Toki Pona: A Conlang For Minimalists

It's been a while since I've done a language profile, so today I've chosen a particularly interesting language to profile. It's a constructed language called Toki Pona.

Linguistic minimalism

Probably the most interesting detail about Toki Pona is its minimalism. The language is built on an amazingly scant 125 root words, formed using a mere 14 phonemes: p, t, k, s, m, n, l, j, w, a, e, i, o, and u.

That's it! Nine consonants. Five vowels. All of them part of the standard Latin character set, easy to find on any keyboard, typewriter, telephone, etc.

Like Esperanto, Toki Pona is more than a language, it's an extension of a philosophy. But where Esperanto's philosophy is unity, Toki Pona's philosophy is taoism. It's based on a Zen-like minimalism — a rigid minimalism that leads some to compare it to a pidgin, while others to compare it to the Newspeak of George Orwell's 1984.

Language features

Each syllable is constructed of one consonant (optional at the beginning of a word) and one vowel, with an optional nasal consonant (typically n) at the end of the syllable. That's a detailed way of saying, basically, that there are no doubled consonants, no doubled vowels, no digraphs, no diphthongs. Just reading that description draws to mind thoughs of islands in the Pacific.

The subject of a sentence is separated from the predicate by the word li, direct objects are preceded by e, and complex adverbs or subclauses are separated from the sentence by la.

The language is simple enough that it's syntax can be described in a simple list of ten rules.

Toki Pona has several interesting features as a result of it's minimalism. It is a zero copula language, which means there is no verb "to be". Subject pronouns indicate 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person, but do not indicate plurality or gender, and have no articles. Verbs are not conjugated, and have no mood, tense, or voice.

There are only five colors: black, white, red, blue, and yellow; all other colors are expressed as combinations of those. Numbers consist of one, two, and many.

Because of its limited vocabulary, words have many meanings, and can often be used as noun and verb, and even preposition!

Examples

That description contains a lot of really interesting details, but it's all so much more meaningful once you see it in action.

The word pona means "good", but it also means "simple". (The minimalist philosophy is showing here!) And the word toki means "speak".

Modifiers always follow the word they modify, therefore Toki Pona is a speak that is simple or good — essentially, a "good language" or a "goodspeak". If we said toki li pona, it would mean "the language is good". (Remember the word li separates a subject from a predicate, and there is no verb "to be".)

The word jan means "person", so jan pona is a "good person", which is the Toki Pona way of saying "friend".

So now if you said jan pona toki you'd be talking about a "good person" who is talking, or a friend who is speaking. Adding li in the right place gives you jan pona li toki, meaning a friend is speaking. And on it goes.

Of course stringing together so many words into combinations to mean other things could get confusing, so there is a handy rule which says that modifiers are applied in order of immediacy, so that jan pona lukin is a "good person" who is looking or watching. If you want to say that they are a good-looking person, you use the handy little particle pi, meaning "of" to help you out. Jan pi pona lukin means a person of good looks, or "a good-looking person".

My impressions

I love the idea of minimalism in a constructed language. When compared to Esperanto, it's hard to argue against Toki Pona being a much easier and more universal language to get people speaking across cultures and language boundaries.

Of course it's usefulness would be naturally limited by its lack of complexity. If I can complain about a lack of nuance in Esperanto, you can imagine the complaints I would have with Toki Pona. Of course, given its obvious limitations, I can't foresee anyone wanting to use it for poetry or for serious conversation. In that respect, I think it wins a huge victory over Esperanto for not trying to be more than it is.

Ignoring it's obvious conlang cousin, and turning my attention to natural languages, I can't help noticing a lot of similarities with Tagalog, the language of the Phillipines. The grammatical construction of Tagalog is quite similar, with its minimal set of phonemes, particles to mark subjects, objects, and modifiers, and a dead-simple grammar... though sentence order in Tagalog is completely front-to-back opposite of Toki Pona. I'll save the rest of the details for a future language profile!

All in all, Toki Pona is a fascinating little creation. If I was crazy enough to try learning Esperanto in one week, it seems fitting to say that a person could probably learn Toki Pona fluently in just one or two days. But I've learned my lesson about conlangs. I'm not going to try that without a fluent speaker with whom to test my success.

For now, it will remain in my mind as an interesting little anomaly.


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  • Another point is the vocabulary roots of toki pona words : they (almost) all come from natural languages, as described here : https://en.wikipedia.org/wik.... And because toki pona's vocabulary is very limited, it is also very general. So knowing toki pona can help to learn very useful vocabulary in other languages. Of course this aspect is minimalist, as toki pona in general. It helped me, for example, to learn the Chinese word 空气 kōngqì (= air), since the toki pona word kon has the same meaning.
    About the time needed to learn toki pona, well, 2 days are OK to be able to read toki pona. But when speaking, the difficult part is to split an idea into smaller ideas expressed by toki pona's words (and when hearing, it's the opposite : trying to recompose precise ideas from several general ones ...).
    At the end of the day, I'd say that learning toki pona can be interesting if the aim is not to master the language, or just to see how a language with so few words can work.

  • And I've forgotten, really good post : I didn't expect it since toki pona is unknow ...
    Thank you !

  • If you do learn it, hopefully they won't give you a hard time.

  • The creator of Toki Pona, Sonja Elen Kisa, is also an accomplished polyglot, who lives in Toronto also speaks Esperanto. She always seems to find it very amusing when people greet her in Toki Pona, as I did the first time I was introduced, since she did not originally intend for others to learn it!

  • *...in Toronto and also speaks....

  • tokipona li toki pona "tokipona is good speak" (I think).I spent a few hours looking at it some time back, not sure about the the couple of days to learn thing at all though, just over one hundred root words if fine but everything else is derived from these so If I remember correctly alchohol is "crazywater" but you have to know that (maybe you could guess but perhaps you think it is goodwater or badwater.
    I felt that whilst it maybe fairly easy to learn to read slowly and guess alot any kind of flient conversation requires a good knowledge of the dictionary of combined words and lots of practice (with whom?)It is kind of fun though :) and being based on root words it would be easy to provide an alternate writing system based on a Chinese character for each a good way to learn over a hundred Chinese characters so my first sentance (not sure about the spacing)
    becomes: 好说 是 好 说.
    Which would almost make sense to a Chinese speaker straight of the bat (after a brief explanation of how the language worked. This way also allows you to have multi-pronounciations of the language all with an identical writing system (and teaches you over one hundred Chinese characters with pronounciation). What is more a translator between the two writing systems could be written in about an hour to run in a web-page.Yes it was a fun few hours, I may write this up some day and implement it.

  • Interesting post, thank you!
    Those who can understand Esperanto might be interested in a presentation of Toki Pona, filmed in Second Life two years ago. I apologise for the bad sound the first five minutes: https://www.vimeo.com/2289842

  • Let me know if you do. Sounds interesting.

  • Hahaha.

  • Which 125 symbols did you pick? On the tp forum, there is a recent discussion for implementing this idea. I'm keen to start using it because tp really screams out for 1 word per symbol when posting twitter messages. Ref: https://forums.tokipona.org/...

  • Yes, but who speaks it? Where did it come from? I wish you had included some background on it.Cheers,
    Andrew

  • I would love to have included more info, but I really don't have any more.There's not much to be found about this online, and I don't know of anyone who speaks it.

  • Very interesting...
    well... I guess you do know Esperanto-speakers. So, I would say that there is a tiny difference between the two ;-)

  • "Tiny" is a serious understatement. The difference between the two is huge.

  • Hi, amazed to find something about toki pona :). Mi toki e toki pona. ni li pona mute tawa mi :) I learned it within 3 days, so it's technically feasible to learn in less time I guess. But I never really practiced, though there are toki pona speakers (maybe 50-100), some of them speak esperanto too so I had the occasion to meet a few. But now I'm a bit confused because when I learned it in 2007 there were only 118 words, and since then new words appeared but I couldn't find the meaning of all of them, so I got frustrated. I had the feeling that the language is not complete. I guess you can find toki pona speakers easily with skype, but don't expect really deep conversations :D Seems that you are still looking for the language that would fit the most to your expectations. Maybe take a look at Ceqli: https://larrysulky.webs.com/But, as far as I know nobody speaks them. Just to feed your curiosity.

  • Your article is a good summary of the language, but actually I used it for poetry as well as serious conversation.

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