In the autumn of 2015, I came across a charming language that piqued my interest because it was made up of only one-hundred-twenty-three (123) words. It was called Toki Pona, and was created by linguist Sonja Lang as a type of self-searching, personal experiment. Lang’s goal was to create a language in which all words represented large concepts. She insisted that there was no need for extensive vocabulary in the grand scheme of things, and to me, the idea of ‘speaking simply’ seemed really attractive because I was going through a helluva not-so-simple period of time in my life. The Taoist influence that Lang brought into the language—the philosophy of simplification—rang true to me.
I began my study of the minimalist language by finding a free PDF file of the e-book called Toki Pona: The Language of Good. To explain a little bit about how Toki Pona works, let’s firstly look at the phrase toki pona in the language.
A dictionary entry for these words on a website like tokipona.net (where I received the information for these examples) would look something like this:
toki: (n.) language, talking, speech, communication; (mod.) talking, verbal; (vt.) to say; (vi.) to talk, to chat, to communicate; (interj.) hello!, hi!
pona: (n.) good, simplicity, positivity; (mod.) good, simple, positive, nice, correct, right; (vt.) to improve, to fix, to repair, to make good; (interj.) great!, good!, thanks!, OK!, cool!, yay!
As you can see, depending on what part of speech the word is, it can have many different meanings. The form doesn’t change, but the way that the word is in conjunction with other words determines the meaning. It doesn’t sound so bad, thought, right? Especially not when you find out that Toki Pona is frequently accompanied by cute symbols that stand in place for the word, depicting what the word means. Chinese characters are known for doing a similar thing, but those used in Toki Pona are nearly complete drawings that can help the speaker remember the broad, simple meaning of the word.
This is an example of Sitelen, or the ‘alphabet’ of Toki Pona.
When put like this, and again with the emphasis that Toki Pona has a 123-word vocabulary, it sounds like this would be the ultimate, simple language to learn, if not for the happy philosophy then for the opportunity to communicate with someone via pidgin (a language that is grammatically simplified as means of communication between two languages).
That is what I thought originally. My personal experience with Toki Pona left me a bit disappointed: at the time, I considered it my fifth language, and I was quite enthused about learning it. After accumulating the small vocabulary and familiarising myself with the grammar, though, I found that Toki Pona, simple as it was, wasn’t able to convey what I wanted it to.
I somehow met one of the two-hundred individuals on the internet that claimed to be able to speak Toki Pona, after requesting language exchange to learn Polish—let the record show that I’ve had this happen only twice with Esperanto, while actively searching for language partners. The person was from Poland, and while I understood what they were saying in the compact format that is sentences in Toki Pona, I found myself very disinterested. I didn’t know why I should be so turned off by such a miraculous incident; normally I’d playfully suggest (beg) that somebody speak a mutual language with me, yet I found conversation with this individual boring.
The talk was so dull, in fact, that after just a few totally comprehensible messages between the two of us, I stopped replying. I did not want to speak Toki Pona, and after thinking about it, I decided that it was actually Toki Pona was too simple for me. I love words. Lots of words. Really long, hard words that have foggy etymology and extremely specific definitions. While I could easily tell someone, ‘mina sona e toki pona’ (I speak Toki Pona), I would rather tell someone, ‘Je parle français comme un gros homme qui parle et mange un sandwich au beurre de cacahuète en même temps’ (I speak French like a fat man who’s talking and eating a peanut butter sandwich at the same time).
I’m a complex person, and I like complex sentences. Most human beings are pretty complex, and we enjoy language that can help us express our woes, our joys, our worries, our victories, our sleepless nights, our new experiences, and everything in between, no matter what level of difficulty we’re feeling it on.
Thusly, while I think that the idea behind Toki Pona is grand (or swell, or great, or just average), I don’t think that it is a useful language for those that enjoy expression and words. It provides an interesting insight, a positive one at that, and through that accomplishes what it set out to do.
If Toki Pona sounds delightful enough to you, then I suggest that you refer to the link provided… or right here.
Thanks for reading—or pona, as the case may be.~