Hey there, fellow language enthusiast! I wrote this post to answer the many questions I received over the years regarding the language called Toki Pona. But, hey, if you have never heard about it, this post is for you too. 😉
Are you tired of cramming endless vocabulary lists and struggling with convoluted grammar rules? Well, fear not, because Toki Pona is here to save the day!
Toki Pona is a man-made minimalist language that will make you feel like a linguistic Marie Kondo, tidying up your cluttered brain. With less than 140 words and straightforward grammar, Toki Pona is the linguistic equivalent of a Zen garden – simple, peaceful, and surprisingly deep.
And let’s be real, who doesn’t want to impress their friends with phrases like mi kama jo e moku sinpin lon tomo mi (I just got a pizza delivered to my house) or sina lukin pona li lon sewi mi (you look good in my eyes)?
So, if now you’re thinking “WTF?”, it means there’s some common sense in you 😀 so bear with me while I explain what is this Toki Pona about. Follow me 😉
What is Toki Pona?
In essence, Toki Pona is a constructed language, also known as a conlang, with a minimal vocabulary, created by Canadian linguist and translator Sonja Lang in 2001.
The name “Toki Pona” translates to good language in the language itself: its goal is to encourage clear and positive thinking, and its small vocabulary and simple grammar allow for easy learning and usage. To my knowledge, it’s the only attempt at extreme simplification of a language that has proven “successful”, although the adjective may be debatable.
How many speakers are out there?
As a constructed language, Toki Pona does not have a large number of native speakers, but it has gained a following among language enthusiasts and those interested in minimalism and positive thinking. Although 🤭 in fairness, a lot of people want to smile but few want to stop hoarding bullshytes. 🤭
And now, one fundamental question: where do Toki Ponists meet to practice the language – and talk trash about your unnecessary items? Well, the community of Toki Pona speakers is primarily active online, where they participate in forums, social media groups, and other virtual spaces dedicated to the language. At the time of writing, those on Discord alone were more than 15,000.
Is it serious, or is it a joke?
Hey, how dare you! Toki Pona is not a joke language: as the author states in her book Toki Pona: The Language of Good, the language was created with the serious purpose I described above. Besides, Sonja Lang was suffering from depression and one of the reasons for the creation of Toki Pona was, in fact, therapeutic.
Having said that, it does not mean that one can’t use it for pure fun.
Whether used seriously or playfully, Toki Pona is a legitimate constructed language, and as it always happens with conlangs, their speakers become co-creators, developing at the same time a unique culture and manner of self-expression. And that’s one of the coolest things about conlangs. 😁
Where is Toki Pona primarily spoken?
As said, Toki Pona is primarily an online language, and it is spoken by a dispersed community of enthusiasts around the world. While it was created in Canada by Sonja Lang, I’m not aware of any specific group in Toronto, Lang’s hometown, or anywhere in the world.
In short: other than in big cities where a conlang club or nerd linguophiles gather, there is no one geographical location where this happens. In Spain, where I live, there has never been even a gathering. 🙁
What’s its writing system?
Toki Pona uses the Latin script as its writing system. It uses only 14 letters from the English alphabet: a, e, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, s, t, u, and w. These letters are used to represent the sounds of the language, and there are no diacritical marks or special characters.
Each letter represents a sound in the language: this makes it easy for learners to read and write in the language since there are no complex spelling rules or unusual characters to memorize. Additionally, the small size of the writing system reflects the minimalist philosophy of the language itself, emphasizing simplicity, clarity and efficiency in communication. 💯
Is that all? Hmmmm not all. A few true fans have experimented with alternative writing systems, such as a syllabary or a system of pictographic symbols, but only two are worth mentioning.
The first is sitelen pona, a set of pictographic symbols to represent words and concepts in the language. The symbols are designed to be simple and intuitive, and many of them are based on visual associations with the concepts they represent. 🧐
It is not an official writing system for Toki Pona, but it has been adopted by some members of the Toki Pona community as a creative way of writing in the language. It can be used in addition to, or instead of, the standard Latin script, depending on the preferences of the writer or the context in which the language is being used.
The second is sitelen sitelen: same as the one above. Each word in Toki Pona is represented by a unique symbol that is meant to visually convey the meaning of the word.
sitelen sitelen has been created by conlanger Jonathan Gabel, borrowing from Chinese characters, Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mayan glyphs: the latter, to my eyes, are truly patent. However, the system has been adapted to suit the needs of the Toki Pona community, and many of the symbols have been modified to make them more accessible.
In my opinion, if the purpose of the language is simplicity, using such alternative writing systems goes against it, adding the burden of learning the pictographic symbols. But since it’s – after all – a language for experimenting and having fun, why not? 😀
A few words in Toki Pona?
There are good Toki Pona dictionaries around, anyway here are ten common words in Toki Pona (rendered in Latin characters):
- mi – I, me
- sina – you
- tomo – house, home
- jan – person
- wile – to want, desire, love
- taso – also, too
- ala – no, not, un-
- ona – it, that
- e – at, in, on
- toki – language, speak, say
How would one say then, let’s say, “bank account,” “satellite,” and “chicken coop” into Toki Pona? Here’s how:
- bank account – tomo sona banko
- satellite – tomo lon sewi lili
- chicken coop – tomo taso kasi lili
In these translations, the word tomo is used to indicate a place, and the words taso and lon are used to indicate relationships or proximity. sona is used to indicate “knowledge” or “account.” If you want to expand your lexicon, you should really get the Toki Pona dictionary, the official one, created by Sonja Lang herself:
What about some sentences?
Sure! Here’s a simple sentence in Toki Pona:
mi moku e tomo tawa mi: I eat at my home.
It demonstrates the use of simple vocabulary and concise expressions that are typical of the Toki Pona language. Another sentence:
mi nimi li Fabio. mi wile jo e toki insa Cerquete. mi wile ala e toki insa Valencia, Spain: My name is Fabio, I was born in Cerquete and I live in Valencia, Spain. 🥘
In this translation, the words mi nimi li Fabio mean “my name is Fabio,” mi wile jo e toki insa Cerquete means “I was born in Cerquete,” and mi wile ala e toki insa Valencia, Spain means “I live in Valencia, Spain.”
mi wile ala e toki mi taso Elda: I love Elda.
sina wile ala taso e toki mi: you are the love of my life. 💚
In these translations, the word wile is used to express “love,” and the phrase ala taso is used to express “love of my life.”
Actually, the rules are so simple that most of the effort (effort 😂) to learn Toki Pona is learning by heart the hundred words.
Where do words in Toki Pona come from?
Most words in Toki Pona are created by the language’s creator, Sonja Lang, based on a combination of her linguistic studies and her own personal philosophy.
What’s Tok Pisin? Does it have anything to do with Toki Pona?
Tok Pisin is a creole language that developed in Papua New Guinea, which is above northeast Australia. It’s also been called Melanesian pidgin and New Guinea Pidgin, incorrectly. 🇵🇬
What’s a creole? (rubbing hands) Put it simply, when people who do not share a common language come in touch, as a result of colonization, trade or other, they start using an extremely simplified “language”: that’s a pidgin.
Now, a pidgin may have two fates: the first is to remain a pidgin, and limited as it is; an example is Russenorsk. The second possibility is that it evolves, and that’s when things turn interesting. 🤩
Over time and generations, people start applying certain rules, because life is too complex to use a rudimentary pidgin and they want to convey more developed thoughts: that’s when you get a creole, such as Tok Pisin.
Tok Pisin grew and structured itself with its grammar, vocabulary, and culture. Vocabulary is borrowed from a variety of indigenous languages (belonging to the Austronesian family – Oh goodness, I feel so intellectual when I type “Austronesian” 😁) and English, Portuguese, German.
It is a language that is still dynamic and a big part of the cultural heritage of Papua New Guinea, where many have it as a first or second language.
How did its creator come upon Tok Pisin?
That, I don’t know. One of the things that I love the most about Sonja Lang, of all conlangers, is that she is low-profile. She is a linguist, though, and linguists study all sorts of languages: why shouldn’t she use Tok Pisin as an inspiration for her Toki Pona?
What about Toki Pona’s pronunciation and prosody?
Well, dear friend, Toki Pona has been made as simple as to allow speakers of most natural languages to speak it without issues.
Phonemes are merely 14, the stress is on the first syllable and most words are disyllabic; prosody is simple too, one can’t but notice a slow and steady rhythm: it somehow gives the language a relaxed and peaceful feeling.
As a constructed language, Toki Pona does not have a long history of use, so there is not a lot of variation in either pronunciation or prosody. However, its simplicity makes it easy for speakers to adopt their own speaking styles and to experiment with different prosodic patterns, aka, to “sing” the language in their own way. 🎵
Is there an official language examination for Toki Pona?
Never heard. Since Toki Pona is a constructed language with a small community of speakers, there is no central authority that regulates its use or certifies proficiency in the language. So, if you were thinking about the language certificate that exists for Esperanto… not the same here. Esperanto is a constructed language, but when we look up close at what it achieved, it’s closer to a natural language than a constructed one.
However, some Toki Pona enthusiasts have created their own assessments, which are designed to test a speaker’s knowledge of the grammar, vocabulary, and culture of Toki Pona. These assessments are not recognized by, well, anyone: they are intended more as a way for speakers to challenge themselves. You could be a Toki Pona translator without being licensed. 🤭
So, in case you had doubts, by now you know that the phenomenon of Toki Pona is sort of labelled nerdy.
What’s the closest human language to it?
Hmmm, it is not closely related to any natural human language. It has been influenced by a variety of natural languages, one way or another, but its grammar and vocabulary are reduced to a minimum, making it distinct from any other language. 🧐
If we compare Toki Pona to natural human languages, it might be said to be closest in structure and purpose to pidgins, which – as said above – are simplified forms of language used for communication between speakers of different language backgrounds.
However, even pidgin languages are more complex than Toki Pona, and have a larger vocabulary and a more sophisticated grammar.
Can we simplify its grammar even further?
Hmmm, I am skeptical. It seems to me that you can only reduce complexity up to a certain point, otherwise you’re not truly simplifying but rather rearranging it haphazardly.
As we have seen, if the concept you wanted to express was too abstract and you were unable to provide an accurate context, Toki Pona wouldn’t be your go-to language. Words are so malleable in this language, you couldn’t possibly handle them without context, and even with that, certain topics would be always out of reach anyway.
Don’t you think that it is a waste of time learning Toki Pona?
Well well well, one of my favourite questions 🙂 See, people have different opinions about the value of learning Toki Pona. Some will find it an enjoyable experience, while others may see it as not worth their time. In all fairness:
- Reading the foundational book of Toki Pona,
- browsing a Toki Pona dictionary,
- checking the two biggest resources about the language, and
- practice it for a few hours…
… does not even require a fifth of the time most dudes spend on Netflix in a month. 📺
Is watching Desperate Housewives or Dexter a valuable alternative usage of your energy? Does Toki Pona take time out from your valuable contribution to the Human Genome Project? 🤣
So do you think it will become popular, in the long run?
It is unlikely that Toki Pona will become a widely-spoken language on a global scale. While it has a dedicated community of speakers and learners, hmmmm I don’t see it becoming that common.
Having said that, a lot of weird stuff is going on in the world, the linguistic one included. so… who knows? I’m sure it’s here to stay, for what it can bring in terms of fun and as a psycholinguistic experiment.
Okay, then can I add it to my CV?
Eheh, outright provocation? Okay, you can or not add Toki Pona to your CV depending on the context and purpose of your CV. 📋
In some cases, listing knowledge of Toki Pona on a CV might be seen as a unique addition, showing that you have a diverse range of passions. I’m not making this up: I’ve been at the other side of the HR desk. This could be relevant for careers in language or cultural studies, education, or creative fields where versatility and an open mind are valued.
In many cases, ça va sans dire, including Toki Pona on a CV may sound either outrightly weird. 🤪
In short, if you’re applying for a position as an underwater welder, auditor for KPMG or plumber at the local building company, you probably wouldn’t want to list it. But if you’re into marketing, software development or journalism, you may want to highlight it, even only to be able to get into the interview room. 😉
Don’t we already have English, or Esperanto for nerds like you, as lingua franca?
🙂 Toki Pona has never meant to be an auxiliary language, although it may be used as such.
What is an “auxiliary language”?
In the common acceptance of the term, it’s a language that is intended to facilitate communication between people who speak different native languages. It is typically designed to be relatively simple and easy to learn, with a limited vocabulary and grammar, so that it can be quickly and widely adopted as a common means of communication.
Examples truly abound: Interlingua, Latino sine flexione, Esperanto, Volapük, Ido, etc. But Toki Pona is something else: its raison d’être is to promote simplicity and mindfulness in the speakers, based on the assumption that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis works.
What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the idea that the structure of the language you speak can affect the way you think and perceive the world around you.
For example, if your language doesn’t have a word for a certain colour, it might be harder for you to distinguish that colour from others (the Russian language being a case in point). Another popular example is that of the German language: many presume the Germans are highly efficient and organized because such is their mother tongue. 🤨
While there is some evidence that language acts as a lens that affects how we interpret reality, the bulk of linguists and psychologists disagree.
What is your opinion about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?
I’m flattered by your question, but I must confess I’m neither a linguist nor a neuroscientist. Not even close. I even struggle tying shoes. 👟
However, I would say the evidence in favour of the hypothesis sounds intuitively strong to me, but… it’s just not enough. Up to now, no correlation between the personality or behaviour or thought-processing of humans and the language they speak has been found. 🤔
In spit of that, not only is staggeringly fascinating as a hypothesis: it’s supercool also to study the life and work of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Worth, who – surprise surprise – are the proponents of this hypothesis.
So you mean if I spoke a rich language, I would become rich?
If the two linguists were right, yes. But I’m telling you: I’ve been dabbling with languages for several decades now, and… my default financial situation isn’t LOL (in Toki Pona: ike), but no Lamborghini in my garage either. 🏎️
Is there any other quirk about Toki Pona you haven’t written yet?
Hmmm, let me think.
- There are two signed languages derived from Toki Pona.
- From 2021, Toki Pona is available as an interface language on Minecraft.
- It’s occasionally taught at universities.
- Besides the customary versions of The Lord’s Prayer and Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Toki Pona, people are working on translations of more, bigger works. 📚
- It’s been given an ISO 639-3 code in 2022. If you’re not a nerd beyond redemption, let me just say is a big deal for a constructed language.
- Scholars take it serious: at the moment of writing this, if I search “Toki Pona” in ResearchGate, 282 results are rendered; in Academia.edu, 520.
I’m left with a doubt. Are there people out there creating languages?
Yes, in the number of hundred thousand. Many people (you certainly know more than one) craft languages for themselves, without spreading the voice.
Those that we know range from constructed naturalistic languages like Esperanto to logical or symbolic languages like Lojban or Ithkuil. Additionally, many constructed languages are created for fictional or artistic purposes, and these you have certainly seen or heard about. Take the languages in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, among my favourites: Entish, Sindarin, Black Speech, Quenya, Orcish, Telerin, Khuzdûl.
TL;DR – Can you resume the most important principles of Toki Pona?
The short definition is: Toki Pona is a minimalist constructed language that seeks to express complex ideas using a simple vocabulary. Here are some key takeaways:
1. Simple vocabulary: Toki Pona has a small vocabulary of around 137 root words, which are used to express a wide range of concepts. It encourages avoiding using unnecessary words.
2. Concise expressions: the goal of Toki Pona is to express complex ideas using concise expressions.
3. Positive orientation: Toki Pona is a positive language and focuses on expressing positive emotions, thoughts, and experiences.
4. Use of root words: the language is built around a set of root words, which are combined to express more complex ideas.
5. Use of particles: they are used to modify the meaning of words and expressions in Toki Pona.
6. Emphasis on context: speakers are invited to use context to express their ideas clearly, with context in mind. Which is just normal: otherwise, with such minimalistic vocabulary one wouldn’t be able to communicate at all.
So, should I learn Toki Pona, in your opinion?
You should if:
- You are curious by nature;
- you can finally communicate with your pet parrot who has been secretly learning Toki Pona behind your back; 🦜
- you want to impress that nerdy classmate, whose intellectual heights you will never reach;
- you would gladly confuse your enemies by insulting them in a language they can’t comprehend;
- you can make a few bucks by working as a Toki Pona translator for people who want to keep their messages secret;
- you can win bets by challenging your friends to translate difficult English phrases into Toki Pona;
- you believe HBO is for people with a dry interior life; 🤭
- you would like to list it on your CV next to Python and Php;
- you too tried hard to fit in, it didn’t work, and now you’re just embracing your nerdestiny;
- you want to run a linguistic experiment on yourself. 🧪
I can think of a few dozen of other reasons, but I also would like you to not hate me, so I better stop.
ona li pona ale li kama pini
Congrats! You have made it to the end of this post and have learned about the amazing language of Toki Pona.
You’re probably thinking: OMG have I just spent seven minutes reading about Toki Pona?, but you’re also feeling a little like a Toki Pona ninja by now, ready to take on the world with your newfound linguistic prowess. 💪
‘Coz, hey, who wouldn’t want to impress their friends and family by speaking a language with only 137 words? Just imagine the looks on their faces when you say sina wile e seme? and they have no idea if you’re uttering some mystical words from a distant language, or you’re having a stroke. 🤪
So why not give it a try? Grab a Toki Pona dictionary, a textbook and you’ll see it won’t take long to learn, and on top of it Toki Pona might just change the way you think about language – and who knows, you might even find some inner peace along the way.
Have you already tried, by any chance? Did you know about it? What are your thoughts on this?
pona! sina lukin e ni: mi o kama lon. Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you around soon 🙂
Your social experimental linguist,