Above the dictionary itself, I will collect my thoughts about the project as it goes on. Click here to skip down to the dictionary!
Making this dictionary is going to challenge me. I have all the content words in pu (+tonsi +soko +leko) to define here. For some of these words, I’m not sure how I define them. This project is for two things:
I want this project to be useful and accessible, so I’m going to start it. I’m not sure if I’ll finish it, but I really hope I do, because I think it’ll be worthwhile. I’m going to start with just a couple of easier words, and as I add more this document will get longer. If you have any gripes or personal thoughts about any of these words that don’t reflect what I’ve written, please share them with me so we can start a conversation.
As I’ve started writing entires, I’ve begun to realize something about the nature of toki pona words. Every word has some sort of innate quality or set of related innate qualities that describe/describes its entire semantic space. If an object has one of those qualities, it is considered part of that semantic space. If it has none of them, it is not. But this gives us power as speakers, and it’s a power that many proficient speakers already use. If we give anything one of the qualities of a word, it suddenly fits within that word’s semantic space. If I use my words to frame a lamp as a protrusion on a surface, I can call it a nena. If I use my words to frame a frisbee to be a bird, I can call it a waso. Of course, these things don’t normally fit into these semantic spaces, but they can if you frame them that way.
I’ve found that what my project really is is to find those qualities I described above for each content word. This seems like it’s going to be significantly harder than I thought but it’s going to be worth it. Every entry I write will probably exist parallel to a community discussion, and I’ll have a lot of people to thank, but getting all their permission will be difficult so if you participated in one of these discussions, please let me know and I'll credit you.
I'm going to clarify which words will be in this dictionary, for clarity. I will include all pu words except for the particles (a anu e en la li pi o), the pronouns (mi sina ona ni seme), the animal words (akesi kala waso soweli pipi), and the color words (jelo, loje, laso, and walo), taso and ala, as well as the word "pona". I'll include tonsi in my dictionary, though. That leaves 96 words in this dictionary. I'm choosing to write about all of these categories as supplemental essays to be included with the dictionary, but they won't have their own entries.
I'll talk about the pronouns together: I'll explain how their semantic spaces depend entirely on context. I haven't decided what to do with the animal words yet, but perhaps I'll ask some community members to describe edge cases and talk about common trends that can help describe the animal words without an Englishy lense. I'll do something similar for the color words (I don't consider pimeja to be a color word). ala and taso's main functions are as modifiers, so putting them in a list of dissimilar content words seems misguided, so I'll write about them (and kin) in their own section. Finally, I've already written an essay about pona.
I've been thinking more about what I want this project to be, and I've realized something. I'm confident enough in my own usage for this to be a descriptive analysis of how I speak toki pona, and I'm confident enough that that analysis will be useful for everyone. That doesn't mean I don't want criticism, it just means I get the final say if it's just a difference of opinion. Some of my usages might be a bit weird, but for those I'll alter them to be more like what I see other people using.
A lot of what's preventing me from finishing this project as quickly as I'd like is that I'm trying to make it too many things. I want it to reflect what I think the language should be, I want it to be something that toki ponists I respect can agree with, and I want it to be something that reflects toki pona as it's used. But I can't have all of those, and I didn't even realize that I was trying to get all of them. So, I hope these thoughts will help me moving forward.
The semantic space of ijo contains all things. If a thing is a thing, it is an ijo. This could be anything or something. This could be a physical object, an idea, an action, a place, a sentient being, or any other thing.
The semantic space of ilo contains things that are used towards a goal. It’s easy to say that everything can be used. Likewise if something is being used or can commonly be used, it is easy to call it an ilo. If I am using a hammer to hammer a nail into the wall, that is an ilo. If i am using a psychological method to calm myself down when i’m stressed, that can be an ilo as well. Without much context, ilo can refer to things that are commonly used as tools. With the context of it being used for something, though, anything can be an ilo.
The semantic space of insa contains things that are inside of another thing. Commonly, this is used to describe a location. The location inside of a car is insa. It can also be used to describe objects that are inside of things. Someone's organs are insa. insa doesn't need to be contained completely, it can just mean "in between." A book in the middle of a bookshelf is insa. The space between two city buildings is insa. It can be used more abstractly too. When compared to a head, a mind is insa. In the context of good and bad, insa can be neutral. When compared to hot and cold, insa can be lukewarm. If anything is being framed as inside of something else, it falls under the semantic space of insa.
The semantic space of kalama contains all noises and sounds and any act of creating a noise or sound. Any sound from any source can be a kalama. Music is a kalama. A scream is kalama. The sound that a tree makes when it falls in the forest is a kalama. A sound doesn't have to travel through air to be a kalama: whale noises are kalama, and a heartbeat through a stethoscope is kalama. kalama could be an absolute pitch, or multiple. It could be sound designed to sound a certain way, or chaotic noise.
The semantic space of ken contains abilities. These could be inherent abilities, like the ability to fly, walk, or swim. These could also be external, like permission to use the bathroom. If I can blow bubbles with bubble gum because I'm not around anyone who I don't want to annoy, that ability is a ken. Unlike some languages, toki pona has a single word that contains all abilities.
The semantic space of kili contains fruits and vegetables, i.e. any part of the plant that is edible. These could be fresh. An apple is kili. These could be fermented. Kimchi and pickled onions are kili. These could be preserved. Strawberry jam and dried mango are kili. kili can refer to wheat seeds or other grains that haven't been ground up yet, but flour and bread don't fit well into kili's semantic space.
The semantic space of kiwen contains things whose form resists changing. This often talks about a hard physical material or object, like a rock or wood or crystal. It can describe something's material, so a chair made out of a hard material could be kiwen. It is additionally possible to talk about nonphysical things using kiwen, but by using kiwen to describe nonphysical things, their forms are being framed as resisting change. For example, I can describe a recipe as kiwen. With some explaining, this might mean that in order for me to consider it my recipe, it must not change, and if it does change it would no longer be my recipe.
The semantic space of kon contains many types of unseen things. kon can be a spirit. A ghost and a soul are both kon. Some people like to use kon for identity as well, for example a gender identity. kon can be used to describe the meaning of words and ideas. The semantic space of "kon" is kon. kon can also describe physical gaseous things, like steam, smoke, or any sent/fragrance. The core idea that ties together the semantic space of kon is something that is known but not seeable.
The semantic space of kule contains aspects of senses. The most prototypical version of this is color, an aspect of sight, but kule can also refer to aspects of other senses. Here are some possibilities: For sound, kule can refer to timbre or pitch. For taste, kule could be a flavor. For touch, kule could be a type of texture. There are plenty of ways to be creative with kule, but the most common uses besides "color" are the ones I've listed associated with sound.
The semantic space of kulupu contains any group of other things. It's commonly used to describe groups of people: communities, clubs, cultures, cliques, charters, committees, collectives, and perhaps other words that don't start with the letter "c." kulupu can also be groups of objects or animals, like a bunch of bananas, a basket filled with small clay pots, or a murder of crows. kulupu is often used to describe a plural system/collective (i.e. multiple people in one body). Usually a kulupu will be a group of items that have some sort of shared attribute, and using kulupu to describe a group of anything is emphasizing that they have something in common. These shared qualities can be anything from location to color to desire.
The semantic space of lape contains sleep and rests. More abstractly, lape can mean anything from a short break from walking to a gap year in college, and less abstractly lape can mean a nap or sleeping. Using lape to describe an action often implies that the level of effort or involvement is lower when compared to surrounding activities.
The semantic space of lawa contains parts of a whole that control that whole, and the act of controlling itself. A classic example is the head of an animal, and perhaps by extension the heads of other things that just look similar. A tulip's flower could be a "lawa." Additionally, this can be taking a bit more abstractly. Someone who's in charge of a group could be considered the lawa of that group. Commanding troops in battle is a type of lawa. lawa doesn't imply any level of consent, so it could be forceful or gentle. Guiding a swimming student's body into the correct position for good technique could be lawa, but plenty of things that I'm not willing to describe could be lawa as well.
The semantic space of len contains both cloth and the act of hiding something. Any fabric or clothing can be len, for example a shirt or a blanket. The pivot between "cloth" and "to hide something" is similar to covering something with a blanket. This meaning comes from the idea of applying a cloth to something to hide it. A hidden bird could be a "waso len."
The semantic space of lili contains all qualities of smallness relative to context. The thing that ties all things lili together is their relative size. A tall man might be lili compared to a mountain. A long speech may be lili compared to a novel. lili is a relative word, and therefore is always dependant on context.
A lupa is usually a hole. Here's what that means: these holes can go through objects, like the hole in a donut, or they can be an indentation in an object, such as a hole dug in the ground. Things that are lupa continue to be lupa even when there is something blocking them, like a door or a window, because they are still meant for things to pass through them. From a perspective of function, that's what lupa are for. A lupa is a part of an object that things can pass through. A door is still a lupa because people can open it, and a window is still a lupa because it's meant for light to pass through. Empty space is not a lupa because it's not part of an object. The semantic space can be extended to describe other things that fit this description, even if they aren't physical holes, such as portals or links on the internet.
mani means "goats." there are no other uses or meanings of mani.
The semantic space of mije contains men and masculinity. The semantic space of meli contains women and femininity. These words are as well defined as the concepts they represent, so it's left intentionally broad without specifying further. This means that for beings that can talk to you, they decide if they fit within the semantic space of these words.
The semantic space of monsi contains things that are behind another thing or the back part of a thing. The caboose of a trains is monsi. The space behind a building is monsi. A person's back is monsi. monsi is relative, so its semantic space will always depend on what object it is in relation to.
The semantic space of mu contains noises coming from things being framed as living. A lion's roar is mu. A cough is mu. Humans are animals, but often when they say things, we can understand them, so we might choose to use a different word over mu. But mu is often used to describe languages and vocalizations that are not understood by the speaker. Adjacently, many people describe non-language vocalizations as mu, such as coughs, sneezes, or vocal stims.
By using mu to describe a noise, you are ascribing some level of livingness to the thing that produced it. Using mu to describe a robot's noise makes the robot feel more like a living thing. This can be taken to any extreme, and it often ends up seeming humorous. For example, the sound of some sizzling bacon could be a mu, which is thought provoking. But the sound of a waterfall can also be mu, which is thought provoking in a completely different way. Ascribing qualities of life and animacy to bacon and waterfalls are very different situations. With bacon, it becomes a joke, where the punchline is that mu is an "animal noise" and sizzling is an "animal noise." But with a waterfall, it becomes a deep philosophical musing about what life is.
Using mu to describe the vocalizations of animals is usually a safe bet, but using it in other circumstances can be very profound.
The semantic space of musi contains all things funny, entertaining, and interesting. An enjoyable book is musi. A good joke is musi. A game is musi. A documentary about fish is musi.
The semantic space of nasa contains deviations from what's considered normal. If most people have blue hair and one person has green hair, that one person is nasa. If someone grows ten types of herbs and a single carnivorous plant, then that carnivorous plant is nasa. If most people don't grow herbs, someone who does grow herbs is nasa. What's considered "normal" here is completely reliant on context. A clown isn't "nasa" if everyone around them is also a clown. Nothing is inherently nasa. The nasa-ness of all objects will change along with context.
The semantic space of nanpa contains numbers. Some examples of numbers could be phone numbers, HP in a video game, heart rate, or blood sugar. nanpa can also refer to computer coding, like a program written in a coding language.
The semantic space of nimi contains all words and names. "lipamanka" is a nimi. "paralelepípedo" is a nimi. "cupcake" is a nimi. This description of nimi's semantic space is nimi.
The semantic space of noka contains the bottom parts of things meant for touching the ground. Some basic examples of noka might be feet or legs. noka can refer to the bottom part of a piece of furniture or the wheels of a car. The lowest floor of a building is noka. The roots of a tree are noka.
The semantic space of palisa contains things all things that are longer than they are wide that are not flexible enough to be bended significantly. any palisa will resist bending and either break or only bend slightly under significant pressure. If a palisa is looked at from a different perspective where there is enough power to bend it, it might not firmly sit within palisa's semantic space. A good test that works most of the time is to check to see if it’s flexable enough to be bent into a 0 degree angle or if it’s flexable enough to be tied in a knot, if it is, then it’s probably not a palisa.
The semantic space of pana contains all acts that set objects in motion. This can be a type of emmission. The act of a fire giving off heat it pana. The act of a child laughing is pana, because the child is emitting laughter, setting it in motion. Throwing a baseball, hitting a hockey puck, and kicking a football (the kind that Americans call a "soccer ball") are all pana. Defenestration is a type of pana, because you are setting something in motion (out a window). the object that does the act of pana doesn't have to set something in motion away from itself. Buying a piano online for a friend is pana, or at the very least the act of having the piano be delivered is pana. Less physical objects can be the subject of pana too: knowledge, advice, or good feelings.
The semantic space of pimeja contians things that are a type of darkness. This could talk about specific colors like deep red or dark emerald green, but it can also talk about shadows, places where there is less light, or the absence of brighter colors. pimeja can describe anything that is dark. From some perspectives, the night is a type of darkness more than a period of time (just as a day can be a type of brightness and a year can be a type of circle).
The semantic space of pu contains all interactions with the official toki pona book: Toki Pona the Language of Good by Sonja Lang. This could be anything from reading it to using it in a project to folding oragami out of its pages to throwing it at your enimies to reanimating it like frankenstine's monster. In order for something to be pu, it must be some sort of interaction with the official toki pona book.
The semantic space of sama contains all qualities of similarities and samenesses. Two siblings are sama because they have a parent in common. two stringed instruments are sama because they both have strings. Two action figures of the same exact character are sama.
The semantic space of sona contains all knowledge. If something is knowable or known, it is sona. For example, the knowledge of time of day can sona. Wisdom can be sona. sona can also be a skill. The knowledge of how to write a book can certainly be sona. Knowing about a person or who they are can be sona. But a warning to english speaking learners: the type of knowledge that sona covers doesn't completely contain the english concept of "knowing someone." For that, it might be a better idea to explain what your relationship with that person is in more detail.
The semantic space of telo includes liquids and other things that don’t hold a shape. Water, milk, and vinegar are telo. telo can be more viscous. Oils are telo. telo can be used less literally, to describe things that aren’t physical objects. The changing aspect of a way of speaking toki pona that doesn’t stay the same can be telo. If something changes form and doesn’t hold its shape, it fits within telo’s semantic space.
The semantic space of toki contains any form or act of communication. This can be communication using the mouth, such as spoken language, or communication using the hands, such as signed languages. This could be communication using a written medium. toki doesn't have to just be for humans. Bee dances are toki. toki doesn't have to be between two parties either. Communication with one's self (such as someone thinking or talking to themselves) is toki. toki can get very abstract. If I can feel the atmospheric pressure change and I can detect that it's probably going to rain later because I'm old, I could say that the sky is toki-ing to me. If I read a sign, the action that sign is doing can be toki.
The semantic space of tomo contains objects meant to contain things being framed as living. Sometimes living is literal. A family of five is considered living, so their domicile can be considered a tomo. Sometimes living is a metaphor. A dollhouse can be considered a tomo if the hypothetical dolls it can contain are being framed as living, even if they aren't empirically alive. By calling a container intended for nonliving things a "tomo," a speaker is ascribing life to those objects. There's no animacy hierarchy in toki pona, so what is and isn't considered life is up to personal preference and doesn't impact mutual intelligibility.
The semantic space of utala contains conflicts, contests, and battles. When utala is used, it’s talking about some sort of struggle or competition between two or more parties, or something being framed that way. So it could be a battle between two rival armies, but it could also be a battle between me and myself if I’m framing it that way. utala is often targeted, closer to “attack” than “battle.” Anything can be an utala if it is being framed as a struggle or attack of some sort that involves two parties. Playing a musical instrument could be an utala for a beginner player. Taking a test is a very fun thing to call an utala, because the test-taker is fighting the test.
The semantic space of wile contains all desires. A desire to eat is a wile. A desire to be near others is a wile. These desires can be influenced by external forces: a desire to do tedious chores motivated by the prospect of negative consequences is a wile. By using wile to describe something, it's being framed as a type of desire. For example, if I normally don't want to tidy up my workspace but I feel obligated to anyway, if I used wile to describe that feeling of obligation, I'd be describing it as some sort of desire.
A warning I have for wile is assuming it contains the idea of a "need." A "need" is a complex concept and trying to use wile to describe it is misguided. While most needs can be framed as types of desires, the goal of "wile" isn't to merge those concepts, it's to throw one of them away.
Special thanks to the following: