So I stumbled a few weeks ago on this video about the world’s smallest conlang and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
(You will probably have the idea more than fully by the ten minute mark.)
This fascinated me. I think languages are really interesting but I’m also really bad at them. I cannot hack the memorization. I’ve mostly avoided conlangs (that’s Constructed Languages, like Esperanto or Klingon) because like, oh no, now there’s even more languages for me to fail at memorizing. So like, a language so minimal you can almost learn it by accident, suddenly my ears perk up.
Toki pona is really interesting, on a lot of different axes. It’s a thought experiment in Taoist philosophy that turns out to be actually, practically useful. It’s Esperanto But It Might Actually Work This Time¹. It has NLP implications— it’s a human language which feels natural to speak yet has such a deeply logical structure it seems nearly custom-designed for simple computer programs to read and write it². Beyond all this it’s simply beautiful as an intellectual object— nearly every decision it makes feels deeply right. It solves a seemingly insoluble problem³ and does it with a sense of effortlessness and an implied “LOL” at every step.
So what toki pona is. Toki pona is a language designed around the idea of being as simple as it is possible for a language to be. It has 120 words in its original form (now, at the twenty year mark, up to 123), but you can form a lot of interesting sentences with only around twenty or thirty (I know this because this is roughly the size of my current tok vocabulary). The whole tok->en dictionary fits on seventeen printed pages⁴. There are no conjugations or tenses to memorize. There are no parts of speech, generally: almost every single word can be used as almost any part of speech, drop a pronoun or a preposition⁵ in the right place and it becomes a verb, drop a verb in the right place and it becomes an adjective. There are almost no ambiguities in sentence structure; I’ve only found one significant one so far (using “of” [pi] twice in the same clause) and the community deals with this by just agreeing not to do that. There’s in one sense quite a lot of ambiguity in the vocabulary but in another sense there’s none; for example nena is listed in the dictionary as meaning hill, mountain, button, bump, nose, but the official ideology of Toki Pona is that this is not a word with five definitions, it is a word with exactly one definition, that being the concept encompassing all five of hills, mountains, buttons, bumps, and noses. Toki pona words are not ambiguous, they’re just broad. I will now teach you enough toki pona to understand most sentences (assuming you consult the dictionary as you go) in a paragraph shorter than this one:
Every sentence has an “verb” or action clause. Most sentences also have a subject clause, which goes before the verb separated by “li“. Some sentences also have an “object” or target clause, which goes after the verb clause separated by “e“. So “[subject] li [verb] e [object]”. All three clauses are any number of words, the first word is the noun (or verb) and the rest are adjectives (or adverbs). If the first word in a sentence is mi or sina you can omit the li in that case only. There is no “is”, a sentence like “a flower is red” is just “[a plant] li [red]” because there are no parts of speech and adjectives are verbs. Pronounce everything the way you would in English except “j” sounds like “y”. If you see “tawa“, “lon“, “tan” or “kepeken” in adjective/adverb position that’s a preposition, so treat whatever comes after it as a fourth clause. “a” and “n” are interjections and can go anywhere in a sentence. If you see “o“, “pi“, “la“, “taso, “anu” or “en“, then you’ve found one of the few special words (particles) and you should probably either read the book or watch the jan Misali instructional videos on YouTube.
That’s like… almost it!⁶ Watch one youtube video, or read a half page of grammar summary and keep the dictionary open on your phone, and you’re basically ready to jump into conversations. (You’ll need those last six particles to make nuanced sentences, but sentences do not have to be nuanced.) In my own case I watched the Langfocus video linked at the top and then lazily over the next week watched the jan Misali overview and two of their instructional videos then read a few chapters of the book, and was already able to construct a full paragraph and be understood by another person:
o! mi sona e toki pona. mi lukin sona e toki mute... taso mi toki ike e toki ale. toki mute li jo e nimi mute. nimi mute li pona ala tawa mi. toki pona li pona e mi tan ni. toki pona li jo nimi lili. nimi lili li pona e me 🙂
(Translation: Hello! I am learning toki pona. I’ve tried to learn many languages… but I speak all of the[m] badly. Most languages have a lot of words. Lots of words is not good for me. Toki pona is good for me because of this. Toki pona has few words. Few words is good for me 🙂⁷)
So that’s week one. By the end of week three (that’ll be this past Sunday) I had hit three milestones:
- I was able to make a joke in toki pona. Not a good one.
- When the joke misfired, I was able to successfully toss off an entire complex paragraph rapidly without really thinking about it.
- Probably a sign I Am Getting It more significant than anything else: I realized that talking on the Discord I was dropping toki pona words into my English sentences solely because the toki pona word seemed to me to communicate a concept I wanted to communicate more precisely than any particular English word.
(That last one actually kind of excited me when I realized, after the fact, that it had been happening for several days before I noticed it.)
All of the above happened on the toki pona Discord, which seems to be the largest and healthiest outpost of toki pona community online⁸ and, I assume therefore, the world. Here’s my toki pona joke; you’ll notice that I begin by preemptively apologizing for it, but by the end it becomes clear I was, at that moment anyway, apparently completely on the Discord’s level:⁹
¹ Esperanto was meant to be an auxillary language simple enough the entire world could learn it as a second language. But it does not seem to me to be actually all that simple to learn (the verb tenses may be free of exceptions, but there are still like six of them) and it seems hard to convince myself to study it when I could put that effort toward a more widespread language. Toki Pona on the other hand is a language simple enough the entire world actually could learn it, had it reason to, and the buy-in cost in time is a lot lower. Meanwhile Toki Pona just seems to get certain international-accessibility things right, probably due to the advantage of having over a century of conlang practice largely inspired by Esperanto to draw from. The difference that’s most interesting to me, but which I’m also least qualified to evaluate, is that the Toki Pona author had some basic familiarity with, and gave Toki Pona input from, east Asian languages. Both Toki Pona and Esperanto draw roots from a variety of languages but in Esperanto’s case this winds up being mostly European languages, mostly Italian, whereas Toki Pona has Mandarin and Cantonese in its mix. Both languages were intended to have a minimal, universal phonology but Esperanto’s is not very universal at all and has some consonant sounds that are going to be be totally unfamiliar unless you speak Polish or a language related to Polish. Toki Pona’s phonology is actually minimal– it has the letters in the sentence “mi jan pi ko suwi lete” and nothing else and the legal syllabary is basically hiragana without the combination syllables. Now, what I don’t know is whether any of this actually helps speakers of Asian languages in practice or if it just makes surface choices that make it seem that way to a westerner like me. In practice if you find a toki pona speaker their native language is almost certainly English, so there doesn’t seem to have been a great deal of testing as to how learnable it is to people from varied regions.
² I kept imagining toki pona as being like LLVM IR for human languages or something.
³ Designing an actually learnable, universal(?) international auxillary language.
⁴ By which I mean if you print the unofficial web version it’s 17 pages long. But you can fit it in sixteen if you remove the web-specific introductory paragraph, the “joke word” kijetesantakalu, and the web footer with the “trans rights now!” banner in it.
⁵ There’s an awkward nuance in the specific case of prepositions: if you drop a preposition into verb position it still winds up “behaving like” a preposition, it’s just that the preposition describes an action. It’s probably more accurate to say that the preposition phrase becomes a verb rather than the preposition itself. So for example “mi tawa kalama” means “I went toward the sound” [kamala is a noun and the object of the preposition] not “I went loudly” [as it would be if kamala were an adverb modifying tawa as a verb]. Going into detail on this because I don’t want to mislead anyone but “you can form a sentence using an unmodified preposition as a verb” is such a fun fact I wanted to include it.
⁶ I guess I could say “what I’m calling ‘clauses’ are called ‘word groups’ in official sources; word groups are always separated by a particle or preposition” but I’m not sure that’s interesting unless you’re a linguist.
⁷ There’s a lot of repetition in this paragraph of both kinds that show what’s cool about toki pona and what’s kinda impractical about it. Cool, it has some sentences where a single word shows up twice conveying two different clear things based only on where it is in the sentence, like “mi toki ike e toki ale” where toki is a verb (“I speak”) the first time and a noun (“language”) the second. Less cool, because so much of the meaning of the hyper-versatile toki pona words is based on context, you sometimes wind up having to include multiple sentences saying nearly the same thing just to make sure the reader selects the correct context. I may have overdone it here.
⁸ There’s also a low-traffic Mastodon instance, multiple forums including one run by the Merveilles crowd, and something called “Wikipesija“
- ME: jan utala pi toki ni [“We are the knights who say ‘this’!”]
(“ni” is “this” in toki pona, which means the Holy Grail scene would seem to be the guy yelling “We are the knights who say ‘We are the knights who say this!'” after which everyone else jumps around yelling “this!” “this!” as if agreeing)
- PERSON 1: (Responding to the fact I initially mispelled “toki” as “toka”) What is a toka
- ME: … spelling error 🙁 … deeply weird one
(Weird because toki is literally in the name “toki pona” so it is by definition the first toki pona word anyone learns)
- BOT 1: a and i are 8 keys apart :/
- BOT 2: (Trying to translate my comment) Could be “an arguer in this conversation” perhaps?
- ME: mi jo e ijo ike sina pi sijelo pi luka luka luka tu tu lon tenpo suno ni. sona lawa mi li pona ala tawa ni [“I have [[literal translation: “new bad thing of the body-19″]] today. I am not thinking well because of this.”]
If that doesn’t come across that’s the best I can do right now
- PERSON 2: “toki” [lit. “It communicates!”]
- BOT 1: two PIs (Complaining you’re not supposed to chain “of” clauses like I did)
- PERSON 2: tenpo Mopiju li lon [literal translation: “It is the time of Morbin’!”]
EMOJI REACTIONS: S O N Y a! [apparent intended translation: “Sony is angry now!”]