It is a simple pidgin-like language based on universal human experience designed to express as much as possible with relatively few sounds and words. The name toki pona means "good language" or "simple language". Toki Pona has only 14 basic sounds chosen to be easy to pronounce for anybody, regardless of their linguistic background. The basic words can, in theory, be combined together to make over , compound words. Most of the words have several meanings and context helps to determine which particular meaning is intended.
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Being far from a natural linguist myself — mere mention of verb conjugation brings me out in a cold sweat — this might have seemed like folly. To attempt it, we gathered in the East London warehouse that is the head office of Memrise, an online platform for language-learning. Our group is mixed, although the majority seem to speak at least one additional language. Toki Pona has only words and uses only 14 letters.
The grammar is simple and few words have more than two syllables. This simplicity forces creativity with compounds, offering insights into the minds of speakers in the process. The language has no distinct geographical base so compounds can differ between speakers with different mother tongues. The first thing we do at the TokiPonathon is to get stuck into the vocabulary. Plugged into my laptop, I felt like Neo learning kung fu.
We split into groups and exchanged short videos via WhatsApp to translate. Many had eureka moments. Day two was genuinely astonishing to witness. People who had known none of this language 24 hours earlier spent the morning speaking nothing but Toki Pona.
We played pictionary, consequences, and made videos, all in Toki Pona. Many had already found ways to order their thoughts. While for me it involved hot cheeks and was reminiscent of GCSE maths class, this was just a question of pace. Linguists at the event recorded famous film scenes in Toki Pona, including this scene from Taxi Driver.
Toki Pona is often compared to the island languages of the Pacific in sound. This fits the image Lang had for Toki Pona of being spoken by people on a small island, living on the beach. They started learning it last February and were on hand to help at the TokiPonathon.
They described how learning the language was not without its unique challenges. Yet if I had started feeling disheartened by the Toki Pona experience, speaking to this pair made me want to arrange a masterclass for me and my pals as soon as possible.
I ask Mayeux what he thinks Toki Pona can teach us about language learning. Read more stories:.
What happened when I tried to learn Toki Pona in 48 hours using memes