Toki Pona: Translating Duck

All languages have a set of base words.  For example in English, the base word for that thing that flies is “bird”  If you have a modest vocabulary, you know there are ducks.  If you are a farmer, you know there are Mallard ducks.  If you are a biologist, even English fails and you must use a circumlocucationary foreign phrase, Anas platyrhynchos, which in turn is a Latinization of the Greek pair of words meaning duck-with-flat-bill.  Obviously this proves that English is a broken language and the creators must have been some sort of impractical linguistic visionaries

Toki pona has a way to deal with foreign words and personal names. Toki Pona happens to already have a suitable translation for duck which is no worse than the English mechanism.  For example when an English speaker is faced with Ekaterinaburg, we say Ekaterinaburg, we don’t say, City of Katherine or worse, “City of the Girl Who Was Name So Because She Hasn’t Had Sex Yet*”,  although only the later translation consists of entirely English words. *(using virgin as one potential name meaning for Katherine)

A mallard duck in Toki Pona is Ana or Ana Pasirenko, for example:

Sina li moku e Ana Pasirenko = You ate a mallard.

Sina li moku e Anas Platyrhynchos.  You ate an Anas Platyrhynchos.

Sina li moku e Ana. You ate an animal from the genus, anas, i.e. a duck.

And if you don’t give a hoot what kind of bird you are eating, you say:

Sina li moku e telo waso– You are eating a bird of the water. You are eating either a duck, sea gull, swan or other bird.

Where I think Toki Pona could use some clarification is in the transliteration rules as currently there is more than one way to transliterate Anas Platyrhynichos.  Also, as noted in the cannonical grammar, tokiponization of foreign words can make them hard to recognize.

Another valid complaint about the philosophy of a limited vocabulary language is that a language is a living thing. If people actually spoke Toki Pona, neologism would begin to form and compound words that used to be generic, could morph into words with specific meanings.  For example, Mallards might be telowaso (losing the meaning of water fowl), or it might become teloso (a neologism based on historical root words).  As soon as this process gets underway, toki pona will have a rapidly expanding dictionary.

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Toki Pona: Declining Nouns

English uses word position and prepositions do what many other languages do using multiple forms of the same noun. Toki pona tacks on grammatical particles and uses prepositions for the rest. Sentences follow Subject + Verb + Object, although with particles this probably could be rearranged without much loss of meaning.


All nouns already imply singular or plural. You can be precise and verbose by using won (one) and mute (many).

pipi = bug or bugs.

pipi won = one bug (emphasizing there is only one)

pipi mute = bugs (verbose), swarm (compound word)

pan palusi = one noodle, some spaghetti

pan palusi mute = noodles, some spaghetti

Articles a, an, the

Toki pona doesn’t have articles. Translating articles will sound verbose and pedantic.

pipi = bug, a bug, the bug

pipi wan = a bug (emphasis on the fact there is only one)

pipi ni = the bug (emphasis on a particular bug)

Accusative, Object

Precede objects with e

mi moku e pipi, I eat the bug.

Use more e’s for multiple objects

mi moku e pipi e sike. I eat bugs and spheres (maybe oranges?).

Leaving out the extra ‘e’ turns the other word into a modifier.

mi moku e pipi sike, I eat round bugs

Genetive, Posessive

pipi mi – my bug

pipi sina – your bug

pipi ona — his/her/it’s bug

pipi mi mute — our bug

pipi sina mute — your(pl) bug

pipi ona mute — their bug

Instrumental, ‘with’

Use the verb and preposition kepeken to indicate you are using something.

mi pakala e pipi kepeken ilo palisa, I squashed the bug with a stick-tool.

mi pakala e pipi kepeken noka mi. I squashed the bug with my foot.

Locative, ‘in’

Use the verb and preposition lon to indicate something is at a place.

[no example yet]

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Toki Pona: Compound Words

Noun + Modifier

Modifiers are added in reverse order as compared to English.

sike mama = sphere maternal = egg

tomo telo = aquatic room = wash room

toki sona = wise words = proverb

Noun + Noun + Modifier

These can be ambiguous because the binding could be (n + modifier) + modifier or n + (noun modifier). Most nouns in toki pona have a verb, adjective or adverbial meaning, so the middle word is potentially ambiguous, (see next section on preventing this ambiguity)

sike mama waso = avian maternal sphere = bird’s egg

telo naso = water crazy = booze

tomo telo naso = odd restroom

Noun + pi + ( Noun + Modifier)

To prevent the ambiguity of the Noun + (Noun

tomo pi telo naso = room of water crazy = bar

Li + Word

li + word turns the word into a verb. Toki pona is a bit like Japanese in that adjectives are sometime treated like verbs.

Jan li pona. She’s is pretty. By li doesn’t mean ‘is’! At least not in the sense of “to be”

lon anu lon ala ni: nimi seme. To be or not to be, that is the question.

Verb + Verb

Jo kama = own come = to get, to receive

Sona kama = know come = to learn, to study

Jan + Personal Name

jan Matthew = Matthew

jan John = John

[More patterns to come]

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Toki Pona: The Verb


o toki — Talk!

o lete — Cool off!

o lape — Go to sleep!

mi o lape.  I should sleep.

Use With Pronouns

This isn’t really a conjugation. The pronoun morpheme don’t latch onto the word and can stand on their own.

mi lape, I sleep (notice no li!), can also mean we sleep

sina lape, you sleep (notice no li!)

ona li lape, he sleeps, verbose: mije ni li lape, ie. that man sleeps

ona li lape, she sleeps, verbose, meli ni li lape, i.e. that woman sleeps

ona li lape, it sleeps verbose, ilo ni li lape, i.e. that thing sleeps

All of the above have a second meaning of the plural. But to be verbose and specific, add mute.

mi mute li lape, we sleep (It seems like we should have li here, I’m not sure)

sina mute li lape, y’all sleep

ona mute li lape, they sleep.

Use With Time (Past, Present, Future Tense)

All of the above already have two additional meanings, e.g. I was sleeping/slept, I will sleep

To be verbose and precise, we use a phrase for the time + la + pronoun + verb

la turns the phrase into an adverb so that it describes the verb.

tenpo suno kama = upcoming sun time = tomorrow

tenpo suno kama la mi lape = I will sleep tomorrow

tenpo suno pini = previous sun time = yesterday

tenpo suno pini la mi lape = I slept yesterday.

To emphasize the present time, add “tenpo ni la” (now + adverbial particle)

tenpo ni la mi lape = (verbose) I sleep

Use with self reference

It’s quicker to just repeat the subject for the object, e.g.

mi li utala e mi. I strike me, I hit myself

mi weka linja mi. I remove my hair. I shave myself.

Sama means same, one could use it for reflexive verbs.

sama la mi utala li mi Self-ly, I hit me.

And removing the reduncancy

sama la mi utala. I hit myself.

Use with an Unknown Subject (Passive)

One strategy is to use the ‘someone’ ‘something’ a the subject

jan ijo pakala tomo mi. Someone wrecked my house. My house has been wrecked.

Use with Completion (Perfect tense)

pini means something is done, so it follows pini la makes a verbal phrase Perfect

pini la mi lape. I have slept.

Infinitive verb + Verb

These are very handy. In English, we’d use a infinitive plus a verb, but in toki pona, we just use the verbs that make sense in this pattern, e.g. want,

mi wili lape = I want to sleep, I must sleep, I have to sleep.

To be verbose and distiguish between want, must and have to, you’ll need adverbial phrases.

lili la mi wile lape. I sort of want to sleep. = I want to sleep.

wawa la mi wile lape. I insensely want to sleep = I have to sleep, I must sleep.

Noun + [missing copula] + Noun

A zero copula is where you omit the verb “to be” Again, li is not the verb “to be”

mi li jan pi kama sona. I [am] person of getting knowlege. I am a student.


Easy, leave off the object.

mi moku. I eat.

sina wawa. You become stronger.

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Toki Pona: Mnemonics

Some of these mnemonics are pretty lame and may make it harder than easier to remember the word. Sorry.

ala not/nothing “nothing a la carte for me!”
ale, ali everything “Allah is everything!”
anpa below “The floor is *un*der my dog’s *pa*w”
ante different “The ant, eh, lives differently in Canada”
awen  wait “*Ah when* will the pizza get here? I don’t want to *wait*”
anu or “Do you *a-new* *or* old?”
ike bad “Not okay, it’s ike!”
yaki dirty “What a dirty yak(i)”
jan person “My friend Jan is a person”
jo have “Yo! What’d you got?”
kama get “*Karma* is what you *get* in the next life”
kin also “Uncle bob is *also kin*” (watch out for the pronunciation here,pronounced as keen!)
taso only, but “that’s all”
tawa to, move, give “towards”
lape sleep “My cat likes to *sleep* in my *lap-eh*”
lete cold “It is cold when it is late-eh in the year”
lili small “The *lilly* is a *small* pad”
moli Die, dead, kill You will die if you im*mol*ate yourself.
nasa crazy, drunk, weird NASA sees some wierd stuff, when they are drunk up in space.
oko eye “The oculist can see the future.”
poki box “Put the stuff-i in the box-i”
tomo room, building “The tomb-o had one room-o”
walo white “That wall-o is white-o”
weka gone “I’ll be *gone* when you *wake-uh*”
wile want “Does the king *will* it so?”
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Toki Pona: Why?

Potentially Quick to Learn

It has 125 base words, but still is expressive enough to discuss many topics.  From my experience, an 8000 word Russian dictionary is too small to get through a month’s worth of conversations of daily life.

There are many applications to quick to learn languages, for example, in a refuge camp with speakers of a dozen languages, it might be easier to teach everyone Toki Pona than to teach them all English or wait for a pidgin to form naturally.

Warning, word for word translation is not enough for full understanding.  Just knowing the base vocabulary only gets you part way to fluency. Many compound words are idiomatic, for example, here is a machine word for word translation of Stairway to Heaven.  Here it is in the toki pona.

Potentially Easy to Pronounce for many

Even if you can’t get one or two of the consonant or vowels correct, say if you pronounce l and r the same, you will still be intelligible because there isn’t an r is the toki pona alphabet.

Early Language Acquisition

Some parents are teaching their children sign language, because kids can sign faster than they can physically speak the words.  Presumably, if the audible language was simpler, they’d pick up the language even faster.  On the other hand, learning two languages in parallel might slow language acquisition because you hear fewer examples of each in the same time period, or maybe it speeds language acquisition because the brain gets more linguistic stimulus.

If nothing else, the idea of teaching constructed languages or sign languages to children sure does get some people riled up, since they figure if you are teaching your child a language other than English you must not be speaking English at all.

Test Hypothesis about Language

Every amateur linguist has an opinion about the Wharf hypothesis, the idea that your language will affect your ability to think about certain things.  Personally, I think it a bunch of crock.  All languages are equally expressive, just some are more verbose at expressing the same thing.  I think the language you speak has a grave impact on your brains ability to process phonemes (basic speach sounds) and grammatical patterns.  For example, if you know the English tense system, the Russian one will seem awkward for a while and you may never be able to pronounce the Russian vowel bl correctly.

I think the idea that the language affects your ability to do physics, write computer programs, expound upon philosophy, is just rationalization for ethnocentrism.

Toki pona is the language of good talk and supposedly this will encourage happy thoughts. I seriously doubt this is possible, but it is a nice thought.

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Toki Pona: Vocabulary Tips & Tricks for English Speakers

Toki pona has about as many base words as some languages have letters.  Not surprisingly, many words are compound words and phrases. Even though a pair of word is being consistently being used a single meme, it still has spaces between the words.  I would not be surprised if there was a household speaking this, that over time words like toki pona would be morphed into to-ki-po-na, or even possibly to-kip-o-na, which guarantees the listener can tell that it is a compound word referring to the constructed language and not the base meaning of “a good talk”

English Cognates

As an English speaker you get several words almost for free, although to catch some near cognates, you have to transliterate the English word into toki pona phonetics. 

toki pona English English Cognate
en and and
pona good bonus
insa inside inside
jaki filthy yuccky
jelo yellow yellow
kala fish calamari
kalama noise calamity, clamor
kama come come
ken can, able can
kili fruit Kiwi fruit
lawa lead law
lili small little
linja line line
lukin look, see look
lupa hole loop
mama parent mama
mani money money
meli girl Mary
mi I, me, self me
mu moo, meow moo
mun moon moon
musi recreation, fun amuse
mute many many, multi-
nanpa number number
nimi name, word name
open open, turn on open
pilin feel feeling
sama same same
suno sun, light sun
sike circle, go around cycle, cyclical
suwi sweet, candy sweet
toki talk, speak, say talk
tu two two
wan one, single one
supa horizontal supine

walo is a false English cognate, it means white, not wall.

Russian Cognates

noka     n leg, foot : Russian cognate: “nog”  =leg
ona      he, she, it  Russian cogante: “Ona” = she
palisa    stick  Russian cognate: “Paltsi” = stick, finger
telo       water.   This is a false Russian cognate, it does not mean body!
poka     side.  This is a false Russian cognate, it does not mean goodbye!

Spanish Cognates

pona       good, Spanish cognate: “bona”=good
tan        so, Spanish cognate: “tan”=so
pana       give,  This is a false Spanish cognate, does not mean bread!
sin       new,  This is a false Spanish cognate: doesn’t mean without!

Esperanto Cognates

taso     only, but  This is a false cognate, it doesn’t mean cup!

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Toki Pona: Pronunciation Traps for English Speakers

Toki Pona is a small vocabulary constructed language. Like Polynesian languages, and Japanese, the alphabet is small, about 14 letters.

The I

The i and e will pose challenges for English speakers because ken(able) and kin(also) normally would be pronounced the same, which would be a big problem because the language already tolerates a lot of ambiguity in it’s goal of keeping the vocabulary small. Mentally, replace the i with ee when ever you see it, especially i when it isn’t at the end of the word. It is not like the i of ice-cream.

See ken, think keen. (able)

See lukin, think lu-keen. (to look)

See ike, think eee-kay (bad)

See ilo, think ee-lo (device)

See insa, think een-sah (inside)

See ijo, think ee-yo (thing)

See lili, think lee-lee(small)

See kili, think kee-lee (fruit)

See wile, think wee-lay (want)

See olin, think oh-leen (to love)

See pilin, think pee-leen. (feelings)

See palisa, think pah-lee-sah (stick)

See sina, think see-nah (you).

See sinpin, think seen-peen (front), not sehnpehn

See pimeja, think pee-meh-yah (black)

Final i is not much of a problem, as an English reading won’t lead you astray, e.g. jaki(filth), kasi(plant)

The A

The ‘a’ is another area for English speakers to be tripped up. The ‘a’ in father is fairly common in foreign languages, where as the ‘a’ in hat is not even found in Russian is hard for them to pronounce.

Mentally, replace the a with o or sometimes ahh (the ah you say when the doctor is using a tongue depressor)

See wan, think won (one), not wahn

See jan, think yawn, not yahn.

The J

The j is pronounced at y. This trips me up constantly, for example meji(male) is pronounced meh-yee At least y exists in English.

The J is a semivowel, so when you put it in front of a vowel it paletizes the vowel and can sound like it’s own sound, e.g. in Russian, Ya, Ye, Yo, Yu are each represented by single letters. Maybe it would be easier to remember that j is really a y if you think of ja, je, ji, jo, ju as five vowels pronounced, ya, yeh, yee, yo, yu.

The O

The O in English sometimes sounds like ah, watch out for it. It should sound like oh

See kon, think kohn (wind)– (not kahn and not the ‘con’ in icon)

See tomo, think toh-moh. Remember to pronounce both of those o’s

The U

U is pronounced The ‘uh’ that you say when you are stammering to remember a word, is not the right u. I think that is schwa and there isn’t a schwa in Toki Pona.

See uta, think oo-tah (mouth)

See utala, think oo-tah-la (fight) (or possibly, oo-tal-ah, see section on syllabification)

No Silent E

See sitelen, think see-teh-len (picture), not sight-lin

See sike, think see-kay,(circle) not psych


English speakers have easy sailing on consonants, on the other hand, Russians will have a hard time with the w, Japanese will have a hard time with l, and everyone in the world has a hard time with vowels.

Still, watch out that s’s don’t turn into sh. Sin(new), not shin. And also, if you speak German, don’t change the w’s to v’s. The w’s are like in English. If you did make this substitutions though, there wouldn’t be much confusion as there isn’t a sh, v, or r (in the case of the Japanese tendency to pronounce l as r)


It looks like japanese, but the audio files contradict this theory in some cases. Also, like Japanese, most words follow CVCV or VCV, except somtimes CV+n, e.g. lon (to be at), kiwen(stone), len(clothing)

See jelo, think yel-oh (yellow) Interestingly, the syllable split appears to be between the l and the o. By analogy, sijelo (body) has a similar split.

See lape, think lap-eh (sleep), Again, the split sounds like it is between the p and e.

See meli, think mel-ee (woman), split on l and e.

See soweli, think so-wel-ee (animal)

See wile, think weel-eh (want)

On the other hand, moku (food), appears to be split mo-ku, and supa (furniture) is split su-pa. Similar pattern for tawa (to go) and tomo (room)

I may be splitting hairs about the syllabification.


Read aloud until the pronunciation sinks in. Even you never plan to speak the language and only want to read and write it, language is encoded into your brain phonetically.

[If I'm ambitious, tomorrow I will write about grammatical traps for English speakers.]

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