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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)


Islam and the Future of Tolerance

Last year I mentioned here a book called “Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue.”

A documentary film based on that book is now in production, and the authors just launched a KickStarter crowdfunding campaign to finance it.

I personally chipped in with a donation, because I find this topic extremely important and I applaud Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz for engaging in their conversations.

If you want to check the film’s KickStarter page, here is the link:

Islam and the Future of Tolerance: The Movie

The Changing Ways

One of the more important books that came out last year was a book collaboration between Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, titled “Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue.”

Sam Harris, a famous atheist, and Maajid Nawaz, a former radical Islamist, joined forces in order to have a conversation about Islam without “devolving into bigotry or caricature.”

The video below presents a few clips from a Harvard forum, a panel discussion with the authors.

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The expanding circle / The spiral of history

A.D. 1524

“Fuck Switzerland. Long life to the free cantons! Long life to our home: Canton of Fribourg.”

A.D. 2014

“Fuck the EU. Long life to the free European countries! Long life to our home: Switzerland.”

A.D. 2492

“Fuck the world. Long life to the free continents! Long life to our home: European Union.”


The above text was inspired by a comment on a video titled The European Union (anthem). Numerous nationalists have left their comments there, agitating against European integration.

TogetherUnited in diversity

I think that European integration is a good thing, as long as the principle of subsidiarity is taken into account. (The principle of subsidiarity states that a matter should be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority that is capable of addressing that matter in an effective way). If this principle remains the basis of European integration, I wouldn’t mind if European Union becomes a federal state one day.

See examples of how the principle of subsidiarity is applied in Switzerland, which is also a federal state: (jump to 5m 40s mark)

Another step in the right direction

Who gives a crap about sustainability?!

Treading My Own Path

The parcel I’ve been waiting for all week finally arrived on Friday. Oh the excitement! I don’t order things online much anymore, but it wasn’t the idea of receiving a parcel that caused my excitement. It was the contents of the parcel…

Toilet paper.

Yes. You did read that right.

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