In A Language With Only 123 Words, Less Is More

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Somewhere on most people’s lifelong to-do lists is the lofty aspiration to learn another language. Some will eventually follow through, but for others, adopting an entirely new vocabulary and set of grammatical rules is just too time-consuming. If that’s the case, aspiring language-learners might be interested in Toki Pona, a language invented in 2001 by Canadian linguist Sonja Lang in what she calls “an attempt to understand the meaning of life in 120 words”—and only 120 words. 

With its limited vocabulary and a syntactical system of childlike simplicity, Toki Pona may be the ideal language for those who groan at the thought of verb conjugation and shy away from semicolons. For Toki Pona speakers—members of a small, but growing, international community—effective communication relies on metaphor. Much like German, which is famed for its notoriously long compound words (e.g. the single term “Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister” to denote the role of “head district chimney sweep”), Toki Pona conveys complex concepts by joining simple ones in sequence. By way of example, Lang asks, “What is a car? You might say a car is a space used for movement. That would be tomo tawa. If you’re struck by a car though, it might be a hard object that’s hitting me. That’s kiwen utala.” In Toki Pona, more than in any other language, context matters.

Colors in particular demonstrate Toki Pona’s radically different approach to language. Although Crayola crayons come in 128+ shades with unique names for each, Toki Pona speakers have only five distinct color terms: loje, laso, jelo, pimeja, and welo—which is to say, red, blue, yellow, white, and black. Instead of green, Toki Pona speakers might refer to the color of grass as laso jelo, or blue-yellow; rather than shades of gray, they might see life only in black and white and pimeja welo. When there are only 14 letters to go around, being able to label something “burnt sienna” drops much lower on the list of priorities.

Lang herself is trilingual (not counting Toki Pona), fluent in English, French, and Esperanto, the most widely spoken constructed language in the world and the closest thing yet to a “universal” tongue. In inventing Toki Pona, she set out not to replace any existing languages, but to build one based on the belief that simplicity is best. In fact, in Toki Pona, pona means both “simple” and “good.” The difference is how it’s used.

English speakers accustomed to an entire glossary's worth of politeness markers—excuse me, please, thank you, would you, could you, if it’s not too much trouble—might be concerned that a less sophisticated language could lead to rudeness or misunderstanding. Toki Pona speakers argue that it does quite the opposite: by eliminating the expectation of such linguistic flourishes, unadorned statements like “give me coffee” are neither polite nor impolite; they are simply functional, and the hearer must give the speaker the benefit of the doubt in assuming that kindness was implied in their speech. In this way, Toki Pona skews toward positivity, because everything by default is pona. Lang’s handbook for learning the language embraces this bias, and is appropriately subtitled, “The Language of Good.”

For those who are intrigued by the Toki Pona philosophy, the real question is how long it would take to master the lexicon. 17 participants in a 2015 TokiPonathon aimed to go from zero to 123 (the current total number of words in the Toki Pona vocabulary) in a single weekend, with some success. Other Toki Pona speakers have estimated that a fairly complete understanding of the language can be attained in around 30 hours. So get to it, readers, and o pona—good luck.