Searching for the perfect language: The case of Toki Pona

toki pona

Have you ever been in a situation where words fall short of expressing your feelings? Then picture yourself interacting in a language consisting of just over 100 words! In this blog post, we’ll be focusing on a language that employs minimalism and optimism, all in the hope of becoming the perfect language. This language is known as Toki Pona.

What is Toki Pona?

Toki Pona is an artificial language created in 2001 by Canadian linguist Sonja Lang. Lang herself describes it as a ‘human language,’ with the goal of understanding ‘the meaning of life in 120 words.’ The uniqueness of this language stems from its remarkably limited vocabulary. While Lang initially established a vocabulary of approximately 120 words, some language enthusiasts have tried to expand the lexicon with a few additional words. It has been estimated that it is possible to learn the language in about 30 hours.

Interest in the language is significant, and as a result, the community of learners and users of the language is quite broad (though, of course, different in numbers to, for example, the learners of the Esperanto language). Officially, a book titled “Toki Pona: The Language of Good” has been published, but you can also find a wealth of material on the internet, such as in forums and online courses.

simple language

The beauty of simplicity

So, let’s look more closely at how the minimalism mentioned above reveals itself in the vocabulary. The compactness of the lexicon has been achieved through various means. One of the most common ways to accomplish this is by adding a dimension of polysemy. We can see this in the following two examples:

(1) mi pona li wawa ‘I am good and energetic’ (literally: ‘I good be energetic’)

(2) suno li sike li jelo ‘The sun is round and yellow’ (literally: ‘The sun be round and yellow’)

Upon closer observation, the polysemy of the word li stands out. In Toki Pona, it marks both the conjunction ‘and’ and the verb ‘to be.’ Furthermore, the infinitive and present forms of the verb are the same. Since the word li has two possible meanings in the context of these examples, it is not necessary to repeat it for the sake of economy, as shown in example 2. Moreover, in Toki Pona, you can use the same word for the verbs ‘to eat’ and ‘to drink.’

Other interesting features include negation and antonymy, which can be found in the following example:

(3) mi wawa ala ‘I am weak’ (literally: ‘I energetic no’)

In this context, negation serves as an antonym for the adjective ‘energetic’ to express the opposite meaning (‘weak’). As mentioned earlier, Toki Pona carries tones of optimism, particularly evident in the formation of negation. The Toki Pona vocabulary does not favour the use of negatively toned adjectives to express one’s state, so instead, negation is employed. For example, if one wants to say that they are sad, they don’t affirmatively state, ‘I am sad,’ but instead say, ‘I am not happy.’

The formation of new meanings makes use of a very creative approach. A good example of this can be seen in colour names:

(4) kili ni li laso loje ‘This fruit is violet’ (literally: ‘This fruit be blue red’)

(5) jan pona mi li moku e kili sike loje jelo ‘My friend is eating an orange’ (literally: ‘Person good I be eat OBJ fruit round yellow red’)

As you can see, formulating secondary colour names is similar to the real-life mixing of colours – violet is created by combining red and blue, and orange is produced by combining yellow and red. It’s interesting that in example 5, instead of explicitly using the word ‘orange,’ one can describe the physical attributes of the fruit to indicate which fruit they are referring to. In the same example, there is the marker e, which functions as an object marker (marked with the abbreviation OBJ). Another example of object marking can be seen in the example below, where the word for ‘spoon’ is presented in an unusual form.

(6) sina lukin e ilo moku ‘You are looking at the spoon’ (literally: ‘You look OBJ utility eat’)

artifical languages

The philosphy behind Toki Pona

Looking at all these examples, we can conclude that the language is indeed minimalist and compact, and the presentation of various concepts is significantly simplified and logical. However, this leads to the question of what ideas may have served as possible starting points for Lang to create Toki Pona.

Many believe the vocabulary was kept minimalistic on purpose, although Sonja Lang herself has yet to state the exact rationale behind it. More speculative discussions have taken place in various forums, suggesting that Lang might have attempted to draw inspiration from Taoist teachings to shape the mindset of language users. 

Taoism originates from China and is considered both a religion and a philosophical ideology. Taoism is derived from the Chinese word dao, which abstractly means a path or journey. The course of the Dao is unpredictable and intuitive, but it is an essential part of the life forces surrounding us. Taoism emphasises that a person reaches perfection when they follow the path of the Dao. One key element in this process is simplicity. Based on this, one can understand, to some extent, the overlaps between the principles of Taoism and Toki Pona – simplicity leads to completeness. Language is seen as a tool that doesn’t have to be overly complex, and with more straightforward and logical ways, it is possible to achieve even better results (such as meaning-making). In Toki Pona, a spoon is simply ‘a tool with which we eat.’ The point of contention arises as to whether such a meaning is sufficient and perfect or if it is unambiguous.

taoist language

In addition to Taoism, connections have also been identified with the Sapir-Whorf linguistic relativity hypothesis (which, to this day, has been subject to criticism), as well as optimism. These links can be seen in Lang’s goal to use Toki Pona to push the language user’s mindset toward a more positive way of thinking.

Further resources

Toki Pona website: https://tokipona.org

Omniglot: Toki Pona language and alphabet

Toki Pona subreddit

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