Toki Pona: A Conlang For Minimalists

avatarMille Larsen
5 mins read

It's been a while since I've done a language profile, so today I've chosen a particularly interesting language to profile. It's a constructed language called Toki Pona.

Linguistic minimalism

Probably the most interesting detail about Toki Pona is its minimalism. The language is built on an amazingly scant 125 root words, formed using a mere 14 phonemes: p, t, k, s, m, n, l, j, w, a, e, i, o, and u.

That's it! Nine consonants. Five vowels. All of them part of the standard Latin character set, easy to find on any keyboard, typewriter, telephone, etc.

Like Esperanto, Toki Pona is more than a language, it's an extension of a philosophy. But where Esperanto's philosophy is unity, Toki Pona's philosophy is taoism. It's based on a Zen-like minimalism — a rigid minimalism that leads some to compare it to a pidgin, while others to compare it to the Newspeak of George Orwell's 1984.

Language features

Each syllable is constructed of one consonant (optional at the beginning of a word) and one vowel, with an optional nasal consonant (typically n) at the end of the syllable. That's a detailed way of saying, basically, that there are no doubled consonants, no doubled vowels, no digraphs, no diphthongs. Just reading that description draws to mind thoughs of islands in the Pacific.

The subject of a sentence is separated from the predicate by the word li, direct objects are preceded by e, and complex adverbs or subclauses are separated from the sentence by la.

The language is simple enough that it's syntax can be described in a simple list of ten rules.

Toki Pona has several interesting features as a result of it's minimalism. It is a zero copula language, which means there is no verb "to be". Subject pronouns indicate 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person, but do not indicate plurality or gender, and have no articles. Verbs are not conjugated, and have no mood, tense, or voice.

There are only five colors: black, white, red, blue, and yellow; all other colors are expressed as combinations of those. Numbers consist of one, two, and many.

Because of its limited vocabulary, words have many meanings, and can often be used as noun and verb, and even preposition!


That description contains a lot of really interesting details, but it's all so much more meaningful once you see it in action.

The word pona means "good", but it also means "simple". (The minimalist philosophy is showing here!) And the word toki means "speak".

Modifiers always follow the word they modify, therefore Toki Pona is a speak that is simple or good — essentially, a "good language" or a "goodspeak". If we said toki li pona, it would mean "the language is good". (Remember the word li separates a subject from a predicate, and there is no verb "to be".)

The word jan means "person", so jan pona is a "good person", which is the Toki Pona way of saying "friend".

So now if you said jan pona toki you'd be talking about a "good person" who is talking, or a friend who is speaking. Adding li in the right place gives you jan pona li toki, meaning a friend is speaking. And on it goes.

Of course stringing together so many words into combinations to mean other things could get confusing, so there is a handy rule which says that modifiers are applied in order of immediacy, so that jan pona lukin is a "good person" who is looking or watching. If you want to say that they are a good-looking person, you use the handy little particle pi, meaning "of" to help you out. Jan pi pona lukin means a person of good looks, or "a good-looking person".

My impressions

I love the idea of minimalism in a constructed language. When compared to Esperanto, it's hard to argue against Toki Pona being a much easier and more universal language to get people speaking across cultures and language boundaries.

Of course it's usefulness would be naturally limited by its lack of complexity. If I can complain about a lack of nuance in Esperanto, you can imagine the complaints I would have with Toki Pona. Of course, given its obvious limitations, I can't foresee anyone wanting to use it for poetry or for serious conversation. In that respect, I think it wins a huge victory over Esperanto for not trying to be more than it is.

Ignoring it's obvious conlang cousin, and turning my attention to natural languages, I can't help noticing a lot of similarities with Tagalog, the language of the Phillipines. The grammatical construction of Tagalog is quite similar, with its minimal set of phonemes, particles to mark subjects, objects, and modifiers, and a dead-simple grammar... though sentence order in Tagalog is completely front-to-back opposite of Toki Pona. I'll save the rest of the details for a future language profile!

All in all, Toki Pona is a fascinating little creation. If I was crazy enough to try learning Esperanto in one week, it seems fitting to say that a person could probably learn Toki Pona fluently in just one or two days. But I've learned my lesson about conlangs. I'm not going to try that without a fluent speaker with whom to test my success.

For now, it will remain in my mind as an interesting little anomaly.