Q - Can you learn toki pona in just a month? Two weeks? A few days? 30 hours? Three hours?
A - It’s possible to get conversational very fast. It took me about three days to get through the whole vocabulary, though it took me a couple of months to refine that, and it took me years to feel their semantic spaces like I feel English’s. If you want to learn toki pona because you think it’ll be faster than other languages, there may be some truth to that, but think about what you want to get out of learning a language. Community? Philosophy? A new outlook on life? To prove a point? To know what it’s like? Because the language you want to learn was taken from you generations ago? Because the language seems interesting? There are so many reasons to want to learn a language, and all of these reasons have motivated me to learn a language, be that Portuguese, Yiddish, or toki pona. toki pona isn’t a thing you can learn in a day, but you can still learn part of it in a day. It’s a journey, and the journey for learning toki pona is unique and unlike any other language I’ve encountered. Every bit of practice helps you learn, but all in all I wouldn’t claim proficiency for at least a month and I would be wary about claiming fluency until six months in.
Q - Is toki pona a real language?
A - Yes! In fact, from almost all definitions of a language, toki pona qualifies. Unless you also don’t consider Esperanto and Dothraki languages, the constructed nature of toki pona doesn’t prevent it from being a language. And, unless you don’t consider Ancient Egyptian and Medieval Galician to be languages, toki pona’s lack of native speakers doesn’t prevent it from being a language. (linguistics jargon ahead!!) toki pona fits each and every one of Hockett’s design features of langauge, which linguists around the world use as a basis for the defintion of language. The small vocabulary, while unique, doesn’t prevent it from communicating anything that a communication system needs in order to be considered a language. Even though it has recursion via some analyses, that doesn’t really matter. Despite some linguists beleiving that all language needs embedded recursion, toki pona is able to use soley anaphora to acomplish the same thing, which if anything suggests that the theory of universal grammar needs a rework. toki pona is not a natural language, but it is still a language, and it’s real.
Q - Is toki pona a cipher, like pig latin?
A - Nope! toki pona doesn’t mimic any of English’s grammar. Any similarities are not because it is a cipher. There have been a few games of toki pona telephone where speakers translate a paragraph back and forth between toki pona and english until the paragraph is unrecognizable. This wouldn’t be possible if it was a simple cipher. A toki pona speaker cannot rely on english when speaking toki pona.
Q - Why would anyone want to learn toki pona?
A - Why would anyone learn how to play a banjo recreationally? Not everything we have to do needs to be useful, so why would that be the same for language learning? Some people do it for fun. For others, the philosophy and design goals of the langauge appeal to them. I’ve even see people who claim that learning some amount of toki pona is a rite of passage in the conlanging community, though I’m not sure I’d agree. For them though, why can’t it be? The reasons for learning toki pona are as diverse as the reasons for learning anything else, with the exception of being as useful as spanish would be to an american who lives on the mexican border to the south.
Q - Isn’t impossible to talk about anything that isn’t super simple?
A - Nope! It does get harder though. Do not base the capabilities of toki pona on your own abilities a week in. If you can’t think of a way to say something, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Proficiency isn’t knowing a lot of words—it’s being able to describe a large range of concepts, and that can take months. I learned what a derivative was in toki pona. I’ve witnessed people criticize code written on a walk using only toki pona. Often people will use jargon as a gotcha—can’t describe a higgs boson in toki pona! And while I probably couldn’t do it justice, I’m sure there is a quantum physisit out there who is able to describe it properly. You just gotta know what something is from the ground up. Describing something complex is easy if you turn it into a lot of simple things.
Q - This reminds me of a language simple people would speak on an island, like Hawai’ian.
A - Okay let me work quickly here. Calling some cultures simpler than others, no matter the context, is racist. It has been used to justify colonialism. “Look at these simple people! We need to take control of them and their land so we can bring them the joys of Complex European Culture.” If you think this is overly dramatic, it’s not. These are real justifications used by real people, and they are used today. Now that that’s out of the way, similarly to how it’s difficult to put all people on a single sliding scale of general intelligence, it’s very difficult to put all languages on a sliding scale of general complexity. It is possible to compare aspects of languages. For example, toki pona has a less complex inflectional morphology system than English. toki pona has a much smaller lexicon than Vietnamese. toki pona requires more information to be disambiguated via context in order to disambiguate large concepts than Nahuatl. But to say toki pona is generally simpler than other langauges is misguided and not really useful.
Q - Is there really anyone who speaks toki pona?
A - Yes! According to census data, there were about 1,500 speakers, as of late 2022. I attended a meetup in DC where a dozen or so speakers enjoyed each other’s company and hardly spoke any English the whole time. While it may not be spoken as much as most of the natural languages people are aware of, it is still spoken.
Q - Is toki pona meant for everyone in the world to learn it easily, like Esperanto?
A - Not quite. Unlike Esperanto, toki pona wasn’t designed explicitly for this purpose. However, part of its design was to be culturally neutral towards natural langauges across the world, something that Esperanto doesn’t really succeed at. toki pona lacks sounds that aren’t abundantly common in natural languages. It lacks complicated cultural customs that exist in any culture associated with natural languages. Its words come from a very interesting set of languages, which do include European languages, but also include languages from outside of Europe. A lot of the vocabulary is recognizable to English speakers. But hypothetically, if given access to the same resources, the advantage being a native English speaker affords is marginal at best and wouldn’t help much. So while toki pona was made primarily for other things, this is something it is good at.
Q - Can I add new words to toki pona?
A - You can try. It’s very unlikely anyone will use them. Many people have tried, and especially after 2020, very few words at all have entered common use. If you use your own new words, people will likely be confused. toki pona was completed a while ago. It’s a living language, and it grows organically. Especially as a learner, wouldn’t it be weird to suggest changes to Spanish in Spanish class? Like “what if we didn’t gender anything.” It would be ridiculous. Suggesting a change to toki pona is likewise at the very least a little weird. But it happens. Another thing to consider is: why do you want to add the new word? Is it because you think toki pona needs it? A lot of people have thought this about a lot of concepts, but it’s not ever true. toki pona doesn’t need a new word for think or a new word for context - you can already talk about those concepts with preëxisting words. You probably just don’t know how to yet because you’re still learning, and that’s fine.
Q - How do you know which of the many meanings a word means in a particular context?
A - toki pona words don’t usually have a lot of meanings. The range of ideas they can refer to, also known as their “semantic space,” is usually a really big set of objects with a few shared traits, just like in other languages. The big difference in toki pona is that those ranges are much bigger. It’s not like each toki pona word has eighteen different seperate meanings. toki pona isn’t like the golden compass from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman.
Q - How do I know what people are talking about if the words are so vague?
A - The answer here is a bit complicated and goes into the heart of toki pona’s philosophy. In most languages, there are two methods people use to disambiguate. The first is a large lexicon with lots of words that can mean lots of specific things. English has the word “phonebook” which is very specific. However, you could also use the other method—context—to describe the same thing using only words that are as vague as toki pona words, or close anyway. “A large book filled with numbers. Some of the pages are white, and some of them are yellow. I can use these numbers on the white pages to communicate with other people even when I’m not in the same room using a different tool, the telephone. I can use the numbers on the yellow pages to contact buisnesses.” I’m not sure if everyone reading this knows what a phonebook is, but one thing to note is that if the listener does know what one is, they could probably cut off the speaker at the end of the second sentence. It doesn’t really take that long after all. And if someone doesn’t know what a phonebook is, they’d probably need it to be explained to them anyway. toki pona has a small lexicon to force its speakers to communicate using the second method only—no large lexicon with lots of words that can mean specific things means that speakers have to use context to be understood, which might feel a little weird. It’s one of the reasons why toki pona can take a while to get the hang of, which is unique. This process can slow down how you think and help you analyze what actually needs to be communicated using words in order to get across what you want to get across. It’s not as efficient as natural languages are, but it’s not that much less efficient either.
Q - Can you be rude in toki pona?
A - Yeah. You can degrade someone as much as you can in English. I’d put an example, but I don’t really want to say mean things to the person reading. However, it’s a lot more difficult to be passive agressive about it. Passive agression usually relies on some level of hiddenness in meaning. Because it’s passive, people say one thing and intent something else. This is very difficult to pull off in toki pona, but soweli Nata came up with a good example. If someone’s cooking something, saying “a, ni li tawa soweli mani anu seme?” “oh, is this for a cow or something?” is just a question at face value, but it’s rude because you’re calling someone’s food animal food. There’s a lot of nuance that goes into insults in any language, but some people have said some horrible things to me. You can be rude or violent in toki pona, definitely.
Q - How many words does toki pona have?
A - Like, around 120. Some people get mad at this number. There are a lot of words out there, and a lot of them are in use. In the official toki pona dictionary, toki pona is shown to have 137 "essential" words and an additional few dozen words that are not as important to the language. But in my time speaking toki pona, I hardly ever see a conversation where more than one of these additional words beyond the 120 are used. To be fair, this is also the case for a set of the original 120, but the 120 are unambiguously part of almost all speakers’ vocabularies. I usually say “around 120 words” because without this nuance, any other number would be a little misleading and raise a lot of questions. 137 is a really specific number and isn’t particularly accurate. “About 200” is way too high of an estimate, because most speakers and conversations never even come close to reaching that threshold.
Q - If words are often compounded, doesn’t that mean the compounds become new words, and the language has far more than just 120 words?
A - If that happened, then yes. Because toki pona is built upon a small vocabulary, speakers want it to stay that way, and avoid creating compounds like this. You can still modify one word with another, but as soon as there’s extra meaning not given by the two words alone or context, it’s become lexicalized. Despite the effort of speakers, this can happen sometimes. Fortunately, it’s pretty rare, and most speakers avoid it. So toki pona still has about 120 words.