Toki Pona li pona ala pona?

A review of Sonja Kisa's constructed language Toki Pona
By Damian Yerrick

At some point in your life, you have to make a choice. Either you follow the Dow, or you follow the Dao.

Toki Pona is a planned language designed by Sonja Elen Kisa. It follows the "less is more" philosophy; its objectives include breaking down concepts into smaller parts, eliminating redundant synonyms, focusing on the good, and sounding cute. It is analytic yet oligosynthetic; it achieves a substantial amount of expressive power with fewer than 125 words and distinguishes only what need be distinguished in any given case.

From the designer:
no conculture, no history, TP is not fiction.
it's not an ial.
its more of a daoist language
it playfully soothes the mind
live in the present
its goals are:
-understand the universe around us
-live in present moment awareness
-simplify our life
As we shape our ideas to the structure of Toki Pona, it becomes a way of thinking.
a simple modest way of life
live happily

In other words, it's more of an ideological language. Human society as of 2001 has become overly complex because some people want to kill other people, so to defend yourself, you improve your technology, your hostile neighbors improve their technology in response, and the arms race of complexity spirals from there. Such is the way of modern human society. Or you could stop the violence and return to a simple way of life (and have the lemur-like people who live underground eat you, but that's apparently beside the point). Like Orwell's Newspeak, Toki Pona (whose name literally translates as "goodspeak") has an ideological agenda and is designed to induce a Sapir-Whorf effect in the speaker, but unlike Newspeak, whose goal is control: "he who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past," Toki Pona pushes "let go, live simply, live in the now, live happily."

Those who like Furbish will love Toki Pona. Heck, those who hate Furbish (perhaps for its Anglo bias or its commercialism) may still love Toki Pona. It's more complete than Furbish and is capable of representing a much larger range of human emotion.

However, the language as it is currently described on Kisa's web site ( does have a few, um, "features" that may make it unsuitable for Kisa's posited "race of little cartoon creatures speaking in Toki Pona." Justin B. Rye, perhaps best known for his attack on Esperanto, has pointed out some other issues. Surely, the speakers can in theory compensate, but in the Esperanto sphere this has resulted in dozens of reforms that have created several mutually incomprehensible dialects (Ido, Sen:esepera, etc).

Note that the language, this review (last substantial update on October 23, 2002), and another review are all works in progress. In fact, the first version of this review led to a reallocation of hue space and the introduction of a non-normative etymology section. I've marked the remaining problems with a [bomb] icon. (However, note that "problems" are solely my opinion; one man's [bomb] is another man's [pona].) A [clock] is a problem that Kisa plans to fix in the near future.

Notational conventions

These notational conventions are based on those used in academic linguistics. (They should show fine in any modern browser.)

Foreign language sample in orthography
<toki pona>
Word-for-word gloss
*"language good" (the asterisk precedes ungrammatical utterances)
Idiomatic translation

The foreign language samples have been marked up with HTML lang attributes according to RFC 1766, ISO 639, and IANA language tags. I have adopted the tag lang="x-tokipona" to refer to Toki Pona. Users of recent versions of Firefox can right-click a word and choose "Properties" to see its language.


According to Kisa, English-speaking amateur conlang designers (i.e. about everybody except the late J. R. R. Tolkien) tend to create English-like phonetic systems, with all the diphthongs. (Just look at Furbish.) On the other hand, Toki Pona's phonemic inventory and CV syllable structure strongly resembles that of Polynesian languages. It also resembles Japanese, except for the lack of distinctive voicing, distinctive length, palatalized consonants, and diphthongs. The syllable /ti/ has fallen into /si/ as has happened in Polynesian languages (also to an extent in English: see any word ending in -tion or in the Dutch equivalent -tie). The stress of a word falls on the first syllable.

The sounds of Toki Pona can be laid out in the following table. The vowel is the same through a row, and the consonant is the same in a column, with back consonants on the right.


The similarity between this layout and that of Japanese Kana writing (compare to Hiragana and Katakana) is "merely coincidental" as they say in movie credits.

<Marraskuu> the only part of TP phonology thats like japanese is the C + V + (n) structure. the actual consonants and etc are unique in TP. the syllable list is quite different. the vowels are the same but thats a coincidence. TP uses the 5 most universal vowels, the most common vowel scheme in the world


Overall structure

The overall structure of a sentence is an optional sentence adverb, then a subject, then a predicate. The subject consists of a noun phrase followed by the particle <li> = *"NOM". This particle separates the subject from the rest of the sentence; it is necessary because of the pervasive compounding inherent in Toki Pona. However, <li> is omitted if the subject is exactly <mi> = "I" or <sina> = "you". (Some may find it difficult to get the hang of dropping <li> for those two special cases, but such is the way of linguistic irregularity.) The predicate contains a verb phrase and one or more object phrases.


Strangely enough, Toki Pona lacks proper nouns; names of people and places are considered adjectives and follow a generic term called a "category noun." (This should be good for companies' marketing departments because they no longer have to worry about losing their trademarks to common usage of expressions such as "use a Kleenex" that don't include a proper generic term.)

Toki Pona
<jan Kolin>
*"person Colin"


Toki Pona is a head-first language. By default, qualifiers are cumulative (unlike in Lojban). They modify the entire preceding noun phrase or verb phrase rather than modifying only the preceding word.
Toki Pona
<tenpo suno pona ni>
*"((time light) good) this"
"this good day"

However, when a prepositional phrase is used as a qualifier, things become more complex, and the rules for finding which word another word modifies become somewhat unclear.

Toki Pona
<jan Kolin li pana e moku tawa jan San>
*"((person Colin) NOM) (give (food) (to (person John)))"
"Colin gives food to John"

[bomb] This poses a problem especially with the word <tawa> = "go to, toward, mobile". Nikita Ayzikovsky (lament on efnet) has provided the following example:

Toki Pona
<mi pana e tomo tawa sina.>
*"(i (give (ACC house) (to you)))"
I give you a house
Alternate literal
*"(i (give (ACC ((house mobile) you))))"
I brought your car.

Predicate adjectives

In a sentence with a predicate adjective (compare English "Colin is cute"), the adjective functions as a verb.
Toki Pona
<jan Kolin li suwi>
*"((person Colin) NOM) sweet"
"Colin is cute"


Available dictionaries

The draft normative Toki Pona to English dictionary is straightforward and a good start. This post to the tokipona list gives some common compounds (<jan pona> = "friend", etc.) listed under their head nouns. Providing idioms in both directions is relatively common in printed language dictionaries that one can find at a bookstore.

At one time, Kisa had been compiling an English to Toki Pona dictionary by starting at the beginning of a relatively large dictionary. SHe says the complex meanings of the "A" words help her find what's missing in the Toki Pona vocabulary. I suggested starting by translating C. K. Ogden's Basic English vocabulary of under 1,000 words.


Toki Pona is a pidgin of English, Tok Pisin, Finnish, Georgian, Dutch, Acadian French, Esperanto, Croatian, Mandarin Chinese, and Cantonese elements, highly modified to fit a minimal phonology. Since the first release of this review, Kisa has added an informative (i.e. not normative) etymology page. In addition, I could pick out these (possibly coincidental) similarities:

also Japanese <are> = "that which is far from both of us"
also Arovën <en> = "and"
also Latin <clamare> = "to call"
more generally, "come"
more generally, "colour" and its Romance cognates
also other Romance cognates
also English marketing speak <li'l> = "little"
also "line" and its Romance cognates
also "looking"
also "loop"
"mama" (widespread even outside IE)
widespread in IE
also other Romance cognates
more generally, "amuse" and its Romance cognates
more generally, "multiple" and its Romance cognates
also "a pretty crazy organization" -- DigiPete
also IE cognates of "name"
also Italian <occhio> = "eye" (why did I notice this?)
more generally, "finish" and its Romance cognates
more generally, cognates of Latin <bona> = "good". On the other hand, Samoan <pona> = "faulty".
also "sun"
widespread in Romance
also "will"

While (like any pidgin) Toki Pona may be useful to an extent as an auxiliary language, its somewhat European-inspired lexicon, including lots of English, Acadian French, Dutch, and Esperanto, keeps it from being used directly as a language that's supposed to be unfamiliar to English speakers. If your story's plot requires a language barrier between your precious little cartoon people and a British time traveller from the late 19th century A.D. who majored in optics rather than anthopology, and you want the cartoon people to speak something similar to Toki Pona, you had better "relex" the language with a completely a priori lexicon, or your traveller may find that the language has an unusual number of obvious false cognates (cf. Mbabaram <dog> = "dog"). Rye has suggested hiding false friends with a substitution cipher that maps consonants to consonants and vowels to vowels.

Minimal pairs

There used to be some minimal pairs that differed only in similar unaccented short vowels. In a noisy channel, this can interfere with comprehension. However, Kisa has fixed these problems by changing <iki> = "he, she, it" to <ona> (to distinguish it from <ike> = "bad") and adding <ali> as an alternative to <ale> = "all, they" (so as not <ala> = "nothing, not"). Those in the know are predicting that unaccented /e/ and /i/ will fall together.

Minimal pairs in an accented syllable cause less of a problem because instead of confusion, they create rhyme. In Kisa's words: "its a coincidence, but ive come to enjoy it. it makes the language cute with reduplicated sounds." <laso, taso, waso>, <ona, pona>, <jelo, telo>, <kala, ma, kalama>. Some speakers lengthen the vowel in a one-syllable content word; this helps to distinguish <kala ma> = "country fish" (as opposed to city fish) from <kalama> = "sound".


The name of a positive integer is O(n) in length. In mathematical terms, the Toki Pona word for n is <luka> * floor(n / 5) + [<> <wan> <tu> <tu wan> <tu tu>](n % 5) This makes it highly impractical to express numbers greater than about twenty. (<Kisa> that was my whole goal :> we make life complicated by counting things that we own. most australian languages do fine with words for 1 2 3 and many / the sheep farmer can still tell if one of his 45 sheep is missing just by looking at the herd) Kisa has stated in chat that she is opposed to having an O(log n) numeral system like that of almost all languages used in literate cultures.


The names of hues in Toki Pona correspond to the three primary colours. Until mid-March 2002, a large chunk of <jelo> (namely the lime-greens) was allocated to <laso>.

Color wheel
Figure: Toki Pona names for hues

"Try" and "spoon"

Kisa (M), her "prophet" DigiPete (P), and I (T) discussed "try" and "spoon" in an IRC session:
P: does what one envisions create your reality? if not.. then WHY NOT
P: a waking dream
P: perhaps.
T: because the matrix only makes things more complicated
T: live in the now
P: be careful now.. trying to live in the now and doing so are very different
M: there is no word for try in toki pona :)
M: do or do not. there is no try
M: maybe <wile> would work
M: = want
T: but there is a spoon
M: spoon?
T: <ilo moku>
M: yeah, well its any tool for eating
T: (another matrix joke)
M: oh, hoho :D
P: dwell not on hollywoodisms. 

Questions? Comments? Queries?

This review is a work in progress. Did you like it? Did I totally screw something up? Do you have more information about the issues I raised regarding Toki Pona? Have additional issues to raise? Send me mail (sorry, I speak only English; I am in many ways like the stereotypical American).

as opposed to