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

Consonants

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)

Syllabification

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.

Conclusion

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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