Toki Pona: Relative clauses

Sonja has extended the language by slowing adding new words.  While fun, I hope that doesn’t go on.  The key to the genius of toki pona is the tiny number of words.

Toki pona really has about one sentence.  There are several strategies for making the sentence longer.

word + word, word+ pi + word word

… e ni: …

…. la ….

Those are the most important.  The challenge (maybe it is just me, there may be more clever tokiponists), is building up a phrase that applies for a given concept.  

There aren’t any compound words in Toki pona, all phrases need to be stand along correct.  For example, taxi driver in Icelanic is Rent-Car-Leader.  Rent car leader isn’t really a proper Icelandic setence, it is a proper Icelandic compound word.  We can’t do that in Tp because for one who is to say what it means? You can’t stringing together random words and saying, well that means “destiny” (kind of like how Chinese do radicals are strung togetgher for the same effect)

 In toki pona, if you make the senetence that describe taxi driver, you often can’t use it as a noun phrase.  I.e. you can’t right away plug it into the S or O for SVO sentence

… e …

The other thing I wish TP had was more canonical examples for prepositions.  When languages don’t inflect, they use prepositions.  That doesn’t make the grammar easier, it just makes the morphology easier.  Without copious examples of what are the legitimate uses of prepositions, then one ends up using prepositions like they are in their favorite language.

Examples would be “kepeken” is it for just “usage” or just “place” (many language use the same preposition for usage and place, e.g. with.  If we use prepositions as we find them in other pre-existing languages, that is a lot of possible ways to use the prepositions we have.

Any how, I wish I could write some examples, but I haven’t been studying tp recently.  Maybe when donald duck in translated into TP I’ll get excited about studying it again.

Toki Pona: Is it really all that simple?

Guy Deutscher wrote “The Unfolding of Language.”  One speculation was, what do languages look like before people have a chance to agree on the detailed rules?  He posited that a language can be define with a few grammatical rules that are so simple, that it makes Toki Pona look like Calculus III.

Rules Named by Deutscher

1. “Monsieur Jourdain’s Principle” Related words appear close to each other.  That is, modifiers must be as close as possible to what they modify.  Verbs must be close to their subject and object. 

2. “Caesar Principle” Clauses follow time and importance.  If it happened first, move it to the front of the sentence.  If it is important, move it to the front of the sentence. 

3. “Me first Principle” Actors go first in the sentence.

4. “Don’t be a bore” Previously mentioned actors and things do not need to be repeated. 

Rules name by me, inspired by Deutscher.

5. “Content is king” All words are content words.  No syntactical markers.  The same word may be used to indicate things, actions or descriptive qualities by placing it near the appropriate words

6. “Laziness is a virtue” Any word that can is unambiguous after dropping off the last syllable must drop its last syllable (or half a syllable). 

Corollary for phonetic systems.  If lexicon that is (mostly) unambiguous after merging two sounds must merge those two sounds.   Any lexicon that is (mostly) unambiguous after shifting vowels and consonants according to Grimm’s Law must shift those vowels and consonants, (e.g. kh -> k -> h -> 0 )

7. “Popularity Contest” Any content word that the community uses consistently near another may be fused to that word.  This rule violates “Content is king” and “Laziness is a virtue”, but overtime this can be corrected.  Any fused word can be shorted or dropped if another nearby content word becomes more popular. 

8. “Abstractions are all Metaphors” No abstract words are allowed unless they are a metaphor for a real life phenomena.  For example, the word for “to have” must use the same word for a physical state, like proximity.

Corollary to “Abstractions are all Metaphors” The initial lexicon may only contain words that have concrete representations.

Implications for Conlang Design.

To design a conlang using the above rules, you’d need:

A phonological system.

An initial lexicon.

Check the phonological and lexical system for efficiency (make sure that words are already as short as possible)

A dictionary of metaphors for expressing abstractions.  For example, the dictionary should list metaphors like “IDEAS are LIGHT”  If I was writing a conlang and didn’t want to repeat the metaphors of my parent language, I should say something like “IDEAS are PLANTS”, i.e. relating a visible, physically creative object in the environment to an abstract idea. (And I need to look up the name of the guy who wrote the most about this kind of analysis of metaphor in language)

A speaking community.  My hypothesis is that if they are children, the language will evolve out of the simple stage by adulthood and will look like any other modern language.  If the speaking community is adults, then it will become a pidgen and acquire the grammar of the communities first languages.  This has an interesting implication: semantic prime and simple languages can only exist for a few years when spoken by very young children, after that, they will evolve into full blown languages.

Implications for Toki Pona

The word phrases are not dynamically stable.  They must merge over time, they violate the principle of laziness.  The phonetic system is not stable.  An example is the “p”, which according to Grimms law will change to a quicker/easier to pronounce sound.

The metaphor system is absent.  Current speakers are just raiding their parent language’s metaphor system.  Conlang’s get criticized for re-lexing, i.e. picking new words for an existing language and and leaving the grammar intact. Toki pona “re-metaphors”, i.e. we are expressing our parent language’s methaphors in Toki pona words.

The “la” clause violates the “Me first” principle. In toki pona, we say, “Tomorrow there is a birthday party, I’m going to it”.  The “Me first” principle says that the simpler structure is”I’m going to a birthday party tomorrow” because the topic of conversation is put first. 

Toki pona’s design goal is simplicity.  The inclusion of grammatical markers and a strict word order system are indicative of an language that has evolved beyond the simplest stage.  Whether this is a problem or not is a matter of taste.

Toki pona is already undergoing dynamic changes due to the popularity principle.  The yahoo mailing group dialect has made number grammatically obligatory for first person plural pronouns.  If we run forward the linguistic time clock, I’d hypothesize that “mute” will become obligatory, fuse to all plurals and lose the “te” or the “ute”

Toki Pona: Robustness

Robustness is how much something can break before it is useless. That you are able to understand me at all, is a testament to the robustness of the English language, as I make a lot of mistakes, grammatical, spelling, punctuation, stylistic errors and so on.

In my experience studying Russian and on a few occasions trying to help foreign speakers learn English, I’ve discovered the “word soup” phenomena. If you have a reasonably large vocabulary, you can screw up a lot before you are completely unintelligible. In particular, you can pick out three words and guess what is going on.

For example, “A airplane pilot quickly flew and the” has flying, a pilot, an airplane. It doesn’t matter if you use SOV, SVO, OVS. These elements only make sense in one way. The sentence “The pilot flew the airplane” is extremely robust to errors in grammar. Fine distinctions are not robust to errors in grammar of course.

Now back to toki pona. I’m still a beginner and a lot of the texts I find on the internet are those of beginners as well. A lot of them are utterly unintelligible. It does not take much noise for a sentence to be reduced to unintelligibility.

Robustness can be improved by being wordy, repetitive, and not trying to accomplish too much in any one sentence. In fact, the previous sentence would probably take a dozen or two toki pona sentence to translate without significant loss of meaning. It would probably take double that again to become robust against being misunderstood.

mi pona e ijo. I improve it.

ijo pona mi li e. My good thing + out of place particles.

jan pi tomo tawa kon li pali e tomo tawa kon. The pilot flies the plane.

e jan pali tawa kon tomo li kon tawa tomo. out of place particle + person worker go air container-for-people is airing go container-for-people,

In other words, similar jumbling of the same sentence in toki pona yields complete gibberish.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this demonstrates that toki pona is broken. If anything, it illustrates that toki pona is the language that is easy to start, but gets harder the more you want to do with it. I also suspect that if I ever became fluent, it would take just as much energy to gain fluency in tp as it would be to gain fluency in any other natural language.

Conlang: Conventional Wisdom Upside Down

Are natural languages perverse? Do people in an unco-ordinated way work to their detriment to add unnecessary complications to the languages they speak?

Conventionally Easy and Simple

I’ve achieved basic competency in written toki pona. I can read and write quite a bit. It took about a two months or so. Toki pona is an artificial language with limited vocabulary and grammar. Esperanto is also a constructed language with regularized grammar and a euro-average vocabulary (i.e. lots of words that an educated European might recognize on sight) Both are mostly analytical, i.e. few or no inflections.

Conventional wisdom says that an artificial language should easy, *unlike* languages with lots of inflections, agglutinations, irregular verbs, gendered nouns, etc. Lets see if leaving these features out of a language necessarily makes it easier, or just more analytic (i.e. grammar by word order instead of morphology)

Irregular Verbs

If your brain is processing an irregular verb, it uses a different area than if it is using a grammaticalization (i.e. using grammar to express an idea). So for common words, irregularities may increase speed of recall since you will remember such as verb as half a dozen different words instead of one word that is subject to half a dozen regular transformations.

Agglutination, Inflection and other bound morphemes

Linguists love creating tables of verbs. Seeing every form of a verb is an awesome and scary sight. Reducing the noun or verb’s forms to a single form may or may not simplify things.

Word Generation. Being able to inflect and agglutinate lets people generate words grammatically for when vocabulary fails. I know this from experience using Russian–often I could convey what I wanted to say using an inflected form, even if a native would have used a different word.

Robustness. A language is robust if a listener can understand it despite noise and mistakes. Inflection tends to create redundancy because of agreement and because of encoding of the pronoun in both the subject and the inflection. Removing agreement, and the redundancy means it will be harder to understand under normal conditions of a noisy room and under conditions of language learning (where people are speaking word soup and speaking a new language with the grammar of their mother tongue)

Gender

Gender usually means male, female and neuter, but can also be applied to other categories. Gender categories allow your brain to index your vocabulary so that similar words are stored together. One can feel for themselves the near certainty that words are stored logically (if not physically) in different parts of the brain based on their relationships. This is most strongly felt when you are doing code switch, switching from one language to another and for a while when you try to think of a word, the word comes to mind in the other language.

Implications for Language Design

If my wild theories have any merit, then an auxlang (a constructed language that has big hopes for attracting speakers), should not only work on being simple to get started, but have a clear path to complex speech. An analogy would be Basic English. It is easy to get started, but gets progressively harder to move forward (in terms of being expressive) as you gain mastery of the language.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Of course there can be too much of a good thing. Lojban has a reputation for being devilishly hard to speak (D. Harlow’s report of expert Lojbanists only being able to hold a conversation for 15 minutes comes to mind). Japanese has a complicated writing system and I’m not sure how that was a benefit to them (except maybe it meant Japan would need a much higher standard of academics, something that might have unexpected side effects). Similarly, there certainly can be too many words, too many words of limited usage (words for snow that has been thrown over one’s shoulder during early spring), and too many ways to inflect. Finding the happy balance between analytic, agglutinating, inflecting and polysynthetic languages is the task of both the artlang and conlang designer.

Toki Pona: Jan Mate’s Style Guide Version 1

English has several style guides, Chicago, Strunk, etc. Here is my style guide for toki pona.  This is not a static guide–I hope to improve it.  I also hope I can distinguish style from grammar–as grammar creation is something only jan Sonja or the collective speakers of toki pona can do. I will try to emphasize that by saying “should” when it is a matter of style, “must” when I think I’m just repeating a grammar point.

There are several styles of speaking in toki pona.  Simple, Unambiguous, Cultural and Exact.  The simple style is what jan Sonja had in mind when inventing the language.  All the other styles are grammatical and in varying degrees of use, especially when translating a text into toki pona or when trying to communicate without fear of misunderstanding.

Simple

Simple speech avoids long modifier strings, things that require exactness, and anything that is hard to do in toki pona.  A translation to the simple style will dispose with great quantities of fine distinctions.

Simple Style, Rule 1: Drop modifiers where possible.

  • waso li lon telo.  The ducks are on the pond. 

Simple Style Rule 2: Drop pronoun modifiers

  • mi li musi.  We had fun.

Simple Style Rule 3: Drop time references.

  • mi li musi. We’ll have fun.

Simple Style Rule 4: Change proper modifiers to phrases when possible

  • mi moku e telo pi pona sijelo. I drank cough syrup.

Exact

Unambiguous speech tries to be clear, but avoid metaphors, culturally dependent phrases and most idioms that are not immediately obvious to a reasonably clever person.

Unambiguous Style Rule 1: Qualify until it’s obvious as possible, but don’t include non-obvious idioms.

  • mi pilin ike mute.  I’m feeling blue.  Could also mean “My tactile sensations are deficient”, such as in leprosy. If this was a potential confusion, then write:
  • mi pilin ike mute lon lawa.

Unambiguous Style Rule 2: Use pronoun modifiers when useful

  • mi mute li musi.  We had fun.
  • mi tu li musi. Us two had fun.

Unambiguous Style Rule 3: Use time references when useful.

  • tempo kama la mi li musi. We’ll have fun.

Unambiguous Style Rule 4: Say it in more than one way.

In toki pona, especially when first learning the language, you have to be creative with the coining of noun phrases, verb phrases and grammatical structures.  Use more than one to insure against the chance that one sentence is reduced to gibberish, either by lack of cleverness on the readers part or a typo.

Semantically Complete

Exact speech is like telling someone a recipe or directions to get to the hospital.  Long phrases, math, and opaque idioms are okay.  Some vocabulary can only be translated by coining idioms. For example, “crab grass”, “maxilla”, “glucose” will

Semantically Complete Style Rule 1: Define and use idioms for jargon.

  • mi lawa jo e pilin pi pilin anpa.  I’m clinically depressed.

Semantically Complete Style Rule 2: Leave proper modifiers untransliterated, but always include the category word i.e. “toki” in “toki Inli” 

  • mi moku e telo “Robitussin”

Cultural

Cultural speech uses similes, metaphors and words that make sense in a cultural context.  It is important to establish what your cultural context is before using toki pona in a cultural style. 

Cultural Style Rule 1: Use similes, metaphors and the like.

  • mi pilin laso.  I’m feeling blue. (lit I’m feeling in a blue like fashion)
  • kalama musi laso li pona tawa mi.  I like listening to the blues.

Cultural Style Rule 2: Use prepositions metaphorically.

  • mi toki lon Inli.

Good Style Regardless to Context

Order of Modifiers

Possessives *should* come last.  Commonly used idioms, e.g. jan lili, child, *should not* be split.

  • [better] jan lili mije mi – my son
  • [worse] jan mije lili mi – my son (feels like my young man)
  • [worst] jan mi mije lili – my son (feels like small male person of mine)

Adverbial Phrase vs Verbal Modifier

Prefer adverbial phrases to verbal modifiers for describing how an action occurs.  Adverbial phrases are everything before the “la”, verbal modifiers are everything after the verb but before the “e” or any of the six prepositions.

Some “la” phrases have started to become mildly idiomatic.

  • pona la mi musi e ilo musi.  Fortunately, I play a musical instrument.
  • mi musi pona e ilo musi.  I play a musical instrument well

[I will post more style advice as it occurs to me--usually when reading a piece of particularly opaque toki pona.]

Toki Pona: Word–err–noun phrase, building technique

Polysemy.  Using one word to mean many things.  This is the defining characteristic of toki pona.  When ever you need a word, your first duty is to see if you can stretch the existing words.  The only draw back is that if you don’t have enough context, then “nasin mani” means “capitalism”, “economics” or “monetary policy”

  • ilo len — cloth washing machine
  • ilo len  — network (computers)

Hypernymy. Hypernyms are words that talk about categories.  After you start to run through all the possible meanings of a toki pona word, you often find your self concluding that the word is also covers category words

  • soweli — Mammalia (all mammals)
  • akesi– Sauropsida (all dinosaurs)

Metonymy.  Using a word that describes part of something to indicate the whole (synecdoche) or when the word is associated with something.   Examples from English from Wikipedia, “press” to mean “publishing industry”, “crown” to mean the “king”, etc.    ”Press” is just metonymy, whereas “crown” definitely is synecdoche.  It can be argued what is metonymy and what is synecdoche, suffice to say that the distinction is fuzzy.  Metonymy is fair game in toki pona.

  • lawa – head, government

Metaphor.  “Up is good”, “Down is bad”, “Forward is progress”, “Backwards is regression”, “Argument is war”, “Money is water”, etc.  Toki pona has a lot of these already, but they can be tricky to use, since toki pona has an international audience and not all people speak languages that share the same metaphors.

Compounding.  The meaning of a word plus any number of modifiers can not be guaranteed to be immediately understood by people listening.  Good compounding uses words that are suggestive of what you are trying to talk about an the listener has a hope of guessing what you meant.  Opaque compounding just throws some words together and the meaning is established by convention.  Somewhere in between are compound words that make sense, but only after hearing a short story.  Toki pona compounds are restricted to noun phrases and verb phrases.

If you build a noun phrase like, “animal that has two tusks, a long, nose and  walks on all fours”, you might not be able to use it in a sentence because of the extremely limited options for creating sentences with clauses.  For example in English:

  • I saw an “animal that has two tusks, a long, nose and  walks on all fours”
  • An “animal that has two tusks, a long, nose and  walks on all fours” saw me.

However, if I do a quick rough translation of that phrase, I get “soweli kepeken uta kiwen tu kepeken nena sinpin linja li tawa kepeken noka tutu”  I can say, I saw an elephant:

mi lukin e ni:  soweli kepeken uta kiwen tu kepeken nena sinpin linja li tawa kepeken noka tutu

*** “soweli kepeken uta kiwen tu kepeken nena sinpin linja li tawa kepeken noka tutu” li lukin e mi

The second one isn’t grammatical.  I’d have to completely reword the sentence.  And besides, a muliphrase structure used as a compound noun is awkward.

Antonym.  Usually by tacking on “ala”

  • kiwen ala– soft

Portmanteau.  This is not allowed in toki pona!  An example would be:

* sit-toki  — writing  (Not a toki pona word!)

In other languages like Russian, it’s rather common.

Nonce.  Words make up for a single use   Likewise, not allowed in toki pona.

  • tokiponimancy – foretelling the future by reading random toki pona phrases (not a toki pona word!)

An inventory of 118-120 words means no more words.

Calque.  It’s going to start happening by accident.  A calque is a literal translation from one language to another, for example:

  • flea market
  • tomo mani pi kili lili

Calques are opaque unless you are familiar with both languages, so are probably deprecated until enough people accidentally use them.  To recognize a calque, you need to be able to realize that people who speak other languages don’t see a concept the same way you might (in the sense of what is the obvious translation).

Grammaticalization. This is using grammar to express what you would otherwise need a verb or a noun to express.

  • ona li pona tawa mi. (grammaticalization for untranslated word ‘like’)
  • I like it.

Metatypy.  This is using a foreign grammaticalization in toki pona to express something.  I always wanted to do this in toki pona, borrowing from Lativian (or is it Lithuanian?)

  • (?) Ingli la mi toki  (using the language name adverbially as some languages do)
  • I speak Englishly
  • I speak in English

Again, unless everyone has seen that pattern before, it might be hard to understand.  However, the “it is good to me” is an obvious grammaticalization stolen from many European languages.  Jan Sonja could have just as easily used the English pattern:

  • mi li olin e ona. 
  • I like it/I love it.

She didn’t probably because writers of conlangs already have a tendency to relex their mother tongue and “ona li pona tawa mi” sounds more foreign.

Toki Pona: Talking about Grammar

Names are words, lexemes and probably also morphemes as well, although a morpheme would be better described as a “part of a word”.

  • nimi – name, word, lexeme
  • toki – speech, language
  • sitelen toki—picture speech – writing 

Reading is drawing or working, especially when the object is some sort of written document. Reading is either looking or understanding.

  • sitelin — write
  • pali – write (sometimes)
  • lukin – read
  • sona – read

Sounds,  Kalama

Word compounding uses metonomy, ie. you pick a feature of what you are describing to represent the whole.  For example, phonomes are sounds, parts of words, small, meaningless on their own, etc.  I translated it as kalama nimi, then I found another version on the toki pona wikia.

Sciences, Methodologies, Theories and the like

These usually get “lawa” or “sona”, (rules and knowlege) compounds

  • lawa nimi – rules of words – grammar
  • lawa pi kalama nimi  — rules of sounds of words – phonetics \
  • sona pi kalama nimi  –phonetics
  • sona pi kalama toki – phonetics
  • sona toki – linguistics, language arts, etc 

next three from wikipedia, I’m not sure these are immediately obvious

Some day I need to update the above when I know for sure what they mean.

Grammaticalizations

I’m sure there will be more, but for now:

  • li toki kepeken toki X – to speaking using language X — to speak in a language

Syntax

Sentences are community of words, phrases are also communities.  Verbs word, nouns are things.

  • kulupu nimi — community of words– sentence, phrase
  • nimi kama – action word – verb
  • nimi pali – work word – verb
  • nimi ilo – object (thing) word
  • nimi nimi – noun (I don’t like this option for some reason, probably because no one know what reduplication means for sure in t.p.)
  • nimi kama kepeken nimi ‘e’  — transitive verb
  • nimi ante – change word—modifier
  • nimi ante pi nimi kama – adverb
  • nimi ante pi nimi pali – adverb
  • nimi ante pi nimi ilo- adjective
  • nimi sinpin– front word – preposition
  • nimi wan — unifier word –  conjunction

Some word useful to conlang’ers

  • toki sin — new language — constructed language (it does not translate into Newspeak!  To say Newspeak in toki pona you’d need a paragraph to explain what 1984 was about)
  • sona pi toki sin — conlanging
  • nimi sin — new word — neologism —

Still more technical jargon

(thanks to jan Josan!)

  • nimi lawa — head word — subject
  • lawa pi kulupu nimi — head of phrase — subject
  • kulupu pi nimi ante– community of modifiers – adverbial clause
  • nimi pali pini — complete verb — intransitive verb
  • nimi “kama jo” — “get” word — direct object, indirect object
  • nimi poki — particle
  • nimi poki lili — small box word — particle

Particles, e.g. la, li, e, are distinct from phonemes, which is already used (nimi lili)

The gloss of “box words” is because toki pona sentences have rigid locations for putting words into, that they are like boxes.  This is a stretch and by the time toki pona is complete, I suspect there will be many more words that take a short story to explain them.

Toki Pona: Pronouns, Forms of Address

When information is important, we in code it into the word (or phrase), such as encoding person, place, time, gender, etc.

Right now, the universal form of address in toki pona is “jan”, which is required introduction to a proper name.  In English, we encode gender and if a woman is married or not and her political affiliations, location of address (office) and possible age

  • Mr. — male
  • Mrs. — female, apolitical, taken or old to assume so
  • Miss — female, possibly taken
  • Ms — female, politically egalitarian, maybe taken or maybe not, possible at the office

If it can be thought, it can be said.  So translating into toki pona:

  • jan John Doe  — (men aren’t going to advertise if they are taken)
  • jan Jane Doe
  • jan mije John Doe — male
  • jan meli Jane Doe — female
  • (?) jan meli Jane Doe pi John Doe — taken
  • (?) jan meli Jane Doe pi ona — taken

Of course it could be done in a complete sentence and you see that a lot in English conversations, where  apropos nothing the young lady makes a reference to significant other in the first two or three minutes of the conversation.

Toki Pona: The Conlang and the Conculture

Conlang is a constructed language.  Conculture is a constructed culture.  Obvious examples would be Klingon the language and Klingon the warrior’s way of life.  The conculture lets you know how to approach issues like pleasantries.  For example, Klingons don’t say good-bye, they get up and leave.   They don’t say hello, the demand in an irritated tone of voice, “What do you want?!”

The culture of speakers of conlangs is the culture of the international community of college educated people with class, rank and wealth sufficient to have leisure time, education and a high speed internet connection. In the absence of a conculture, a conlanguage will pander to the existing values, mores and customs of this group.

Specificity.

Some Australian languages show politeness by using specific words when ever possible (Language, R.L Trask, 2nd Ed, pg 136)  This is interesting for toki pona because it isn’t really a conculture, yet it is developing some features of one.  In particular there is a preference for speaking in broad categories, even when words exist to narrow down what you are talking about.

Proverbs

The official site poses some brief discussion of the cultural values of toki pona.  The corpus, particularly the proverbs provide some more linguistic ‘culture.‘  However, it hard to differentiate between an opinion, which could be expressed equally in any language and an description of the conculture of simplicity.

sona pona li sona sewi ala. ona li sona mute ale.  

This implies prestige speech is discouraged. In English prestige speech is stuff like using long words and carefully pronouncing the g in “-ing”.  I am certain this has not been picked up by the online community.  As soon as we stop talking in toki pona, it is big word city, note what I said before about what kind of people typically actually do try to learn conlangs.

wile sona li mute e sona.  

This implies direct questioning is polite.  I haven’t seen any patterns to prove this has been picked up on, maybe because the literal translation is “desire of knowledge increase it”, while the official translation is “One learns by asking questions.”

In my personal opinion, I think the conlang culture of any conlang should be the culture of those who are likely to speak it.

Toki Pona: Paradoxes

Each word in toki pona has several possible meanings.  Words work like categories of similar semantic content.  “Nena” is a bump, ridge, mountain, hill, pile, protrusion, etc.  When you tack a modifier onto a word, you would expect the world of things under discussion to decrease.  “Box” means any possible box.  Bread box is a particular type of box.  “My bread box” is exactly one out the entire universe of boxes.

Modifiers Both Expand Meaning/Restrict Meaning

But in toki pona a triple means a lot more things than the single does, e.g.

  • poki – box, container 
  • poki moku – food box, food container, drink box, drink container etc.
  • poki moku mi – my food box, our food box, my food container, our food container, my glass, our lunchbox, my fridge, our cupboard etc. 

So a longer phrase doesn’t necessarily narrow down what you are talking about.

Sometimes, it seems it does narrow down the scope.

  • mi- I, we
  • mi mute – we, us
  • ona – he, she, it
  • ona mije – he
  • ona meli – she

So what gives here?  These modifiers are somehow different.  In writing less ambiguous toki pona, we’d want to favor the later type of modifier.

Are Modifiers Are Strictly Local, Modifiers are Global?

I keep making mistakes in toki pona where a prepositional phrase, adverbial phrase, adverb or adjective modifies too much or the wrong thing.  If I understand the rules correctly, prepositional phrases modify the entire preceding phrase back to the “la”  But the following example looks like a modifier goes in the opposite direction.  (Either than or my analysis is wrong)

pona la mi mute li sona e toki pona.  mi toki lon musi pi jan mute kepeken ona. Fortunately, we know (about) toki pona.  We speak it at parties.

The “mute” in “mi mute” modifies the preceding “mi” in the first sentence and the subject of the 2nd sentence. 

The alternative analysis is that repeating oneself if optional, the same way “li” is optional when immediately following sina or mi.