Toki Pona

13 Mar

Please allow me to introduce you to the jive rap that the kids lay down to each other these days.

You didn’t understand a single word of it, did you. I hope it didn’t make you feel old. But when you were a kid and the un-hip old people didn’t understand the lingo, did you mean that you spoke a whole different language? No you did not. But this is a whole new language, and it’s called Toki Pona.

When I discovered Toki Pona I wasn’t trying to learn a new language. I was trying to figure out what sorts of game boards I could make with a spare clock face that had been left in my workshop. I’d already decided that one side of the clock face would become a Circular Chess board. And the other side would become… Volo? Mehen? I don’t know. Something that would use up most of a circle, and allow for the fact that the clock face already has a whole in the middle. I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe, I thought, there are other spiral race games like Mehen, and I could make an abstract spiral track that I could use to play several games, so I typed “spiral” into the geeklist search field and found a geeklist called “Enter the Spiral”. There weren’t that many, and Mehen seemed like the most interesting, but the spiral list was missing Kori Heath’s Mandala, which is played by arranging the pieces in a spiral on a flat table without a board, so I got to add that.

Maybe the person who made this list, also made a list of torus games, that I could browse. That person is Sonja Elen Kisa. She has some badges under her name. The first one is a star and crescent. One would expect that to mean Muslim, but they aren’t always intuitive. It could mean she is a fan of the games Mecca or Medina. No, it couldn’t mean Mecca Fan, because the game Mecca is decorated with an Om. I cannot express to you how much it gets on my nerves that the game called Mecca is decorated with a Hindu holy symbol. But you can mouse over the badges, I just learned, and it does indeed mean Muslim. Sweet. And another means Esperanto. Hey, I’m a Muslim who speaks Esperanto. I’ve only actually used it twice in my life so I probably couldn’t remember it if you bumped into me on the street. Once was to get around Li Luyi’s site and he explained in a comment on my blog why he changed it to Esperanto, and the other time was to read about Deguchi Onisaburo of Oomoto Shinto. Esperanto is apparently taken very seriously in Asia. If you want to translate something in Chinese or Japanese or Korean for international exposure, the first language you translate it into is Esperanto.

So maybe we have a lot in common.

Another badge means she speaks, Toki Pona, and at that moment, I still had no idea what it was. The name of the language made me think it was from a south Pacific island. So I looked it up, and it was a language that she had made up herself. It wasn’t from the south Pacific. It was from Toronto. And people all over the world are into it. And it’s clear to see why. It’s super easy and lot of fun.

What else can I learn from her. This is great.

Another of her badges is a rainbow, and mousing over it provides no clue as to what it means. It just says “Rainbow”. What does it signify? Skittles? Leprechaun Gold? Fan of Rainbow Deck card games? Support for sexual diversity? Or some other form of diversity? I decided to use my recently acquired Toki Pona philosophy to discover the meaning behind the rainbow badge.

ona li jo e sitelen pi kule ale tan… kule ale.
(She has a rainbow badge, because… “Rainbow”.)

She’s also a fan of Fudge (a role playing game that uses dice with pluses and minuses on them).

What the hey?!

As I read that, I was currently folding origami Fudge Dice.

origami fudge

and alternately playing solitaire Micropul

I am such a big fan of fudge that I’ve actually made fudge dice with the Chinese symbols for plus and minus on them in the hopes that one day I will get to play in a Kung Fu style game Fudge or Firefly-esque game of Diaspora, or Airbender (Republic City) style game of Spirit of the Century. But I’ve been told I would need to be playing FATE with a linguist before anyone would let me use these dice.

How is this person not already my best friend?

Oh wait. I was so sleep deprived my last trip to Toronto that I can’t remember a large chunk of it. We could be friends and I wouldn’t know. Hmmm. As I learned Toki Pona, I tried to remember that trip to Toronto more clearly.

One morning Tabasco Cat came into my room in Jersey City and asked, “Want to go to Toronto?” and I wasn’t doing anything, so I said sure, and we both got in his car and drove there. It took all day. It was really late at night before we got to the border of Canada. I warned T.C. as we approached the border that Canadian border guards are all gorgeous. I’m sure the men must be fit and handsome, but the women are staggering. If we wanted to get through the border without incident we must not flirt with them. So we pulled up and I immediately started flirting with the goddess that came out the border station.

We must have looked haggard. We had been driving all day. She seemed to want to know why we had to get into Canada at that very moment rather than in the morning. I think she suspected we were running from something. She brought us inside. Her boss was even more beautiful. They separated Tabasco Cat and I. The chief, who was blonde, took me into her office, and the dark haired one that we saw earlier took T.C. to another room. The walls were glass so I could see T.C. talking to his beauty. I felt like, “Oh, maybe T.C. wanted to chat up the blonde woman.” I’m not the kind of guy who “prefers blondes” or anything like that. And the chief was very professional and polite. Still I wondered why they were taking so much time talking to us.

“What brings you to Canada?”


“How long do you think you will be staying?”

“Now that I know you’re here, I don’t think I ever want to leave.”

“Well, Immigrating to Canada works on a point system, based on your professional skills, assets you will be bringing to Canada, friends you may have here, etc.”

“I hope we can be friends, quite intimate friends.”

After she shot me down, they took us back to the car, searched the entire thing, and sent us off to Toronto. I just assumed they were bored, since they never actually came out and asked me anything direct. Tabasco Cat disabused me of that notion.

“They thought we were in some sort of trouble with the law and because I’m black it was my fault. They took me aside and grilled me.”

“That cute girl?”

“And a really big dude.”

“Oh, sorry man.”

“By the way, were you trying to get her to have sex with you on her desk?”

“Were you watching me?… I mean, no, of course not, that would be silly.”

“At a certain point, they stopped giving me a hard time so we could watch what you were doing.”

By the time we pulled into Toronto it was Oh-God-o’clock in the morning. It was too late to get a room somewhere and not late enough to find a mosque to pray fajr. You know how a lot of mosques will open up for fajr and then if anyone is there, they just stay open until esha, so you can find a rug off to the side and sleep until noon. If you need to crash out after it makes sense to get a room, but before fajr, I informed T.C. in another sage piece of Sheikh Jahbooty wisdom, you park in the parking lot of a 24 hour supermarket, and sleep in your car. If you wake up in the middle of the night and have to pee, you can go inside and use their bathroom. When you wake up in the morning and have to pee, you can go to the bathroom, and before you go back to your car, you can already buy breakfast. Plus, nobody bothers you and they have security cameras, so nobody messes with your car.

But we didn’t know where any of the supermarkets were in Toronto. So we just pulled into a park by the lake with a public bathroom that was open, and reclined our chairs to go to sleep.

This was a mistake. We had parked in the sex zone.

This particular parking lot outside of a public mensroom was where the insomniac people of Toronto went to meet each other to arrange sexual adventures. Everyone that passed through that parking lot that night had a reaction to our presences. Some were demanding, “You cute men have parked in the sex zone. And you are not having sex. This is unacceptable. Come with me and have sex.” Some were quite helpful, “Why haven’t you come to the mensroom already for sex? Are you shy? There’s nothing scarey about it. Sex is fun. I’ll hold your hand. We can go together.” The reaction we really wanted and got from nobody was, “Oh, they’re sleeping. Let’s not bother them.”

At a certain point, T.C. was so tired and exhausted from the constant interruptions that he suggested, “Maybe we should cuddle. If we look like we just had sex, they might leave us alone.” In retrospect I should have dug up a sheet of loose-leaf paper and put a sign in the window that read, “All sexed out. No more sex, please. We need to sleep now.”

In the morning we drove off without going to the bathroom to pee. They were still using the bathroom. They had gone all night! When we drove away there were dudes in Toronto checking their watch to see if they could squeeze in some public mensroom sex before they had to be in work.

The whole trip was like that. Oh a mosque,… that is only open at prayer times. Oh a hotel,… that is all booked up from a prom. Oh a motel,… with no rooms because of a convention. Oh that’s it, I am pulling over next to this park and sleeping in the car… knocking on our window, “Are you guys OK? It’s not safe to sleep in your car on a hot day.”

I don’t remember much beyond the first morning. I have some pictures of me posing lewdly with public art. I might have lost my mind. The next picture seems to be of Tabasco Cat at Niagara Falls, trying to convince a sexy Chinese woman that he is a secret agent. “Tabasco Cat is my code name in the agency.”

Yeah, I suppose I don’t know Sonja Elen Kisa. If I did, I would have hit her up for couch surfing. “Please, sister. It’s the example of Prophet Muhammad (salallahu alayhi wasallam). He would give us three days of hospitality. And we don’t even want three days. I just need a nap! You don’t understand, sister. I can’t take the peer pressure. People have these expectations of me (expectations of public mensroom sex), and I feel so horrible for failing to live up to them. You have to hide me.”

Although couch surfing requests always seem so much more sublime and spiritual in Arabic.

Oh my noble sister, my pilgrimage leads me... to your couch.

Oh my noble sister, my pilgrimage leads me… to your couch.

So now that I feel certain I don’t know Sonja, I feel really jealous of those lonely monsters up there. I want to run around a snowy forest in my underwear speaking a cool language.

Actually, I suppose that’s easily arranged.

I mean, Toki Pona isn’t perfect, but its so much fun.

It does lack a functional number system. The only number words in the language are 1, 2, and many. The word for hand doubles as 5. But the whole business seems really awkward. Proponents of Toki Pona claim that it is a good language for talking about human relationships. But it would seem that the only human relationships you can talk about are the ones that require absolutely no scheduling.

Sheikh Jahbooty: tenpo sina tawa weka la mi pilin e weka sina.

Mrs. Jahbooty: mi kama sin.

Sheikh Jahbooty: tenpo seme la sina kama sin?

Mrs. Jahbooty: tenpo suno pi nanpa tu

Sheikh Jahbooty: ni li kama pi tenpo suno tu.

Mrs. Jahbooty: ala. mi pakala. tenpo suno pi nanpa tu pi kama sin

Sheikh Jahbooty: tenpo suno pi nanpa tu lon kulupu pi tenpo suno luka tu kama.

Mrs. Jahbooty: tenpo suno pi nanpa luka… luka luka… luka… luka? tu tu lon tenpo mun pi nanpa luka luka wan.

Sheikh Jahbooty: mi sona ala awen.

And as a minimalist language I have to wonder why the word “kin” exists in it at all. It seems to correspond to the French word “meme”, but I’ve been looking pretty hard, and I can’t find a use for it that couldn’t use “awen”, or “sama”, or “mute” instead.

Of course, I could simply not understand the word “kin” properly. It might happen that tomorrow someone will tell me that “kin” is also used as a base ten place holder, and I would feel pretty silly offering these two criticisms here.

365 = tu wan kin luka wan kin luka

1001 Arabian Nights = tenpo pimeja ma Alapi wan kin kin kin wan

or something like that

But heck, it’s so much fun that even without numbers or any real way to schedule things, it’s fun to speak Toki Pona. “monsi unpa” is the phrase that people seem to typically use for “sexy butt”, but what’s to stop us from saying “anpa unpa” for “sexy bottom”? Try saying it. “Ampa Oompa!”

jan lili o, sina jo e anpa unpa.

The word, “unpa” does remind me of oompa loompas, and now I can’t stop thinking of them… doing things to each other. jan mute Unpa Lunpa li unpa lupa e ante sama.

Things I really dig about Toki Pona:

la: In Lojban we have this way of describing a relationship and then describing another relationship dependent on the first. We do this using the word “zo’u” pronounced “zohu” usually. In Lojban, its really awkward, because in order for the second relationship to directly relate to the first you have to assign pronouns. In fact, I have grown to hate Lojban prenexes because they are so convoluted. But in Toki Pona, this is the simplest most elegant thing in the world.

ken la mi tawa e esun. = There is an ability (or possibility) such that I go to the store. = Maybe I’ll go to the store.

tenpo pini la sina moli ala moli e pipi lili ni = There is a time past such that you killed or didn’t kill this little bug. = Did you kill this little bug?

pi: I’m going to compare this to Lojban again. In English we might say “pretty little girls school” and the typical meaning would be a “pretty and small building in which is a school for girls”. In Lojban, words modify each other sequentially, so “melbi cmalu nixli ckule” means “a school for girls who are beautifully small”. If we want all the modifiers to refer to the school, the easiest way is to say “melbi je cmalu je nixli ckule” meaning “pretty and little and girl’s school”.

In Toki Pona, we can just say “tomo sona meli lili suwi” which means exactly what we usually mean in English, or you can add “pi” somewhere in there to mean different things that are actually quite difficult to express in English. “tomo sona pi meli lili suwi” means “a school for pretty little girls”. “tomo pi sona meli lili suwi” means “a school for teaching small pretty feminine knowledge (presumably to girls)”. “tomo sona meli pi lili suwi” means “a school for girls who are adorably small”. “pi” effectively cuts off the word that other words are meant to modify. I suppose there are some prepositions or common phrases that do that too. It’s not entirely clear.

So because of the word “pi” this language about ambiguity and minimalism is actually less ambiguous than English, and more intuitive than Lojban (yes, I know that Lojban is clearer and that logical connectives within tanru are still pretty easy to use).

Crazy pronouns: One generally doesn’t see combination pronouns used in Toki Pona, other than pronoun + mute, but I don’t see as how they would be ungrammatical.

sina ali – y’all, or hypothetically used for addressing the cosmic universe.

mi anpa – I, who am humble in your presence

mi sewi – Me, I am so great!

(there are languages in which you use different pronouns for I to indicate deference, like “ore” and “watakushi”, in Japanese)

sina lili – diminutive you

sina suli – grandiose you

ona ike – it, an evil thing or person

ona pona – it, a good thing or person

(I just think it would be weird and worth trying to specify moral propriety rather than gender with one’s third person pronouns)

ona ijo – it, an inanimate thing

ona jan – he or she, a person

(some people may feel the need to express this, several natural languages do)

mi kon – I, referring to my soul or spirit

mi sijelo – I, referring to my bodily inclinations

(kon wile. taso sijelo wawa ala.)

(mi kon li wile unpa sin e sina.)

mi kulupu – the royal we

mi sina – we that only includes speaker and listener or listeners

mi ona – we that excludes the listener or listeners

I suppose it’s appropriate that I learned about Toki Pona on Board Game Geek since Tolkien did refer to the act of creating a new language as “a new art, or a new game”. And Toki Pona definitely qualifies as art and game. It’s like a meditation on what we truly need to say, and what we really convey to each other with our language. And it’s like the linguistic version of Little Alchemy. You get 123 words and about 20 pages of grammar, and you have to combine words to somehow convey what you mean to whomever you are speaking with. And I’m having a lot of fun playing.

PS: Please feel free to fill the comments with your favorite con-lang. Until I discovered Toki Pona and did a bit of research for this essay I didn’t realize how serious and diverse the community of con-lang creators were. People who are ignorant of this community tend to think that there is Esperanto and a whole bunch of languages like Quenya or Klingon, languages that aren’t really of interest unless you are interested in the fantasy world the language is meant to enhance. I was slightly less than ignorant, so I knew of Lojban as well. But there are languages specifically designed for speed and efficiency. There are languages designed to be easy to teach to another species, an alien species for example. I doubt I’ll be very active, since I obviously don’t actively participate in Lojban or Esperanto activities, but I might learn it well enough to understand simple conversations. So if you’d like to share your creation with me, please do.


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