There’s a language out there which tries to distill life into 120 words. You can learn it in a weekend, and it’s actually good fun.
The practice of inventing languages from scratch (better known as Conlangs, constructed languages) has an entire community around it. It’s big, and the movement boasts hundreds of years of history. You might know at least one famous conlanger. Many languages have been invented so far, but none are quite like Toki Pona.
While most conlangs are just ‘for fun,’ others have a purpose. Esperanto, to name one, was supposed to become a universal language. Toki Pona’s purpose, on the other hand, is to distill the meaning of life in as little words as possible. It’s an exercise in minimalism.
How many words can you take away from a language and still retain its integrity? This is what Toki Pona explores. While it started with 120 words back in 2001, a few have been added since, now settling at around 140.
If you’re wondering whether it’s really possible to have conversations with 140 words, it is. Here’s a podcast in Toki Pona and a Discord server where people only speak in the language. Here’s people tweeting and a Wikipedia. Here’s 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.Source
But how? Well, small ‘sacrifices’ have to be made. The word for book is lipu. But so is the word for record, paper, document, and card. In short, everything that is a flat sheet is lipu. Web pages are also ‘pages,’ so lipu they are. Sometimes, words are both noun and verb. lukin means eye, but also to see, to examine, to read, to watch, etc.
When one word can take upon so many meanings, context becomes important. Take for example lupa, meaning both door and window. If I told you to close the lupa behind you as you leave, you’d understand which one I am talking about.
Since the language is so minimal, you can do things you wouldn’t be able to do in a regular one. For example, someone has made a system of hyeroglyphs where one symbol equals one word.1 You can then put these hieroglyphs together to form entire texts, like this one:
Sure, you wouldn’t use Toki Pona for your next legally binding contract. But its simplicity and minimalism make it for a great language to pick up in quite literally a weekend. Estimates vary, but the official website mentions that there are now thousands of fluent speakers.
If you want to join them, or if you are like me and want to dip your toes to see what it feels like to express yourself in a language so small, here’s a couple of resources:
The official handbook is the most recommended resource out there. Written by the inventor of the language herself, Sonja Lang, it’s the de facto authoritative grammar and vocabolary reference.
The dictionary section of the handbook is becoming quite dated, however, so Lang just recently released a new and updated two-way dictionary with all the newest words and amendments to the language. A one-way Toki Pona to English dictionary is also available at this page for free.
The grammar reference I used back in the day is this ‘unofficial’ one by jan Pije. Quite enjoyable to read, sadly taken offline but still alive thanks to the Internet Archive.
If all that wasn’t enough, tokipona.net is the one-stop-shop for Toki Pona resources out there.