Toki Pona: The lili-est Language You Haven’t Heard of Yet

A basic introduction to the constructed language Toki Pona and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. A comparison of basic Toki Pona and English sentence structure.

Table of Contents

What Even is Toki Pona?

Since my first high school Spanish lesson I realised how much I loved languages. I love learning languages. I love learning about languages. I love discovering weird quirks and paradoxes that my Anglophonic would never have considered.

Little did Señora Cooper know that she would nudge a small clump of ice that would snow-ball via the route of late night procrastination to a fully-fledged hobby-avalanche.

My newest obsession is the language Toki Pona, the world’s smallest language, a ConLang (constructed language).

Toki Pona was constructed by Sonja Elen Kisa in 2001. Since its inception it has been considered an investigation into linguistic minimalism, a proof of concept for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, and an application of the Taoist principle of 儉(jiǎn: frugality, simplicity, or moderation).

儉 (jiǎn) is one of the 三寶 (sānbǎo: three treasures/virtues), of Taoism. These 三寶 (sānbǎo) can be translated as following:

  • 慈 (cí: compassion/charity)
  • 儉 (jiǎn: simplicity/frugality)
  • 不敢為天下先 (bùgǎn wéi tiānxià xiān ~ “do not dare be first in the world”: humilty/modesty) 

(Note: these three treasures are not to be mistaken for the three treasures/jewels of Bhuddhism, Chinese medicine, of Imperial Japanese Regalia, or the Silmarils from Tolkien’s ‘The Silmarillion’)

Kisa’s application of 儉 (jiǎn) is what makes Toki Pona so compelling and noteworthy. Whilst many sources state that it takes around 10,000 words to attain approximate fluency of a language (a problematic simplification but nevertheless) Toki Pona only has 120 unique words. 

That’s it. Only 120. The end*.

*Note that sources can cite 119-125 root words, due to obsolescence and other quirks. Nevertheless, the set I first learnt contained 120 words so this is the number I’ll refer to.

That’s not to say only 120 concepts can be communicated, but rather anything one wishes to say is constructed from these word roots in a structured and logical manner.

For example, if we were to ask how to translate the English word “coffee”, the spiritual staple on which I subsist, we would have to think for a moment. Toki Pona demands we deconstruct both WHAT and WHY we are saying what we want to say, then rebuild the concept from the 120 roots.

"sitelen pona": An alternate non-latin-alphabetical way to writing the 120 words of Toki Pona, as included by Sonja Lang in her book 'Toki Pona: The Language of Good'

How To Talk Using Only 120 Words

Well, if I should want to order coffee at a restaurant, and I am wanting to convey that I would like the hot dark/brown drink, I could ask for:

telo seli pimeja

[water] [hot] [dark] ≈ [the hot water that is dark] ≈ “coffee”

 Maybe I want to specify that I want the hot drink that will give me energy and keep me awake (because I forgot to study for a cardiology exam and I can’t read ECG’s for the life of me). I might then ask for:

telo seli wawa pi lapa ala

[water] [hot] [power] <of> [sleep] [none]

≈ [the hot water of power that causes no sleep]

≈ “coffee”

Now I might go into more detail if I wanted to be certain my message wouldn’t be misunderstood and I wasn’t given a very strong tea. However, I could also go into more detail in the second description, and try to describe “coffee” somewhere along the lines of “[the hot water that will give me power and will not allow me to sleep]”, but to do so would be unnecessary and violate the spirit of Toki Pona which we might here equate to our friend儉 (jiǎn).

What Even is English (Grammar)

Ok so now that you understand (what I at least interpret as being) the soul of this language, let’s learn a about different language entirely. English.

I remember being in high school, in Señora Cooper’s class, and having the same realisation that most people learning their first non-native language often have:

“I can speak English effortlessly and fluently, but I know NOTHING about its grammar!”

So, today let’s talk about grammar basics and how sentences ‘work’. Once we understand this, working through Toki Pona becomes far simpler.

 Let’s build from the ground up with our parts of a sentence:

  • Noun = a thing (e.g. chair)
  • Verb = an action (e.g. sit)
  • Adjective = a descriptor (e.g. blue)

 Basic stuff:

“Tomatoes are red.”

[Tomatoes] [are] [red]

[noun] [verb] [adjective]

We can get more complex and throw in a pronoun (a word in place of a noun) and use a more complex verb tense structure:

“I have been tired.”

[I] [have been] [tired]

[pronoun] [verb] [adjective] 

Verbs and Adverbs

Now we get a bit more complex. Let’s frame our discussion in terms of subjects and objects of sentences. To do this we need to understand the two main verb types, transitive and intransitive.

Transitive verbs affect something: “I like dogs.”

Note that the verb “to like” affects or is directed at a thing (“dogs”). That is to say that this sentence has a subject (“I”) and an object (“dogs”) (In the future we will talk about indirect and direct objects.)

Meanwhile, intransitive verbs don’t have this kind of subject: “On Sundays, David naps.” Here there the juicy bit of the sentence is “David naps.”

There is a subject (“David”) but no object, meaning the verb (“naps”) is intransitive. How do we know the verb “to nap” is intransitive, because one can’t “nap” an object. You can’t “nap the bed”, as fun as that sounds.

Now you’ll note that the last sentence tells us more information about when “David naps.” Things that describe or give more information about a verb/action are adverbs. Lots of English adverbs end in “-ly” (e.g. quickly, sadly, hungrily) but others don’t (e.g. well, often, quite). However, some adverb-y bits aren’t just words, but collections of words.

Clauses and Phrases

When we talk about collections of words we can refer to a:

  • Clause = [subject] + [verb]
  • Phrase = a functional group not containing BOTH a [subject] and a [verb]. Often multiple phrases team up to make a clause.
  • Sentence = A complete concept containing at least one main clause, but often with helper (subordinate) clauses/phrases

So when we look at:

“On Sundays, David naps.” 

We are looking at:

[adverbial phrase], [clause]

 One more example before we move on:

“Alex likes to eat tasty pizza, but sometimes he overindulges”

[Alex likes to eat tasty pizza] [but] [sometimes he overindulges]

[clause] [conjunction] [clause]

[Alex] {[likes][to eat]} {[tasty][pizza]} [but] [sometimes] [he] [overindulges]

[subject] {[verb][verb]} {object} [conjunction] [adverb] [subject] [verb]

[proper noun] {transitive verb phrase} [object] [conjunction] [adverb] [pronoun] [intransitive verb]

What a beast of sentence analysis! But you survived. Well done.

Fun fact: Only use a comma to break a sentence if it’s between two clauses.

“Alex likes to eat pizza, but sometimes he overindulges”

“[subj][verb] but [subj][verb]”

“Alex likes to eat pizza but overindulges”

note: no [subj] after the but

Then what’s a semicolon? It’s what you do when your clauses are independent (not linked by a conjunction) but the writer feels that the ideas are linked.

“Some days Alex orders pizza; other days David stops him.”

 Obviously there are other uses for commas and semicolons, but those will have to wait for another day.

Subjects, Predicates, and Objects

The last bit of English Grammar you need for Toki Pona is to understand what a predicate is.

It’s another way of grouping words and an alternate, more robust definition of a clause. The predicate is the action part of the sentence, but it doesn’t have to refer to a single verb. Rather, you can think of the predicate as referring to the concept of the action that the subject does, rather than the verb itself. How does this differ I hear you ask:

“I like dogs.”

[subject] [verb] [object]

[subject] [predicate] [object] 

“Tomatoes are red.”

[subject][verb][adjective]

[subject][predicate]

In the latter case, “being red” is the action [predicate] rather than “being” [verb] in a way that is red [adverb] (which I suppose one might write as “tomatoes are red-ly”, with red-ly being an adverb. How would one even convey that idea? Tomatoes exist rubescently? Erythematously? Rufescently? Cochineally?)

            Hmm. Back to subject-verb-object discussion.

 English can get more complex when it feels like it, but this is our basic sentence and clause structure: {[subject] + [predicate]}. This [subject + verb +/- object] structure, SVO, for short is the basic structure of the English language; everything else gives supplementary and subordinate information.

In English, we call sentences with this SVO structure ‘active’. One example of a more complex arrangement is a passive structure, which in English is organized OVS

David opened the door

[S][V][O] = Active

The door was opened by David

[O][V][S] = Passive

Other languages structure differently, but thankfully for us Toki Pona only employs active SVO ordered structures.

That’s it. That’s your English language Primer. Now for some speedy Toki Pona.

Toki Time!

Here is a link to a comprehensive dictionary of toki pona's entire vocabulary, derived from Sonja Elen Kisa's book 'Toki Pona: The Language of Good'

Toki Pona Ground Rules:

  • The beginnings of sentences aren’t capitalized.
  • Verbs aren’t conjugated, meaning they don’t change for tense or person. This information is given by other parts of the sentence. (as if you were saying ‘He eat dinner last night’)
  • There are no articles (e.g. a, an, the, some)
  • Adjectives go after their nouns like in Spanish and French (house red, not red house)
  • The transition from subject-to-predicate-to-object is indicated by special grammatical units.
  • Quick’n’Dirty Pronunciation Basics: read “J” as “Y”, and stress the first syllable of each word, so “POtato" rather than the more natural “poTAto".

Apart from a few purely grammatical components, most of the 120 Toki Pona root words change their job by where they are in a sentence. For example “moku” is the root associated with food and eating. In the place of a noun moku might correspond to “food”; in the place of a verb, it could mean “to eat”; as an adjective, perhaps “edible”.

SVO Structure

Vocab for examples: (mi = I, me, my) (sina = You, your) (moku = food, eat, swallow) (kili = fruit/veg) (toki = talk, say, language) (pona = good, simple, well) (jan = person)

  • li = indicates moving from subject to predicate (omitted if the subject is I or You)
  • e = indicates moving from predicate to object

Note that I will use curly brackets {} to signify the omitted li, after I or You, to aid with sentence structure clarity.

jan li moku e kili = people eat fruit/vegetables

[subject] [li] [predicate] [e] [object] 

kili li pona = Vegetables {are} good

[subject] [li] [predicate]

(note no verb, e.g. ‘are’/’to be’, as it is implied)

sina {li} toki e toki pona = sina toki e toki pona = You speak Toki Pona

[subject] [omit: li] [predicate] [e] [object]

jan pona li toki e moku sina = the good person talks to your food

[subject] [li] [predicate] [e] [object]

(note that sina is being used as an adjective, 'your', here not a pronoun, 'you')

Building Complex Concepts

When the concept we want to refer to isn’t in the list of 120 words, we just construct it by joining some instead.

Vocab for examples (ilo = tool, device) (musi = to play, fun) (lili = small, young, less, short) (kalama = sound, noise, voice)

Cutlery → [tool for food] → ilo moku

My Friend → [a person who is good that is mine] → jan pona mi

Joke → [something said that is fun] → toki musi [used as a noun]

To Joke → [to say something fun] → toki musi [used as a verb]

Quiet → [of a sound that is little] → kalama lili

Quiet Joke / To Joke Quietly → [something said that is fun that has a sound that is small] → ???

Now here we might run into an issue because we want to combine

            “toki musi” with “kalama lili” to become “toki musi kalama lili”

 But depending on where we throw our brackets this could change meaning:

            [toki musi] [kalama lili] → “a joke” + “that is quiet”

OR

            [[toki musi] kalama] lili → “a joke about sound” + “that is short”

Or any other potential division of these roots.

 The natural divisions of meaning in Toki Pona word clusters involves each subsequent word being stuck onto the concept completed to the left such that:

A B C D E” = “[[[[A] of B] of C] of D] of E” 

So if we want to convey something else, what we do is we forcibly define where we want these brackets/groupings to be.  To do this we use “[x] pi [y]” which we might translate as “[x] of [y]“ or “[x] that is [y] “.

So to say “a quiet joke” (aka “a talk-fun that-is sound-low”) we could say:

toki musi pi kalama lili.”

Which will logically render itself as: [toki musi] pi [kalama lili].

And boom. From a language which has no words for quietness or loudness or jokes or cutlery or friendship, you have created ways to say these things. This is how meaning can be encoded in Toki Pona, and therefore from those 120 roots you can encode as many concepts as you are able to construct.

And at the end of the day, isn’t encoding concepts the purpose of language? 

We’ll talk about more complex Toki Pona structures in the future, but for now it’s time for geek notes.

Comparison of Basic English and Toki Pona Sentence Structure

GEEK NOTES: Introduction to The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

 


Banner image edited from image of sitelen pona from Toki Pona: The Language of Good

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