a given word is doing in a sentence. To name a few:

  • Li connects the subject and verb of a sentence.
    Ona li moku might be translated to [he/she/it] is eating  
  • E connects the verb and direct object of a sentence.
    Jan li lukin e sitelen tawa might be translated as I am watching a moving picture [movie]
  • Ala is used to negate a previous word or phrase.
    Ona li moku ala gives us [he/she/it] is not eating  

Again, remember that actual communication was secondary to Sonja Lang’s goals. What she really wanted to do was force herself to dig deep and think hard about what ideas she actually wanted to communicate by so heavily limiting the words and grammar available to her. Speaking Toki Pona is something like an exercise in metacognition.

How to write Toki Pona

Toki Pona is mostly written using the Latin alphabet, but Sonja Lang also created a logographic writing system (symbols) called Sitelen Pona that can be used to handwrite Toki Pona. It is used in memes and comics created by the online Toki Pona community, and in a variety of other places.

Sonja Lang, Bryant Knight. Creative Commons 40 via Wikipedia Commons.

While the above two systems are the official ones, Toki Pona places great emphasis on community and creativity, and Tokiponists (speakers of Toki Pona) have come up with alternatives:

  • Sitelen Sitelen: A hieroglyphic-inspired writing system that can be written inside out or from top to bottom
  • Sitelen Emoji: An emoji-based system — this is my personal favorite! I have been using it because it is fun to read “secret messages” in emojis
  • Toki Pona Sign Language (TPSL): See Toki Pona Luka and Luka Pona

Toki Pona communities

Despite being a constructed language and genereally seen as hobbyist stuff, Toki Pona has many communities online across a diverse array of social media platforms. I am an active user of Toki Pona online in groups spread across Facebook, Telegram, Whatsapp, and Discord, for example.

Foo

Here are a few ways you can interact with Toki Pona, or with people in Toki Pona:

My story with Toki Pona

One day I was reading about the notion of "constructed" languages (conlangs) and came across Toki Pona. It appears to be a very simple language to learn at first: it contains only 120 words, after all. Furthermore, the words used in Toki Pona coma from various languages, such as Cantonese, Dutch, Tok Pisin, and English, so I recognized many of them from the onset.

While it might seem like Toki Pona was made in jest, or that there's no particular reason anyone might want to learn it, I don't think that's the case. It promotes simplicity: it teaches us to identify the simplest ways to express our ideas. Because I constantly need to find a method to describe myself when using Toki Pona's limited language, it encourages me to think in new ways.

I think that is worthwhile, personally.

Final words

Toki Pona wasn’t made to be an auxiliary/international language like Esperanto (another constructed language). Instead, it was made to prove that it is possible to express a nearly infinite amount of things with very few words. As the slogan goes, maximum meaning, minimal complexity.

Does this language sound like something you would like to give a try?


To contact Teddy or read more of his thoughts, visit his personal website.

Interested in conlangs?

  1. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Does Language Create Reality?
  2. What Made Me Want to Learn Esperanto?
  3. Volapük: The Would-be Language of the World
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