Friday, August 28, 2009

Just noodlin'

I got to thinking the other day about what kind of language I would like to create if I were to go into the active phase of this game. I came up with two features, one phonologic and the other everything else.

For phonology, I would like a language without vowels. Any continuant can be a syllabic peak, so that need not come from within the triangle i-u-a. And many language use some of these continuant consonants (especially lmnr, but Chinese us s-sh-sr) occasionally or in paralinguistic utterances (Pfft! Psst!) . These usages often get disguised with added vowels in the orthography, but in the language I have in mind there would be no vowels to begin with, so no temptation to add them (unless the habit is so strong that one nominal vowel would be used throughout).

Maybe some implosives and clicks, too?

For everything else, I think of Whorf's occasional almost intelligible formulations of SWH and of his idea of what the world is really like and what language would bring us to that perception and wonder how to build such a language. He worked with Hopi and Menominee, in which (I gather) most sentences reduce to complex verb forms, subject and object (as we SAE speakers say) being incorporated somehow. I have to assume, to get close to the ideal BLW was after, that the incorporated bits were also verb forms and that the notion of a verb here ceases to have its distinctive value (from nouns and adjective and ...) and means a reference to an action, motion, stasis, etc. in the flow. But (even after looking at bits of Hopi and Menominee) my SAE mind cannot visualize how to do this (and maybe go beyond what happens there). Maybe I should go read a few thousand pages of Li Er and Whitehead and Hartshorne.

I think these ideas arose for me out of the languages I have played with and the stuff I have read and taught over the years. toki pona claims a Daoist inspiration and has very fluid grammatical categories (though not syntactic slots), Loglan/Lojban started as a test for SWH, albeit not a very appropriate one, I think. And years of reading Daoist and Mahayana Buddhist literature has put me in the midst of a landscape of constant flow -- or at least instant ontic replacement.

I don't suppose I would derive any SW effects from this language, because I would have to get those effects in order to construct it correctly. And that might be an interesting thing to try, if I ever figure out how to begin. Some suggestions are quantum mechanics, ordinary mechanics, and hydrodynamics, all of which start out with things v things (except maybe the first -- and Lord knows what it starts with).

Well, I can mess with the phonology alone anyhow.

Monday, August 17, 2009

aUI -- the language of space

aUI (capitalization significant) was created in the 1950s by John Weilgart, an Austrian-born psychiatrist working in Iowa. (We can discount the story that he learned it in an instant from a little green man when he was a child of 5 on internal evidence alone: the precise fit with the English alphabet - including some pushing to make the fit -- the frequent coincidences of aUI and English or German words, the rigorous SAE grammar, and so on for quite a while). He publishedaUI The Language of Space first in 1961 and continued working on it until at least 1979, when he published the 4th revised and expanded edition, with the further subtitle Pentecostal Logos of Love & Peace. The basic language changed little over the years, the new books added new ways to approach the topic, new stories (apparently autobiographical, but probably not -- see above), and new commendation from various scientific and "scientific" sources. There seems to have been an occasional flurry of interest in aUI: a now defunct list, a commercial site (also defunct) for Cosmic Communication Co. (run by a daughter?) and a recent Facebook family with a handful of active members.


aUI is a philosophical language, i.e., words bear their meaning on their faces: related concepts have related spellings and the spelling defines (at least delimits) the concept named. Thus, aUI aims to clarify our concepts and thus avoid misleading speech and propaganda. This, if universally adopted, would end misunderstandings at all levels, leading to peace, love and maybe the parousia. So, it is intended also as an auxlang -- indeed, as a replacement language -- for the world (indeed, for the cosmos). In the meantime, it is useful in logotherapy, helping confused people (at whatever degree) to get clear their thoughts by expressing them analytically in this language.


Weilgart uses the English alphabet (and, covertly, parts of the German and Scandanavian) to the fullest: all the letters, plus all the capitalized vowels and both sets of vowels underlined. Each of these has a sound and a meaning (and the sound or its manner of production is somehow iconic of its meaning). Words are then constructed by concatenating sounds to show interaction of meanings. All of this totally a priori. He also provides a native aUI alphabet in which each sound is provided with an iconic symbol for its meaning, perhaps less a priori, since some human conventions clearly play a part.


The alphabet has it usual English values except that
the vowels have the Italian values, lowercase are shorter and generally lower than upper case
underlined vowels of both sorts are nasalized
j is ezh
c is esh
q is umlaut o (Mach den Mund rund und sag 'e')
y is umlaut u (ditto but 'i') between consonants or spaces; before vowels it is y.
underlined (and usually capitalized) Y is nasalized
Orthographically, the use of capital L and capital Q are encouraged (to prevent confusion with 1 and I on the one hand, g on the other). Otherwise capitalas are used only meaningfully with vowels and with borrowed names.

Consecutive vowels do not diphthongize but are pronounced separately, though without a marked break.

Separate words do have a marked break between them, since run together they might form a single word (though one related to what is intended).

Stress accent (which is also higher pitched) falls on the nasalized vowel, if there is one; on the long (capital) vowel, if there is one but no nasal: and, in the remaining cases (neither nasal nor long, or two or more of the dominant type) , on the penult or as near as possible while meeting the dominance requirement. Some words, when the stem of a verb, keep their original accent even if syllables are inserted after.


Each sound is also a morpheme with an assigned meaning, an idea it conveys. Words are formed by first defining the idea you wish to convey, arranging already defined ideas as modifier and modified, then concatenating the two words in that order. This starts with letter-letter pairs, but such pairs and their extentions often become fixed words, which then act as a unit in later definitions. So the structure is basically right grouping but with possible left grouped chunks (which may be right grouping internally, of course). As a matter of etiquette, when introducing a new term in writing, the left groups should be marked off with dashes, since the straightforward form might be capable of many interpretations (though context and familiarity with the standing vocabulary do allow for fairly rapid understanding). The morph y, not, etc., is particularly like to form tight left groups. the polar opposite of the group it modifies (cf. Eo. mal-) (in the native spelling, the bar which is the symbol for y extends over the whole modified block, so is more clear than either the spoken or the English-written form).

aUI words are generally concrete nouns originally. Any of them can be made into an adjective by suffixing m, quality. From these in turn, abstract nouns can be made by adding U, thought, mind, etc., and then, from these, words for concepts by adding z, part, etc. Adjectives may serve as adverbs or become official adverbs by suffixing Q (O umlaut, remember), condition, manner, etc. In all of these, the original noun remains as a left unit within the right grouping.
Neither gender nor number is required, but, if wanted, plurals are formed by inserting (or suffixing) n, number, after the last vowel. Gender goes unmarked but can be part of a word in the course of things, with the (nonfinal) components v, male, or yv, female, occurring (pronouns use these ro modify words for the right sort of thing: u, human, os, animal, living thing, io, plant, light-life, Es, thing, material object; the resulting words are also the basic words for male and female of the given type thing.)

In a similar way, nouns can be verbed by add v, activity, etc., and then become available for a number of modifications, basically the handy appendix to your Latin textbook:
Imperative: insert r, good, positive, etc., before v (before yv in passive verb forms.
Passive: as just noted, insert y before v, creating the opposite of activity.
Past tense inserts pA, before-time, before v
Future tense inserts tA, toward-time, before v. These can be repeated and mixed to get past perfect and future perfect and the (unused) converses.
Participles end in Am, time quality, added after the v for the present, dropping the v in the past tense to give -pAm for the past. and shifting the A around the v in the future tense to give -tvAm.
Causative verbs are formed by inserting (or prefixing) v before the first vowel (or, if that is modified by y, just before that y).
Optative mood: - -Or-, feeling-good, like to, before v.
Subjunctive (contrary-to-fact) suffix -yEc, not materially existing.

There are a few other frequently used patterns, but they all, like these, are simply applications of the general pattern for constructing words.


Weilgart says "There is no special grammar, All elements of meaning and their combinations still mean what they say. The rule is we talk 'as clear as we must, as short as we can.'" This seems to mean that, if it works in English, it works in aUI, subject to the following overriding fact.

aUI is a rigorously SVO language, with AN modification structure (as in word construction) and prepositions in lieu of cases -- except direct object is positional, right after the verb. Prepositional phrases tend to come at the end, after the object. Relative clauses are not inverted, nor are questions, the relative or interrogative word comes at its natural place in the order. If the relative word (starting with x, relative) is buried too deep in the structure -- object of a complex verb, say, or a preposition, a warning marker, xQ, relative condition, may be placed at the head of the clause. If there is no question word in the question (so yes-no questions), hI, question sound, is placed at the end. There is no distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clauses, although Weilgart does seem to use commas in the American way in writing.

Indirect discourse is a regular sentence introduced by Uf, think this, in the (usually) object place in the expressing sentence. Indirect questions seem to be just questions set off with a colon. Direct quotations are merely enclosed in quotation marks (sometimes with a colon before as well), which have no spoken matches.

Conjuncted expressions occupying various slots do not require different conjunctions (it works in English, ...). "Or" has both simple gaf, room this (don't ask), between alternatives and an "either ... or" form with gaf before each alternative. But "if," Qg, qualified inside, does not appear to have a matching "then," for the temporal yfA, not this time, clearly won't work (we might try something like fQ, this condition, if something like the right sense of "under" or "on" were available). The contrary-to-fact sense of conditionals is carried by the verbs.

Predicate adjectives occupy the V slot preceded by c, is, exists; predicate nouns do so with various extensions of j, identity, or z, part of.


Starting with only thirty some concepts to define everything means that the initial concepts must be very broad indeed and that the means of combining them various. The first point means that one concept in aUI may seem like a random mix of several concepts, distinct in English. Presumably (I haven't done thorough research here) the definitions in aUI of those English concepts will help to see the unified nature of the aUI concepts. Similarly, since there is only one way of showing relationships, the exact nature of the relation may be obscure. Happily, Weilgart provides a number of discussions of particular cases as a guide.

The basic pattern is, of course, differentia and genus: picking out one subconcept (or subset of things) by indicating how it (they) differ from the rest. Thus, from s, thing (the notion seems to involve boundaries setting off from others), by adding a, space, we get as, place, a delimited bit of space. Similarly, As, time thing, instant, and Us, thought thing, (individual) thought. Another way of breaking down concepts is descent to instances: fa, this space, here (though fas would work as well). An interesting case of this approach is fu, this human, I, me, a nicely oriental touch (without the kowtow), saving a lot of concept space. Sometimes, however, the relation is part of the compound itself: gaf, or, instead of this, in place this.

Reading Weilgart's translation dictionaries and, more interestingly, his encyclopedia of compounds and his explanation of the "100 basic" ones, results in one of two responses,usually: "Oh, now I see it" or "But why doesn't it mean...," often simultaneously; the third, normal second speaker, response is "But wouldn't ... be better for that?" In the end, one has to say that one constructs what is right for one's concept, which may not be the same as someone else's though they use the same English word. Weilgart tells (whether a report or a thought experiment is unclear) of a group of children learning aUI and being asked for the aUI word for "love." The results are all over the place, but each has a plausible claim to be right; indeed, all are right -- for what the speaker means by "love" at that time. So aUI can convey simply shades of meaning that would be difficult or impossible to convey in English, say.

Discussed Problems

I have no evidence of an active aUI groups working over the material in the book. Clearly, a few people have done some things with the language, but they have left few records. Outside observers, however, have pointed out a number of things, mainly having to do with presuppositions (prejudices?) embedded in the language as presented. The other comments have been about the essential weirdness of the language as a human language (some evidence that it did come from little green men, perhaps, or just the result of being a consistent philosophical language). One instance of this is the lack of special status for the personal pronouns (in so far as there are such, separate from generic words). We saw an example of this in the first person case, fu, this person, but it carries through the rest: fnu, we, bu, with-person, and the plural bnu (the person with you in the conversation). The other is the deviation from the almost universals of human languages, the -m- in words for mother, for example (sometimes lost in later sound shifts, to be sure). ytLu holds little hope for this: not-toward round person = from-woman, the woman you come from.

This shows the earlier mentioned problem, presuppositions. Why should a round person, Lu, be equated with a woman? (My IHOP experiences show men at least on a par with women in this area). Actually, this case is a part of the evidence that other people have worked on this language, for the earlier -- and still legitmate -- word for woman was yvu, not-active human, passive human, and the stem yv is still the normal qualifier for females in other species. And examples like this (though not so egregious) can be found on every page. On the other hand, "purely by chance," some things come out familiar, like bru, together-good human, friend.

The definitions also presuppose a certain state of science, more or less the current one as popularly understood. So, for example, elements are named by their atomic number suffixed to Ez, matter part, element, so oxygen. atomic number 8, is Ez8 [the numerals are the symbols for the nasalized vowels, in the order aeiuo (so we go from alpha to omega) AEIUO. nasalized O is written 0, of course, but does not stand for zero, only the place holder in decimal notation; the real zero is nasalized Y, also written with 0, but never in strings: nasal O is always preceded by at least one other number, a multiplier on 10]. While this is not likely to change or to be different on another planet enough like ours to have recognizable science, the color terms are less sure. These are formed by prefixing numbers to i, light, the numbers corresponding to the position of the color on the spectrum, going up from red =1. Quite aside from questions about other color ranges (less than this or more, or shifted) the list is strange in that it has green as 3 and violet as 5, but not orange, which is 12i, red-yellow light (another type of conection, mixtures or going together -- but how distinguished from twelve?).


Though I have studied aUI off and on for 30 years (an awful winter in Iowa for a start), I have never lived in it or even learned a bit of it, so I cannot comment on how the language works as lived. But viewed as an object, it is an interesting specimen.

It is, first of all, a remarkably complete philosophical language. With some (mainly early and remarkable) exceptions, philangers have been so concerned to get the right set of basic concepts and to put them together in just the right way that they have never gotten beyond a vocabulary and even that often only writable, not speakable. aUI is speakable (OK, so bnu may not flow easily, but it does come) and has enough padding (though we don't call it that) to buffer the worst possibilities that might arise -- and enough various ways of combining to avoid most of these possilities any way. It has a clear phonology attached to its concepts and a plausible (or at least mnemonically useful) explanation for the association of each sound with its concept. It has the framework of a grammar, which is not always "do what you do in English (or Latin)," though it does fall back on that from time to time.

The definitions/word construction in aUI are usually interesting, sometimes because they are horribly wrong, but often because they insightful or at least thought-provoking. Many of them might serve as guides -- either directly or because of the process used -- for constructions in other semantic prime languages.

I suppose that Weilgart's aim would not be fulfilled by this language. While people might be able to express what they mean more precisely and thus understand what they are saying to each other, this would not bring an end to misunderstanding and propaganda and war. People lie, and those in positions to generate propaganda and war more so than most. So, while what I say may be clear as a bell, it may not be what I think. Not everyone can be trusted to put yr, bad, (Lojban mal-) in front of every derogatory word they use. But among trustworthy people, clarity is nice and -- assuming the trustworthiness -- imagine how many disasters of one sort or another would have been avoided, if, instead of "I love you," each had spelled out what they meant.

Monday, August 10, 2009

NSM -- Natural Semantic Metalanguage

This is a linguistic approach founded by Anna Wierzbicka in the 1970s and carried on by her and her followers, mainly in Australia. The central idea is that there are a small number of concepts (about 70 -- 63 the last time I counted) and sentence types which are realized in simple forms in all languages and which, taken together in a given language, allow one to define all the words in that language in that language. Both the concepts and the sentence types have been arrived at empirically, cutting items out of an original intuitive list as ways to define them were found, adding to the list when as yet unsolved problems arose. The word list and sentence type list might then be taken as an empirical minimum for language (though this is not the point of NSM).

For constructing a language, however, this is probably not the best guideline (assuming you want to start with semantic primes or even just the smallest possible vocabulary) . For one thing, it is designed to be used in defining other terms, not in conversation or narrative exposition, so, while it does contain soome words you would need immediately (for I and you, for example), it lacks others (day, for example, or path).

For another thing, the definitions NSM provides are not (or rarely are) simple isosemic phrases of the cat = domestic felid sort. They tend rather to require an imaginative journey. Think of a situation, specified in appropriate detail, and then the word to be defined will be the appropriate thing to say: a broke b is appropriate to say when 1) a did something to b, 2) because of this something happened to b at the same time, 3) it happened in one moment, and 4) because of this afterwords b was not one thing any more. While this looks about right, it is not clear that it can be collapsed into a replacive definition and so that it could be use for the most common sort of introduction of new terms into a conlang. It is also not clear that this process will really work in more complex cases; the imagined situation may call up for the native speaker some other notion than the one sought -- or may not even apply to his experiences: the definition of green, for example, requires imagining a field of grass or other green plant, which may not be in some people's experience at all.

For all that, the theory is a viable one in linguistics, often ably attacked and often ably defended (and occasionally not so much of either). For more detailed information about the genral theory and its detailed applications -- and its controversies -- see the bibliography at

Friday, August 7, 2009

Preview of Coming whatevers

I am trying to get a format for describing conlangs objectively and succinctly, to give a ready reference guide . I am offering, over the next little while, a few samples for comment: criticisms, suggestions and (hopefully) a few attaboys. I am starting with languages I know best, that I have worked on or in, so objectivity may be a problem. So may be succinctness, since I know way too many details. Bear with me, but do comment on these failings among others.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Toki Pona -- a simple language

Toki pona (usually not capitalized) was created by Sonja Elen Kisa in 2001-2. It soon went public and now has a sizable (for a conlang) and international participant base. The vocabulary and some points of grammar have been revised over time, but the basic outline -- and most of the details -- are unchanged.

Kisa ('jan Sonja' in the community) has offered a number of goals for the language, all centered on the notion of simplicity:
  • a minimal language adequate for living
  • a language to clarify thinking by going back to basic ideas
  • a language to aid troubled thinking by dissolving complexity into simplicity
  • a controlled model for pidgin languages
  • a language to put a positive spin on life
  • a language appropriate for a simple society built more or less on a Daoist model
and probably several others along the same pattern.

The tools jan Sonja uses are a near minimal phonology, a vocabulary of about 120 words (the number and exact content has varied slightly over the years) plus proper names, and a grammar that takes very few lines to state completely.


Toki pona uses only the letters (and sounds) a, e, i, j (= y), l, m, n, o, p, s, t, u, w. Pronunciation is fairly free, so long as you don't encroach too far on another sound's territory. Thus, voiced variants of the stops often occur as well f for p, for example -- derived from the sources of the words.

The syllabic structure is (C)V(n), with dropped initial C option available only in the first syllable of a word. If a syllable ends in n, the next syllable in that word cannot begin with n or m, but if the next syllable begins with p, the n is pronounced as m (though still written as n -- bad typing aside). Several syllables from the eighty possible are disallowed: wu(n) and ji(n) and ti(n).

Stress accent falls on the first syllable of each word (the case for names is less clear, but tends to agree).


The words of toki pona are invariant under all conditions. They are 1 to 3 syllable long. At this point, the most complete morphology would be to list the words, but I will pass on that for now. Some have seen a kind of vowel harmony in toki pona and examples are easy to find, but there are enough counterexamples to refute the claim. The extensive examples do seem to have affected name construction, though.

Names are not strictly words but are subject to the same phonological rules as words. Names are derived from names in their native language, as closely as possible given toki pona's limited phonology. Loosely, m picks up itself, as do w and j(y) (though this does tend to pick up ordinary English j as well), n picks up the other nasals (and m if followed by p), s picks up all the other tongue tip continuants but r and l, l picks up itself and many rs, each stop picks up everything left at its point of articulation. Then the proscribed syllables tend to come into play: Timothy becomes Simosi, for example. rs are particularly tricky here, tapped and trilled and dental go to l, uvular and glottal go to k (so Paki for Paris), and the rest end up as w (so Mewika for America). In general, people get to contruct their own name, however, so these rules are not rigorously enforced. The treatment of consonant clusters in original languages are met with two possible treatments (and mixtures, of course) spelling out all the elements as separate syllables (Elumutu for Helmut -- notice the vowel harmony) or picking the dominent elements while keeping the syllabic pattern (Kipo for Clifford). As noted, there is a tendency to place accents on names where they would fall in the original, but this is balanced by the language habit of first sylllable stress -- no definitive solution yet. Since most discussion on the list is, as usual, about the language, the pattern of quote-names is prevalent -- quotations attached to the relevant words: nimi, word, and kulupu [nimi], phrase.


Every sentence of toki pona is a minor variant of the pattern

w/g/sentence la w/g li w/g e w/g Prep w/g

where 'w/g' stands for 'word or group' and a group is a string of words built up from the left: word + word, then group + word or word pi group or group pi group. The final word here can be a name, which may be several names long.

The la and what goes before it need not occur, nor need the Prep and all that follows it nor the e and what follows it. The word/group after la may be preceded by o (optative), followed by o (vocative) or replaced by o (imperative) (the vocative strictly can go before any sentence after the la slot; if the sentence already has an o, the two os collapse to one). If the only thing before li and after la or the beginning fo the sentence is either mi (I) or sina (you), the li can be dropped.

The e and all that follows it may be repeated (with a new w/g, of course) any number of times, as may the li and all that follows it (even if the first li was lost to a personal pronoun) So may Prep and all that follows it. The w/gs in the pre-li position and after Prep may be repeated joined by en or anu.

The occurrence of Prep suggests that there are various word classes in toki pona, while the use of 'group' suggests the opposite. The truth is somewhere between: All of the words of toki pona, with the probable exception of those mentioned in the sentence formula and a few other possible exceptions, can, in principle be used in any role: as a word in any slot or as the basic word or the added word in any group in any slot. But in practice, most words occur in relatively restricted positions, as suggested by their translations. The freest ranging are the primitive prepositions:
tawa, to, toward, and lon, at. There are a few others that can stand in the Prep slot, but they do not affect other places as much as these, which can affect the structure of groups by introducing groups on the right not introduced by pi, in effect bringing the whole Prep structure into the group. So, the whole Prep phrase tawa tomo mi, to my house, grouped (tawa (tomo mi)), can applear after li as in mi tawa tomo mi, I go home, with the same grouping, or even in a modal form , mi wile tawa tomo mi, I want to go home, which groups (mi (wile (tawa (tomo mi)))). This change is so far seen only in the li group, but may be possible in others as well. As just exemplified, the li group also allows a few other words: wile, must, ken, can, kama, come, and maybe pini,finish, open, start, awen, continue, to introduce a whole li expression after them as a right group. In groups other than li, nanpa, number, followed by digits also introduces a right group (the string of digits functions as a unit), There are some cases where ala, not, seems to bind closely with the preceding word to form a right group.


The small number of words and the variety of roles each plays, means that the meaning of individual words must be very broad, even diffuse. When we try to pin these meaning down in English (say), we have to use a variety of words, depending on the context -- "what makes sense." This should not blind us to the fact that, in toki pona, each of these is a unity, with a meaning we may not be able to put into a few words, but which is simple to the speakers of the language.

Once that difficulty is over, the semantics presents few problems, developing much like an SVO/NA European language, once the special grouping problems are taken into account. Of course, as in any language, the exact relation being indicated by a modified-modifier bond may take some winkling out as will the effects of a particular form when it might be equally one sort of notion or something else. Not that these problems are novel, of course. Three items do seem to be peculiar to this language (though probably not unique).

Toki pona has only one deictic pronoun, ni, and one anaphoric, ona. As a result, back references (and forward ones) can be somewhat opaque. Various devices have been used to surmount this problem (genderizing ona by adding meli, female, or mije, male or attaching ni to a relevant descriptive word). But, in general, in keeping with the simplicity theme, the solution seems to be (partial) "repetition is also anaphora." The external deixis is rare in texts so far but the real world, pointing and such locutions a ni poka, that near, and ni weka, that far, might be put into service.

Toki pona has almost no provision for subordinate clauses as such. Most such are handled by separate sentences. In particular, presentation of someone's thought or utterances are set out
as sepratate sentences. In print, the difference between direct quotation and paraphrase is marked by quotation marks, but in spoken form there is no difference; both are introduced by such phrases as toki e ni:, says that, or pilin e ni:, thinks that. The difference, and the resulting differences in pronoun reference, have to be worked out by context -- a common occurrence in toki pona.

The one case where subordinate clauses -- indeed, sentences -- are permitted is before la, which introduces a condition in the sentence. For the most part, such conditions are various qualifiers on the straight claim: tenpo pini la, past, and other temporal locators, tenpo suno kama la, tomorrow, verifiers like ken la, maybe, or mi la, in my opinion, rhetorical flourishes like kin la, moreover, or ante la, on the other hand (the flourish taso, but, does not require la), and attitudinals like pona la, fortunately. But sentences in this slot are genuine antecedents for condtional sentences, la serving as the 'only if' arrow. Other than position, there are no further marks of conditionality, and no distinction, then, between contrary-to-fact and other conditonals -- "context will decide." The potential for iterated subordinate sentences has not been realized and seems unlikely given the ethos of the language. But some people do repeat la phrases, e.g.,ken la tenpo kama la, although this is not officially approved.

Discussed Problems

Aside from the usual "How do you say?" questions, which usually get swift answers, although a few remain, e.g. "left" and "right", there have been few topics of ongoing concern. The chief (maybe the only) has been the problem of big numbers, which, in this case, means numbers larger than two (or maybe five). Toki pona has only two number words, wan, one, and tu, two. Larger numbers -- when not relegated to mute, many -- are expressed additively: tu wan, three, tu tu, four, and so on. The use of luka, hand, arm, for five is common but officially condemned. Many solutions have been proposed (other means of constructing new numbers to represent multiplication as well as addition, place notation in a trinary number system -- ala, not, doing for zero, adding more number words), but none decisvely accepted. In writing, the temporary solution has been to take normal decimal number strings as names, but this cannot be carried over to oral use. The official position is that large numbers are not needed for the simple life that toki pona serves. But the pressure to date things and pay bills, keeps intruding.


Toki pona is a fun language: it is easy to learn and become fairly competent in in a short time (some say a day, some a week); it takes somewhat longer to feel comfortable in and to manipulate the very loose meanings of words of the language -- and probably even longer to regularly understand other people's manipulations. It gives rise to amusing expressions almost automatically: soweli li lili, the critter is small (or the critters are few). It has a surprisingly large range of practical use, maybe not philosophy (but translations of Dao De Jing are often interesting, even insightful) nor rocket science, but everyday life. Up to a point, that point being just where numbers come in, as noted above -- and, in today's world, that point is fairly early. Perhaps it fares better as a guide away from complexity (including numbers) and to a simpler life.

As for its intended purposes, it gets mixed score. Here are the negative notes, to be weighed against the language's charm and the possible indifference to particular goals.

It is probably not minimal, for all that it is small. NSM gets by with only 70 or so words, though with a broader range of sentence types. One can easily imagine reducing the phonology further (doing away with m, for example, or reducing the vowel inventory to i-a-u) but not much. NSM again claims to have a dodge around conditional sentences and some fairly easy tricks would surely do for most cases ("Imagine that ... . In that case ... .") The complexity of the words could also be reduced -- dropping three-syllabled ones, for example.

It fails as a model for pidgin languages precisely because it doesn't allow one to tend to one's pidgin. Business is about numbers in countless ways and so the lack of such numbers is a block that every real pidgin overcomes somehow (a look at how might be useful here).

As for putting a positive spin, it has to be noted that the limited vocabulary has only one word for good but two for bad, a word for disaster but none for success, one for dead but none for alive, war but no peace. Of course these concepts can be expressed, but only by non-simple forms, phrases, not words.

Nor is it very Daoist or other simple life pattern as generally understood. It has, for starters, a word for money and for shop, two of the major marks of non-simplicity, usually. On the other hand, it has no words for some tools for the simple life, a digging stick or a hoe, say (from the Daoist side). Perhaps this simple life is to be lived withn the context of the modern world -- in but not of -- and so the basic tools are a computer and a fast internet connection. But then the numbers come up again (

As for clarifying ideas by restating them in simple terms, the toki-ponists have demonstrated considerable ingenuity in expressing fairly complex terms with this vocabulary, but whether this really reduction rather than cover, is difficult to say. Nor is it at all clear that the vocabulary given is up to the task when we come to more complex problems -- emotions and personal relationships, say. The vocabulary seems to be an idiosyncratic selection, not based on any kind of scientific study -- unlike NSM or even the Swadesh list, though these are designed for different puurposes.


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