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Direction in toki pona

A lot of toki pona learners find that toki pona doesn’t have a fantastic way to talk about direction. They often ask, “how do you say left and right?” or “how do you say the cardinal directions?” and are met with “you don’t,” or “you would use landmarks instead.” This answer, while accurate, is often unsatisfying to learners. Here I'll illustrate how toki pona uses context instead of words for cardinal directions or left and right.

On a sailboat, direction is pretty important. I’ve been sailing for years and this is agreed upon by many sailors. There are two very important words in sailing that, at least when sailing using english, are a must to know: port and starboard. It’s important to look at a boat and say “we are on a starboard tack,” or “move to the port side so we can flatten out the boat.” So the question is: how do we differentiate between these two sides on a symmetrical boat?

The answer is, we use context! There are two easy ways to talk about direction on a boat in toki pona that I’ve come up with. Almost always, there are two things that will be different for each side of the boat: hight and wind. At any given moment, the wind is hitting the boat on one side, which usually causes the boat to lean a bit. If the wind is hitting the port side, usually the boat will lean so that the port side is higher than the starboard side. This is called heeling. It’s possible to weightshift in order to make the boat level out, where both sides of the boat are at the same hight. Weightshifting is usually done by the sailors themselves moving around the boat.

The thing is, toki pona sailors would probably prefer a bit of heeling so it’s clear which side is the high side. This is because they might use “poka sewi” and “poka anpa” to describe the sides of the boat. In english, you might just say “go to the starboard side.” But in toki pona, you can’t, so you might say “o tawa poka sewi” instead, if the starboard side is the higher side. You might also say “o tawa poka kon” to say “go to the windward (facing towards the wind) side.” In English, we already have words for these that we use in context.

Even though toki pona doesn’t have words for port and starboard, it’s not difficult to sail using toki pona taso. Even though the port side might change names throughout the day, a toki ponist will always be able to meaningfully refer to it using context. When not on a sailboat, think about other things you can use to talk about left and right in the moment. What’s the difference between the left side and the right side? There are your words for left and right.