Language is such a complex means of communication. It is also strange, beautiful, and capable of expressing so many perceptions in such creative ways. I am an avid reader and have an inherent appreciation for the descriptive and the poetic ways in which our thoughts, feelings, and experiances can be communicated. Every year my desk calendar features a word of the day and there always seem to be more words to learn. For example, did you know that there is a word for flirtatious conversation that leads nowhere? There is, it’s sphallolalia. Or that moment of hesitation just before you introduce someone because you’ve forgotten their name? The word for that is tartle. I also marvel at the way many languages have words for things that the English language does not describe, such as the German words kummerspeck and fremdschamen. The former is a word to describe the excess weight that one gains from emotional over-eating, and the latter literally means the horror that you feel when you notice that someone is completely oblivious to how embarrassing they are in a moment. The creativity of language is wonderful! Which is why when researching topics for this weeks blog I was shocked to find a language that uses only about 100 words in total.
Toki Pona is the world’s smallest language. According to Roc Morin in his article for The Atlantic, the simplicity of the language creates a more profound form of communication (How to Say Almost Anything in 100 Words, 2015). Toki Pona contains 14 phonemes and 120 root words and is designed to shape the thought processes of it’s speakers in a Zen-like fashion. This is a miniscule Number of parts to work with considering there are a quarter of a million words in the Oxford English Dictionary and even Koko the gorilla has a 1000 different words that she can sign.
Apparently Toki Pona is now utilized by thousands of people around the world from Belgium to Australia, to China, but was constructed fairly recently and was first published in 2001 by linguist Sonja Lang from Toronto. Her aim, it seems, in creating this language was to minimalize and simplify the spoken word to its most efficient and reductive form. The result of this carefully crafted language is that it is subjective to what an item or concept means to the speaker. It is a language of neologisms in a sense. In order to speak Toki Pona, one must determine what the word they wish to say means from their subjective point of view and construct a phrase. Morin uses the concept of a car to illustrate this. The speaker must determine what exactly a car is. Lang says: “You might say that a car is a space that’s used for movement,” she proposed. “That would be tomo tawa. If you’re struck by a car though, it might be a hard object that’s hitting me. That’s kiwen utala.”(2015).
To create the Toki Pona, Lang used a sort of top- down method of reducing language to it’s most basic elements and figuring out what would be needed to express most anything with as few flourishes as possible. There are no words for thank you or please. There are no words for vague concepts like the color pink. As I was reading this article, I wondered what would be the point of creating a new language in such way and why you would want it to be so limited. But as I read on I realized that it was just another miraculous invention of expression. It’s the linguistic version of Modern furniture. It has clean lines and clear artistry. It can also be learned in 30 minutes or less!
Morin, R. (2015, July 15). How to Say (Almost) Everything in a Hundred-Word Language. Retrieved November 21, 2015, from http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/07/toki-pona-smallest-language/398363/