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descriptivism in toki pona

In toki pona circles, occasionally the words “prescriptivism” and “descriptivism” will get thrown around. I’d like to explore what these words mean for toki pona and the effects of their use.


First, I’d like to discuss a problem. When these words are used, they are often used as buzzwords. This means that all parties involved might have completely different definitions of these words. Without defining these words, using them hinders conversation. So I’d like to take a moment to define them!

I will in fact not be using the term “prescriptivism” in this essay, and I encourage everyone reading to avoid using it as well. Prescriptivism is most accurately prescribing language, which means telling people how to speak. This can include a judgement on what’s right or wrong in a language and applying it to anyone. Even though this term has the potential to be useful, I think that talking about what not to do is far less productive than talking about what to do. So instead of using it to describe what I included in its definition, I’ll just use those descriptions instead.

The above given, the word descriptivism is indeed very useful in discussions about toki pona. Descriptivism is most accurately defined as describing the way a language is used by its speakers. In general, when practicing linguistic descriptivism, a descriptivist will note as many usages of the language as possible, but clarify how common they are.

how these relate to teaching toki pona

In toki pona spaces, there are many methods of teaching the language. Here I’ll detail why the descriptive methods are the best. First I’ll list the non-descriptive methods.

It is not descriptive to tell a learner “what you said was wrong.” It is not descriptive to tell a learner that something they said is bad or that they mustn’t say it. Using the word “should” in the context of teaching toki pona is also not ideal because it puts a judgement on the learner’s experimentation. None of these methods of teaching are kind and should not be used.

The concept of “wrong” when describing a nasin in toki pona is harmful to learners I think. Usually when learners are told something’s wrong, they’re looking for a descriptive answer. “Wrong” isn’t descriptive or helpful, it’s just short and hard to understand.

It is descriptive, on the other hand, to tell a learner “what you said won’t be understood.” It is descriptive to tell a learner that something they said is uncommon or considered weird. It is also fine to pass a personal judgement on a usage of toki pona, as long as you give a reason. “I don’t like this because.”

Another note about descriptivism is that the way it’s used in analysis differs from the way it’s used in teaching. In analysis, as I mentioned above, an analyst will describe as much of a language as possible and note how common different usages are. A teacher on the other hand will only teach the most common usages.

how these relate to analyzing toki pona

Commonly in toki pona analysis, many will conjure up rules that describe the language. These include rules like “all words can fill the role of any part of speech depending on where they’re used” and “li is the predicate marker.” These are useful in describing the way the language works and are usually descriptive. However, some speakers will use these rules reflexively on their own nasins and make claims about toki pona that aren’t true. Some examples:

“All words can fill the role of any part of speech. Therefore, names (such as Opeja in jan Opeja) can be used without a head noun.”

“The word that comes directly after a preposition that is functioning as a preposition instead of a content word will always be the object of that preposition. Therefore, you cannot modify a preposition with ‘ala.’”

“The word that follows every predicate is always its modifier. Therefore, in ‘mi lon tomo,’ the tomo is modifying the lon, which means that in order to say ‘I’m at my house’ you need to say ‘mi lon pi tomo mi.’”

Even though these may seem descriptive, they are not. In order for a statement to be descriptive, it needs to describe toki pona as it’s used. These above examples are assumptions I made while learning toki pona. As a learner and an analyst, I should have been descriptive and asked speakers how toki pona is used, or looked at descriptive documents such as courses. The grammar of toki pona is not extractable or extrapolatable. It must be described.

That being said, if someone did these things as part of their nasin, I would be happy to note them down descriptively, but I would also note the context alongside that. Are they a beginner? Is what they do considered nasa? Are there reasons why I would be hesitant to teach this to a learner? These are all important things to leave in when doing descriptivism for toki pona! And when creating resources, it makes sense to include the most common stuff.