Toki Pona: A Philosophical Constructed Micro-Language for Simplifying Thought

Toki Pona: A Philosophical Constructed Micro-Language for Simplifying Thought

By rhyzom | rhyzom | 24 Mar 2020

Constructed languages are an interesting field. Most of us have heard of Esperanto. But there are plenty others, each designed for specific purposes and goals. Lojban, for example, has been designed with the purpose of eliminating irregularities or ambiguities in spelling and grammar, allowing for highly systematic learning and use (relative to most languages) and the expression of complex logical constructs precisely — a kind of machine interlingua (machine-translatable, that can be used for programming as well as communication) which can be applied to anything requiring precise logical articulation (law, but not poetry). Or also, Interslavic, as another example — a language constructed as a universal slavic language which can be read, spoken and understood easily by all existing Slavic languages (Russian, Czech, Polish, Bulgarian, Serbian, etc.), regardless/despite their divergences and differences.


Well, anyway, some time ago I came across one such fascinating constructed language, but one that is altogether different in its character, its goals and purposes, and is extremely easy to learn very quickly. Toki Pona, created by Canadian linguist and translator Sonja Lang, is more of a philosophical-artistic language inspired by the Daoist philosophy of calm simplicity and calling things by their actual names of what they really underneath it all are. Or as Sonja Lang herself put it: "Toki Pona was my philosophical attempt to understand the meaning of life in 120 words." Further in the preface of the book ("Toki Pona: The Language of Good") she goes to further explain:

Through a process of soulsearching, comparative linguistics and playfulness, I designed a simple communication system to simplify my thoughts.

I first published my micro-language on the Web in 2001. A small community of Toki Pona fans emerged.

Modern languages are cluttered with complex ways to express the simplest things. What is a geologist but a ‘person of earth knowledge’? Is there any useful difference between the words ‘big’, ‘large’ and ‘huge’?

Toki Pona is a language that breaks down advanced ideas to their most basic elements. If you are hungry, you ‘want eat’. To teach is to ‘give knowledge’. This allows us to drastically reduce the vocabulary and grammatical structures needed to say what we have to say.

Simplify your thoughts. Less is more.

Toki Pona is semantically, lexically, and phonetically minimalist. The simplest and fewest parts are used to create the maximum effect. The entire language uses only 120 words and 14 letters of the alphabet.

In many ways, Toki Pona resembles a pidgin. When people from different cultures need to communicate, they must focus on the elements that are most universal to our human experience.

Toki Pona offers a path for semantic reduction. Just as we can rewrite a mathematical fraction like 4/8 as 1/2, we can distill our thoughts to their most fundamental units to discover what things really mean. We can understand complex ideas in terms of their smaller parts.

As an artistic language with limited means of expression, Toki Pona does not strive to convey every single facet and nuance of human communication. Nevertheless, the results we can achieve with so few elements prove to be very interesting, if not spiritually insightful.

If English is a thick novel, then Toki Pona is a haiku.

Training your mind to think in Toki Pona can lead to deeper insights. If many of life’s problems are created by our excess thoughts, then Toki Pona filters out the noise and points to the centre of things. Many of these principles were inspired by the Dao De Jing, which teaches, “Can you coax your mind from its wandering and keep to the original Oneness?”

For example, what is a ‘bad friend’? The Toki Pona expression for friend is jan pona, or literally ‘good person’. You quickly realize that a bad friend is a contradiction in itself. In another example, the word wile means both ‘to need’ and ‘to want’. This helps us bring our desires in alignment with our actual needs.

Toki Pona has a strong focus on context. From the perspective of a passenger, a car might be tomo tawa (an indoor compartment that moves). The driver might see it as ilo tawa (machine for going). If you’re crossing the street and — bam! — a car hits you, then it might be a kiwen tawa (hard object that moves).

The speaker and listener understand the meaning of a word through its context. Toki Pona promotes mindfulness. Become fully aware of the present moment.


Personally, for a very long time I have myself been of the opinion that one of the first things/problems we need to urgently address and tackle is language itself — the structure and order, arrangements and logic (ontology and metaphysics, if you will) of how we articulate our thoughts, reach conclusions, describe and see our surrounding environment and assemble our worldview and logic of sense. Chinese, for example, as a non-alphabetic language, expresses ideas and meaning directly (while our alphabetic phonetic languages consist of meaningless signs which stand for some meaningless sounds — there's no inherent, implicit, encoded meaning in anything, meaning itself not only varies with context, but changes with time, continuity breaks and it's easy to forget things and repeat the same mistakes a generation or two later, etc.) — not only that, it reveals etymology, intent and nuance simultaneously. And it conditions a cyclical sense of time, rather than a linear progression and punctuated interruptions. To cite McLuhan on the matter:

"The alphabet is an aggressive and militant absorber and transformer of culture, as Harold Innis was the first to show."

        — Marshall McLuhan

Yes, alphabetic technology makes it easy to pick up and absorb, distill the form and not care about the meaning, etc. But furthermore, as Alfred Korzbyski among others have pointed out (way back in the 1920's and 1930's, in the midst of the quantum revolution and paradigm shift in the sciences), the very syntax and grammar of our language beyond the alphabet seems to contradict fundamental facts of reality and how the world works. Again, in Chinese they don't say "the tree is green", but "the tree greens" — not "I see the wall", but "the wall happens to me".


Korzybski argues against the essentialism, stasis and implied syntactical logic of alphabetic European languages and goes so far as to claim that most psychological and psychiatric disorders and disturbances come from that fact. And there's little we can do about it insofar as we are hard-wired into it, we've accepted the implied axioms a priori, we are more or less blind to the culture we're born in and so on. This is why knowing/mastering more than one language is so important. Actually, when you switch between languages you are, in a sense, neurologically switching between personalities.

An example of how Chinese script encodes and condenses a lot of information (including history, philosophy, etc. — by means of revealing and composing ideas, not just words) we may take the word for "crisis" (危机), which is really a combination of , which means "danger", and "", which means "opportunity". Thus, it's not simply just "crisis" per se, but “opportunity rises from danger”.

So, along with re-thinking and re-evaluating everything else (civilization as a whole, if you will), we must inevitably begin the undertaking with language (also, mathematics and programming languages also constitute languages as such, insofar as they condition, cultivate and habituate a certain mode of thinking, seeing and knowing — the point of the matter is that the mode, or regime, of seeing, sense-making and articulating must constitute a valid perspective, one not in conflict with basic facts of reality as such, otherwise it risks creating invisible pull towards delirium, dementia and drift).

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism is a principle which claims that the structure of a language affects its speakers' world view and cognition (or otherwise put, his metaphysics/ontology and thought process[es]), and thus people's perceptions are relative to and shaped by their spoken language(s).

Anyway, back to Toki Pona. I think it's a wonderful little micro-language which illustrates the point, while also being as useful as it is easy to learn and get the hang of — though it must be understood that anything is only as useful or beneficial insofar as it has been internalized to the point of growing into an instinct, a reflex, an organ, a given, a something that cannot be any more taken away from you (a skill, a craft). So, let's get on with Toki Pona then — in 2 or 3 more posts which pretty much sum it all up. 

Letters and Sounds: A 14 Letter Alphabet of Five Vowels and Nine Consonants

As mentioned already, Toki Pona uses only 14 letters of the alphabet — five vowels and nine consonants:

  • a
  • e
  • i
  • j
  • k
  • l
  • m
  • n
  • o
  • p
  • s
  • t
  • u
  • w

They all sound more or less exactly as in English. 

Also — and I love this since I myself tend to usually write in all lowercase almost always and everywhere, both cos it's simple, but also finding it aesthetically appealing — words, everything in Toki Pona is written in lowercase, even at the beginning of a sentence. 

Grammar: li Serves the Connective/Correlative Function of the Verb "To Be" in Subject-Predicate Constructions. ni Means "This"; "ni li" = "this is"

To formulate a sentence in Toki Pona, use the following model/example:


NOUN + li + NOUN.

ijo li ijo. = Something is something.

By themselves, nouns are neither singular nor plural. The word meli can mean either ‘woman’ or ‘women’ depending on the context/situation.

Toki Pona also doesn’t use articles like ‘a’ or ‘the’. The word jan could mean ‘a person’ or ‘the person’, depending on what is being referred to in the given circumstance.



Some words in Toki Pona: waso (bottom right) is bird (any bird), uta is mouth, lips, jaw, oral cavity. tomo means house and suno is sun. pipi is bug, insect (any bug or insect, whether spider, fly or cockroach — words in Toki Pona encompass whole categories, taxonomies and maximally generalize in being extremely minimal[ist]), oko is eye (funnily, it's the same word for eye in many Slavic languages). nena means bump, hill, mountain or protuberance of any/some sort. mani is money, cash, savings, wealth. luka may mean an arm or a hand, but also any tactile organ or tactile as an adjective. jan is a human being or a person (human species of whatever kind, somebody, anybody). ilo means something, tool, machine, device or as a verb — implement. akesi may mean a reptile or an amphibian or more generally a non-cute animal of some sort. and I've no idea what elena means, but I assume it must be a flag.


More words. Source: Wikipedia.

A few examples of simple sentence constructions (as taken from the book, I admit, but will add my own ones in the next post):

1. ni li jan.
This is a person.

2. ni li kili.
This is a banana.

3. lipu li ijo.
A book is a thing.

4. jan li meli.
The person is a woman.

5. soweli li ijo.
Animals are things.

6. meli li jan.
Women are people.


As a side note and just a reminder — ontology engineering, which is a crucial aspect of undertakings like Holochain and the recently posted about Solid — and designing constructed languages are synonymous in a fundamental sense. Ontology is the philosophical study of being — of categories of being (what is there) and becoming, existence, reality, hierarchy and generally the relationships of things, of what is there and how does it relate and correlate to one another (as, for example, the statement "I see" already implies an active role and free will in the act of seeing, but more accurately what goes on is a process of the outside happening through the filters of what can be seen and how it can be seen), etc. Different fields and disciplines, areas of expertise and knowledge, episteme or techne, all employ their own ontologies specific to their areas of what they deal with and how and why they prioritize and express certain things in certain ways — ontology defines epistemology, or put otherwise, what can be said and how it can be said defines what it can be known in the ways it could be known. 

The solution to any problem tends to already be contained and self-evident in the terms in which that problem is articulated as such (as a valid problem). This is where Holochain point to with their "expressive capacities" and "current-sees"— of composable flows and arrangements of meaning (in a logic not dissimilar to that of how one puts Chinese ideograms together to express complex ideas). The organic invention of new languages and means of expression as a creative process of collective discovery and sense-making. 

Solid, on the other hand, makes use of the RDF format — the generic standard for creating ontologies in the context of the Semantic Web. The dream/vision of everything— every piece of data, everywhere, relatable/connectable/associatable to any other piece of data and across (disparate and diverse) domains and disciplines. These attitudes are really valuable and helpful in this day and age and near future to come as we realize we're faced with and having to deal with, live in and make decisions under complexity and uncertainty. And complexity requires inter-disciplinary ad hoc methods and approaches, the ability, skill and capacity to traverse disciplines and bodies of knowledge in the process of constructing exactly the tool or instrument you need for this particular thing, moment, circumstance, context (like how Bitcoin was a bricolage put together to solve somebody's particular problem, driven by pragmatism and sense of twisted grandeur, of simultaneously pulling a prank/mockery on human stupidity as performance art, demonstration, etc.)


And with this I conclude for now, for the moment and will soon get back to it (as, alas, I have a ton of other pressing, urgent stuff I need to do and manage and pretend, etc.) Your commentaries are, of course, welcome and I hope this stirred your interest and curiosity a bit. Personally, my native language is Bulgarian and English I've acquired (on pretty much a native level, both written and spoken, due to having lived much of my life in places and environments where English is the first language, but also cos its a lingua franca and it's everywhere and you can't get away from it, but also cos it's kinda cool, rich, barbaric, poetic in some ways sometimes, more richly expressive than my native Bulgarian for sure — in which I seem to often have problems conveying exactly what I mean/have meant, tend to much more easily get angry and frustrated in and, funnily, also stutter in....) — I took the time many many years ago to learn Danish and ditched it soon as I got the fundamentals and started speaking it. Had German in high school, which I hate and have completely forgotten (not only does it sound like a Chinaman vomiting, but its excessive rules and grammar make no intuitive sense in most instances, lol) — and I also took up Hebrew for some time while I was living in Israel some half a decade ago, which I found interesting, easy to learn, intuitive in some ways, ancient (until not so long ago technically as dead as Latin, now people swear and curse at each other in it in Israel) and most likely worthwhile... but didn't persist either (again, just as I got the hang of it and the basic logic of things). 

Always thought I should have had French instead of German in school and really, really, really want to learn Chinese and get to understand the Maya script. Oh, and wish I were better at mathematics!


Verum ipsum factum. Chaotic neutral.


Ad hoc heuristics for approaching complex systems and the "unknown unknowns". Techne & episteme. Verum ipsum factum. In the words of Archimedes: "Give me a lever and a place to rest it... or I shall kill a hostage every hour." Rants, share-worthy pieces and occasional insights and revelations.

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