Toki Pona is a philosophical artistic constructed language known for its small vocabulary. It was created by Canadian linguist and translator Sonja Lang for the purpose of simplifying thoughts and communication. It was first published online in 2001 as a draft, and later in complete form in the book Toki Pona: The Language of Good in 2014. A small community of speakers developed in the early 2000s. While activity mostly takes place online in chat rooms, on social media, and in other groups, there were a few organized in-person meetings during the 2000s and 2010s.
The underlying feature of Toki Pona is minimalism. It focuses on simple universal concepts, making use of very little to express the most. The language is isolating and has 120–125 root words and 14 phonemes that are easy to pronounce across different languages. However, it was not created to be an international auxiliary language. Inspired by Taoist philosophy, the language is designed to help users concentrate on basic things and to promote positive thinking, in accordance with the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. Despite the small vocabulary, speakers are able to understand and communicate with each other, mainly relying on context and combinations of several words to express more specific meanings.
The name of the language is constituted by toki (language), derived from Tok Pisin tok, which itself comes from English talk; and pona (good/simple), from Esperanto bona (good), ultimately from Latin bonus.
One of the language's main goals is a focus on minimalism. It is designed to express maximal meaning with minimal complexity. Like a pidgin, it focuses on simple concepts and elements that are universal among cultures. It has 120–125 root words, and 14 phonemes devised to be easy to pronounce for speakers of various language backgrounds.
Inspired by Taoist philosophy, another goal of Toki Pona is to help its users focus on the essentials by reducing complex concepts into basic elements and remove complexity from the thought process. From these simple notions, more complex ideas can be created by simple combining. This allows the users to see the fundamental nature and effect of the ideas expressed.
Another aim of the language is for the users to become aware of the present moment and pay more attention to the surroundings and the words people use. According to its author, it is meant to be "fun and cute".
An early version of the language was published online in 2001 by Sonja Lang, and it quickly gained popularity. Early activity took place in a Yahoo! group. Members of the group discussed the language with one another in English, Toki Pona, and Esperanto, proposed changes, and talked about the resources on the tokipona.org site. At its peak member count, the group had a little over 500 members. Messages in the group were archived in the Toki Pona forum using phpBB.
Cover of Toki Pona: The Language of Good (2014)
Lang later released an official book on the language, Toki Pona: The Language of Good, in 2014. It is also sometimes referred to as pu in the Toki Pona community. In 2016, the book was also published in French. Although other resources for the language have been created by the community, the major sources for learning continue to be Lang's book and online lessons developed by Bryant Knight or "jan Pije", an early adopter of Toki Pona.
In 2008 an application for an ISO 639-3 code was rejected, with a statement that the language was too young. Another request was rejected in 2018 as the language "does not appear to be used in a variety of domains nor for communication within a community which includes all ages".
Toki Pona was the subject of some scientific works, and it has also been used for artificial intelligence and software tools, as well as a therapeutic method for eliminating negative thinking by having patients keep track of their thoughts in the language. In 2010 it was chosen for the first version of the vocabulary for the ROILA project. The purpose of the study was to investigate the use of an artificial language on the accuracy of machine speech recognition, and it was revealed that the modified vocabulary of Toki Pona significantly outperformed English.
Phonology and phonotactics
Toki Pona has nine consonants (/p, t, k, s, m, n, l, j, w/) and five vowels (/a, e, i, o, u/), shown here with the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols. Stress falls on the initial syllable of a word. There are no diphthongs, contrasting vowel length, consonant clusters (except those starting with the nasal coda), or tones. Both its sound inventory and phonotactics are compatible with the majority of human languages, and are therefore readily accessible.
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The statistical vowel spread is fairly typical when compared with other languages. Counting each root once, 32% of vowels are /a/, 25% are /i/, with /e/ and /o/ a bit over 15% each, and 10% are /u/. The usage frequency in a 10kB sample of texts was slightly more skewed: 34% /a/, 30% /i/, 15% each /e/ and /o/, and 6% /u/.
Of the syllable-initial consonants, /l/ is the most common, at 20% total; /k, s, p/ are over 10%, then the nasals /m, n/ (not counting final N), with the least common, at little more than 5% each, being /t, w, j/. The high frequency of /l/ and low frequency of /t/ is somewhat unusual among the world's languages.
Syllables are of the form (C)V(N), i.e. optional consonant + vowel + optional final nasal, or V, CV, VN, CVN. The consonant is obligatory in syllables that are not word-initial. As in most languages, CV is the most common syllable type, at 75% (counting each root once). V and CVN syllables are each around 10%, while only 5 words have VN syllables (for 2% of syllables).
Most roots (70%) are disyllabic; about 20% are monosyllables and 10% trisyllables. This is a common distribution, and similar to Polynesian.
The following sequences are not allowed: */ji, wu, wo, ti/, nor may a syllable's final nasal occur before /m/ or /n/ in the same root.
Proper nouns are usually converted into Toki Pona proper adjectives using a set of guidelines. The native, or even colloquial, pronunciation is used as the basis for the subsequent sound conversion. Thus, England or English become Inli and John becomes San.
The nasal at the end of a syllable can be pronounced as any nasal stop, though it is normally assimilated to the following consonant. That is, it typically occurs as an [n] before /n/, /t/, /s/ or /l/, as an [m] before /m/, /p/ or /w/, as an [ŋ] before /k/, and as an [ɲ] before /j/.
Because of its small phoneme inventory, Toki Pona allows for quite a lot of allophonic variation. For example, /p t k/ may be pronounced [b d ɡ] as well as [p t k], /s/ as [z] or [ʃ] as well as [s], /l/ as [ɾ] as well as [l], and vowels may be either long or short.
14 Latin letters, a e i j k l m n o p s t u w, are used to write the language. They have the same values as in the International Phonetic Alphabet: j sounds like English y, and the vowels are like those of Spanish or Italian. Capital initials are used to mark proper adjectives, while Toki Pona roots are always written with lowercase letters, even when they start a sentence.
Modified symbols in sitelen pona
Besides the Latin alphabet, which is the most convenient and most used way of writing the language, two logographic writing systems, sitelen pona and sitelen sitelen, were later introduced and included in Toki Pona: The Language of Good. The former, in which each word is represented by a symbol, was devised as an alternative by Lang herself. It has been described as "a hieroglyphic-like script that makes use of squiggles and other childlike shapes" (see list of sitelen pona glyphs). Proper names are written inside a cartouche-like symbol using a series of symbols, where each symbol represents the first letter of its word. Symbols representing a single adjective may be written inside or above the symbol for the preceding word that they modify. The symbol of the language is written in sitelen pona, with the symbol for pona written inside the symbol for toki. It has also been written with symbols used in fonts such as dingbats, mathematical symbols, and so on.
The word symbols of sitelen sitelen
The latter system, sitelen sitelen, was created by Jonathan Gabel. It is more elaborate and visually resembles the Mayan script. This non-linear logographic system uses two separate methods to form words: images representing whole words, and images that represent syllables, composed of graphemes representing each phoneme. The difficulty of using this system along with its appealing design is a way for people to slow down and explore how not only the language but also the method of communication can influence thinking.
Toki Pona's word order is subject–verb–object. The word li introduces predicates, e introduces direct objects, prepositional phrases follow the objects, and la phrases come before the subject to add additional context.
Some roots are particles for grammatical functions, while others have lexical meanings. The lexical roots do not fall into well defined parts of speech; rather, they may generally be used as nouns, verbs, modifiers, or interjections depending on context or their position in a phrase. For example, ona li moku may mean "they ate" or "it is food".
Some interjections are a, ala, ike, jaki, mu, o, pakala, pona, toki, etc. and can stand alone as a sentence.
Statements follow the normal structure of subject predicate with an optional la phrase at the beginning. The word li always comes before the predicate unless the subject is mi or sina by itself. The direct object marker e comes before the direct objects. More li and e markers can introduce new predicates or direct objects. Vocative phrases come before the main sentence and are marked with o at the end of the phrase, after the addressee.
In commands, the word o comes before a verb to express a second person command. It can also replace li, or come after the subjects mi or sina, to express wishes.
There are two ways to form yes-no questions in Toki Pona. The first method is to use the "verb ala verb" construction in which ala comes in between a duplicated verb, auxiliary verb, or other predicators. Another way to form a yes-no question is to put "anu seme?" (lit. or what?) at the end of a sentence. Questions cannot be made by just putting a question mark at the end of a sentence.
Toki Pona has basic pronouns: mi (first person), sina (second person), and ona (third person).
The pronouns do not specify number or gender. Therefore, ona can mean "he", "she", "it", or "they". In practice, Toki Pona speakers use the phrase mi mute to mean "we", though the number is often discernible from context and thus only mi is necessary. Likewise, ona mute may mean "they" and sina mute would mean "you" (plural).
Whenever the subject of a sentence is either of the unmodified pronouns mi or sina, then li is not used to separate the subject and predicate.
With such a small root-word vocabulary, Toki Pona relies heavily on noun phrases, where a noun is modified by a following root, to make more complex meanings. A typical example is combining jan (person) with utala (fight) to make jan utala (soldier, warrior). [See 'modifiers' next.]
Toki Pona does not use isolated proper nouns; instead, they must modify a preceding noun. For this reason they may be called "proper adjectives" or simply “proper words” instead of “proper nouns”. For example, names of people and places are used as modifiers of the common roots for "person" and "place", e.g. ma Kanata (lit. "Canada country") or jan Lisa (lit. "Lisa person").
Phrases in Toki Pona are head-initial; modifiers always come after the word that they modify. Therefore, soweli utala, literally "animal of fighting", is a "fighting animal", whereas utala soweli, literally "fighting of animal", means "animal war".
When a second modifier is added to a phrase, for example jan pona lukin, it modifies all that comes before it, so ((jan pona) lukin) = "friend watching", rather than (jan (pona lukin)), "person good-looking".
The particle pi, "of", can be placed after the head and before the modifiers, to group the modifiers into another phrase that functions as a unit to modify the head, so jan pi pona lukin = (jan pi (pona lukin)), "good-looking person". In this case, lukin modifies pona and pona lukin as a whole modifies jan.
Demonstratives, numerals, and possessive pronouns come after the head like other modifiers.
Toki Pona does not inflect verbs according to person, tense, mood, or voice, as the language features no inflection whatsoever. Person is inferred from the subject of the verb; time is inferred from context or a temporal adverb in the sentence as a subclause.
Prepositions can be used as a kind of verb. For example, tawa means "to" as a preposition and "to go", "to move" or "to go to" as a verb; lon means "in" or "at" as a preposition and "to be in/at" or "to exist" or "to be true" as a verb; kepeken means "using" or "with" (in the sense of the instrumental case) as a preposition and "to use" as a verb. Verbs from prepositional roots have their objects right after them without the direct object marker e, similar to when they are used as a preposition.
Toki Pona hieroglyphs from Toki Pona: The Language of Good by Sonja Lang
Toki Pona is generally said to have around 120, 123, or 125 root words. Each of these is polysemous and can be thought of as a group of similar concepts, so suli not only means "big" or "long", but also "important". Their use relies heavily on context and metaphor. To express more complex thoughts, the roots can be combined. For example, jan pona can mean friend, although it literally translates as "good/friendly person", and telo nasa, which literally means "strange water" or "liquid of craziness", would be understood to mean "alcohol" or "alcoholic beverage" depending on the context. The verb "to teach" can be expressed by pana e sona, which literally means "to give knowledge". Essentially identical concepts can be described by different words as the choice relies on the speaker's perception and experience.
Many colours can be expressed by using subtractive colours
Toki Pona has five root words for colours: pimeja (black), walo (white), loje (red), jelo (yellow), and laso (blue and green). Although the simplified conceptualization of colours tends to exclude a number of colours that are commonly expressed in Western languages, speakers sometimes may combine these five words to make more specific descriptions of certain colours. For instance, "purple" may be represented by combining laso and loje. The phrase laso loje means "a reddish shade of blue" and loje laso means "a bluish shade of red".
Toki Pona has root words for one (wan), two (tu), and many (mute). In addition, ala can mean zero, although its more literal meaning is "no" or "none," and ale "all" can express an infinite or immense amount.
The simplest number system uses these five roots to express any amount necessary. For numbers larger than two, speakers would use mute which means "many".
A more complex system expresses larger numbers additively by using phrases such as tu wan for three, tu tu for four, and so on. This feature purposely makes it impractical to communicate large numbers.
An alternate system for larger numbers, described in Lang's book, uses luka (literally "hand") to signify "five", mute (literally "many") to signify "twenty" and ale (literally "all") to signify "100". For example, using this structure ale tu would mean "102" and mute mute mute luka luka luka tu wan would signify "78".
Body parts in Toki Pona
Some words have obsolete synonyms. For example, nena replaced kapa (protuberance) early in the language's development for unknown reasons. Later, the pronoun ona replaced iki (he, she, it, they), which was sometimes confused with ike (bad).
Originally, oko meant "eye" and lukin was used as a verb "see". The meanings were later merged into lukin, oko being the alternative. Most users, however, tend to follow the traditional definitions.
Words that have been simply removed from the lexicon include leko (block, stairs), monsuta (monster, fear), majuna (old), and pata (sibling).
Besides nena and ona, which replaced existing roots, a few roots were added to the original 118: pan (grain, bread, pasta, rice), esun (market, shop, trade), alasa, (hunt, gather), kipisi, (to cut), and namako (extra, additional, spice), another word for sin (new).
kipisi, majuna and monsuta are now considered outdated because they were not included in the official book.
Origin of the Toki Pona roots by language. Obsolete roots are not included
Many of these derivations are transparent. For example, oko (eye) is identical to Slavic oko and similar to other cognates such as Spanish ojo, Italian occhio and English ocular; likewise, toki (speech, language) is similar to Tok Pisin tok and its English source talk, while pona (good, positive), from Esperanto bona, reflects generic Romance bon, buona, English bonus, etc. However, the changes in pronunciation required by the simple phonetic system often make the origins of other words more difficult to see. The word lape (to sleep, to rest), for example, comes from Dutch slapen and is cognate with English sleep; kepeken (to use) is somewhat distorted from Dutch gebruiken, and akesi from hagedis (lizard) is scarcely recognizable. [Because *ti is an illegal syllable in Toki Pona, Dutch di becomes si.]
Although only 14 roots (12%) are listed as derived from English, a large number of the Tok Pisin, Esperanto, and other roots are transparently cognate with English, raising the English-friendly portion of the vocabulary to about 30%. The portions of the lexicon from other languages are 15% Tok Pisin, 14% Finnish, 14% Esperanto, 12% Croatian, 10% Acadian French, 9% Dutch, 8% Georgian, 5% Mandarin, 3% Cantonese; one root each from Welsh, Tongan (an English borrowing), Akan, and an uncertain language (apparently Swahili); four phonesthetic roots (two which are found in English, one from Japanese, and one which was made up); and one other made-up root (the grammatical particle e).
Hand shapes of Signed Toki Pona
Signed Toki Pona
Signed Toki Pona, or toki pona luka, is a manually coded form of Toki Pona. Each word and letter has its own sign, which is distinguished by the hand shape, location of the hand on the body, palm or finger orientation, and the usage of one or both hands. Most signs are performed with the right hand at the required location. A few signs, however, are performed with both hands in a symmetrical way.
To form a sentence, each of the signs is performed using the grammar and word order of Toki Pona.
The language is fairly known among Esperantists, who often offer courses and conversation groups at their meetings. In 2007, Lang was reported to have said that at least 100 people speak Toki Pona fluently and estimated that a few hundred have a basic knowledge of the language. One-hour courses of Toki Pona were taught on various occasions by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during their Independent Activities Period.
The language is used mainly online on social media, in forums, and other groups. Users of the language are spread out across multiple platforms. A Yahoo! group existed from about 2002 to 2009, when it moved to a forum on a phpBB site. For a short time there was a Wikipedia written in Toki Pona (called "Wikipesija"). It was closed in 2004 and moved to Wikia.
Two large groups exist on Facebook—one designated for conversation in Toki Pona and English, and the other for conversation in only Toki Pona. In 2019, the most subscribed group, in which members communicate in both English and Toki Pona, had over 4,000 total members.
A contract in sitelen sitelen writing system
mama pi mi mute o, sina lon sewi kon. nimi sina li sewi. ma sina o kama. jan o pali e wile sina lon sewi kon en lon ma. o pana e moku pi tenpo suno ni tawa mi mute. o weka e pali ike mi. sama la mi weka e pali ike pi jan ante. o lawa ala e mi tawa ike. o lawa e mi tan ike. tenpo ali la sina jo e ma e wawa e pona. Amen.
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
jan ali li kama lon nasin ni: ona li ken tawa li ken pali. jan ali li kama lon sama. jan ali li jo e ken pi pilin suli. jan ali li ken pali e wile pona ona. jan ali li jo e ken pi sona pona e ken pi pali pona. jan ali li wile pali nasin ni: ona li jan pona pi ante.
jan ali li kepeken e toki sama. jan li kama tawa nasin pi kama suno li kama tawa ma Sinale li awen lon ni. jan li toki e ni: "o kama! mi mute o pali e kiwen. o seli e ona". jan mute li toki e ni: "o kama! mi mute o pali e tomo mute e tomo palisa suli. sewi pi tomo palisa li lon sewi kon. nimi pi mi mute o kama suli! mi wile ala e ni: mi mute li lon ma ante mute". jan sewi Jawe li kama anpa li lukin e ma tomo e tomo palisa. jan sewi Jawe li toki e ni: "jan li lon ma wan li kepeken e toki sama li pali e tomo palisa. tenpo ni la ona li ken pali e ijo ike mute. mi wile tawa anpa li wile pakala e toki pi jan mute ni. mi wile e ni: jan li sona ala e toki pi jan ante". jan sewi Jawe li kama e ni: jan li lon ma mute li ken ala pali e tomo. nimi pi ma tomo ni li Pape tan ni: jan sewi Jawe li pakala e toki pi jan ali. jan sewi Jawe li tawa e jan tawa ma mute tan ma tomo Pape.
|Column 1||Column 2|
wan taso ijo li moku e mi. mi wile pakala. pimeja li tawa insa kon mi. jan ala li ken sona e pilin ike mi. toki musi o, sina jan pona mi wan taso. telo pimeja ni li telo loje mi, li ale mi. tenpo ale la pimeja li lon.
Alone I am devoured. I must destroy. Darkness fills my soul. No one can understand my suffering. O poetry! My only friend. This ink is my blood, is my life. And Darkness shall reign forevermore.
- Alphabet of human thought
- Constructed language
- Hyponymy and hypernymy
- Philosophical language
- Pirahã language
- Official website – The creator's website.
- Toki Pona Dictionary at the Wayback Machine (archived March 20, 2020)
- Bryant Knight (jan Pije)'s lessons at the Wayback Machine (archived March 20, 2020)
- toki pona in 76 Illustrated Lessons
- Where is Toki Pona used? – A Wikia page with many links to Toki Pona related websites.