Issues with Toki Pona

If you are not familiar with the constructed language “Toki Pona”, watch this video presentation of the language, before reading any further.

toki ni li suwi.
(language – this/that – PREDICATE MARKER – sweet/cute/candy) (This language is cute)

So, let me get this straight. There are no big issues in Toki Pona, if you use it as it was intended: as a philosophical language for simplifying thoughts and communication – an exercise in simplicity. (The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis – the weak version – says that linguistic categories and usage can influence thoughts and decisions, and the promotion of Toki Pona has been at times linked with concepts such as taoism, yoga, zen, simplicity, and positivity).

So, saying a simple Toki Pona sentence like:

mi wile e ilo moku.
(I – want/need – OBJECT MARKER – tool – eating) (I want/need a tool for eating)

when you want your friend to pass you a spoon (in a context of having a meal together) may be enough to accomplish this goal.

Unless, of course, he passes you a fork instead, but you can immediately remedy the situation by saying:

ilo ante.
(Tool – different) (A different tool)

The issues start to pile up if you begin using Toki Pona to say more and more complex things (contrary to the purpose of this language). There is an inherent joy, though, in pushing things to the limit and seing how much you can get out of a language. It is akin to the joys of solving a crossword puzzle or sudoku. However, if you want to find out how much meaning you can “encrypt” into and “decrypt” from Toki Pona, using its grammar and vocabulary, you will soon have to face some problems/challenges.

I read somewhere that Toki Pona has two design flaws:

1) First, it does have the predicate marker “li” (which normally follows a subject), but drops it after pronouns “mi” (I/my/me) and “sina” (you/your). This irregularity supposedly makes parsing much more difficult for computers. But this is a minor issue, in my opinion, since Toki Pona was not designed to be analyzed by computers.

2) The other flaw is an extensive overlap between content and function words, more specifically, prepositions double as nouns or verbs. The classical example of this is the ambiguity of the word “tawa” (to/moving) in the sentence:

mi pana e tomo tawa sina.
(I – give – OBJECT MARKER – house/structure – to/moving – you/your)

which can be interpreted in two ways:

a) I give a house to you.
b) I give your car. (“tomo tawa” being a car, lit. a “moving structure”)

This issue can be partially fixed in writing by using a comma before prepositions, and in spoken word by inserting a bit longer pause before them. Then, the sentence:

mi pana e tomo, tawa sina.

can only be interpreted as option a) “I give a house to you”.

Obviously, this solution is not perfect, because when there is no comma there, you still do not know whether the meaning of option b) was intended, or whether the author simply forgot, or for some other reason did not write down a comma.

Comma shenanigans are not unique to Toki Pona; missing a comma or two in English can sometimes completely change the meaning:

I often dream about cooking, my family, and my dog.


I often dream about cooking my family and my dog.

What is unique to Toki Pona, compared to most languages, natural or constructed, is extremely limited set of root words, about 120–125. In order to somewhat compensate for this limitation, root words usually have multiple (but related) meanings and can function either as nouns, verbs, modifiers, or interjections, depending solely on context and the position in a sentence. There are no affixes in Toki Pona whatsoever, to help you to differentiate between those word classes.

Users of Toki Pona have also came up with some standard, though not “official” word phrases that function as independent lexical items and have to be learned separately, in addition to the root words. For example:

jan pona
(person – good) (a good person, which is used for a “friend”)

telo nasa
(water/liquid – strange/silly) (strange liquid, which means “alcohol” or “alcoholic drink”)

and previously mentioned “tomo tawa” (“moving structure”) meaning a car (and not, let’s say, a camper trailer or something).

This way of compounding words is nothing unusual for a language. In English a “hot dog” is a type of a sandwich and you cannot deduce that simply from knowing the meaning of the words “hot” and “dog”. You have to learn it seperately.

But unlike many other languages, which often combine words together into a new word, Toki Pona phrases always remain seperate words. “tomo tawa” (a car) is never written as “tomotawa”, whereas in English a “hot dog” is sometimes spelled as “hotdog”. One can wonder, though, what would happen over time, if Toki Pona was spoken by a group of native speakers. All languages gradually change over time, so maybe “tomo tawa” would indeed first become “tomotawa” and then it would maybe even be shortened to “totawa” or “tomotaw”. However, that would no longer be Toki Pona as we know it today, but a descendant language with (probably) a lot more complicated grammar and a much larger vocabulary.

Toki Pona was designed for simple communication and is not particulary good for describing the nuances of the complex world we live in. It is actually amazing how much you can communicate with such a simple system, but it does have its limitations.

From what I could gather, it is far more difficult to read and understand Toki Pona than it is to write or speak it. This is the direct result of ambiguous nature of the language. While all natural languages have words with multiple meanings, Toki Pona is packed with them, so almost every sentence takes quite some mental effort figuring out the intended meaning. I am sure that with a lot of practice it is possible to become fluent in spite of this – and then it is not a big issue anymore – but that does sound like a lot of work for seemingly easy-to-learn language with a little bit over 120 words.

And we have not even mentioned the fact that you will often encounter grammatically invalid Toki Pona from people who speak it badly. Natural languages have a degree of redundancy built into them – your English grammar can be shockingly bad, yet you will still be understood for the most part. I do not know how similar is Toki Pona in this regard, but it sure does not help, if you also have to mentally correct the grammar while trying to deal with the deep ambiguity mentioned above.

It’s a lovely little language to play with, just be aware that it becomes difficult and impractical if you want to express complex ideas in it. At that point, you may as well switch to another language.

toki wan li pona.
toki tu li pona mute.

(language – one – PREDICATE MARKER – good)
(language – two – PREDICATE MARKER – good – many/more)

(Two languages are better than one)

Posted on March 10, 2019, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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