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Toki Pona – A personal learning adventure

By Memrise Blog

-Hey! Where are you?

-I’m in tomo lipu.

[That’s a fragment of a Whatsapp conversation]

“And where is that?”, I thought. Tomo is an indoor space and lipu is a flat bendable thing… but what is this flat house he’s talking about? Welcome to my daily Toki Pona experience.

Imagine that a word thief came at night and emptied the dictionaries of 99%* of vocabulary. He took all the synonyms, and now in place of exquisite, pleasing, appealing, beautiful, simple, correct you have just one overarching word-concept of “simple and positive”: pona. How are you? Pona. How is the weather? Pona. What do you think of the addendum to the real estate contract, Mr. Thomas? Pona.

This is the principle of Toki Pona, a minimalist language developed by Sonja Lang, a language that has around 120 words** and a growing community of learners. With a vocabulary narrowed to essential concepts and simplified grammar, Toki Pona is said to be inspired by Taoist philosophy.

Why would you learn it, though? Well, I learned it because apart from cheese and warm summer nights I also adore languages. Together with a friend we wanted to have a language of communication that nobody else understands. If you live in a big city, regardless of your first language you always risk that someone will understand when you comment on their choice of pink sandals and green lacy socks (well, of course I never do it!). So a language that, according to the mighty Wikipedia, has only 3 fluent speakers seems a good shot.

How do you learn it? Getting the core vocabulary was easy. 120 words? Think how many words are in a horoscope column in the Evening Standard (and see this course on Memrise). As for grammar, there are some rules, but if you fear multiple cases, agglutinative morphemes or irregular subjunctive forms these are species that don’t exist in the Toki Pona grammatical ecosystem. It will take half a day to read the basic lessons. The rest however needs some tuning in. And that’s where the fun starts.

When we started learning we wondered: With a world summarised to basic concepts how will we talk about pineapples, iPhones and epistemological reflexivity? The philosophy of Toki Pona required us to change perspective and think more descriptively. What are the essential features of the thing I’m trying to specify? What words do I have at my disposal? What should I say to make the hearer understand what I am talking about? (I tend to have a problem with this even in my first language which has a wee bit wider choice of vocabulary). Would a combination of “talking” and “box” signify a radio, telephone or a boring lecturer? Unlike the experience of learning other languages, learners of Toki Pona comment that it is much easier to speak Toki Pona rather than it is to understand it. Which makes perfect sense. It would be much easier to describe reality from my own egocentric perspective, but it is much harder to find where my understanding of the world overlaps with my friend’s.

A lamp. What is its most important feature? How is provides light, the fact that it is powered by electricity, or how it stands on the table? The way of describing an item may vary depending on the context and the purpose of speaking about it and using common nouns often becomes an exercise in memory… “So how did we decide to call this?” is still a common question I ask. Especially when we wanted to get a quick telo suwi kepeken moku sike pimeja lon insa, or, erm… bubble tea.

Trying to speak Toki Pona is a completely different learning experience than what you would traditionally associate with learning a language. Does it require more effort? Hard to tell. But it for sure asks for creativity and a nearly artistic reinterpretation of the environment. It’s a bit like experiencing the world all over again.

As with most constructed languages there is an online community of learners. So if you have no idea how to express something, you can assume others already discussed it on internet forums (there are a few). But, the answer you find may often not satisfy you… as if someone named your pet rat Vanity while you know it should be called Behemoth. It just doesn’t feel like it suits the nature of the concept. And the beauty of Toki Pona is that you can create descriptions of objects in whatever way it appeals to you. As long as you are understood by the hearer it means that the magic worked. As far as grammar goes, it’s common practice for people online to correct you if your post has some obvious errors. There are no native speakers, so people share the learning experience.

My inner child wanted to have a secret code of communication. And the fun part is that it will always to a certain extent remain a secret code even in the presence of other speakers. Because the meaning of phrases you create is easily accessible only to you and the co-creator, your interlocutor. When I talk to my friend I don’t describe the world as I see it, but as we experience it together. For you tomo lipu may be a paper house, for us it is a library.

[*] Rough estimate, please do not quote me on that, my academic career may be ruined.

[**] The exact number is controversial.

[This is a community post by Laodamia, a Memrise user. If you have a learning story you’d like to share, please get in touch with ben@memrise.com!]