Toki Pona: Compound Words–again

Aside from the fact that some people think that there are only noun phrases in toki pona, I’m going to look at some compound word creation strategies

The mechanics of compound words are pretty straight forward:

  • n + n  –It seems perfectly reasonable to have one noun modify another
  • n + mod 

So start with a word, e.g. suweli.  It already give you some obvious context, like animals.  If that is the context, we can list all the words of the pattern suweli + [modifier], then we repeat the process with [noun] + suweli

I think we get these categories of combinations:

    • simple meanings, no obvious additional interpretation – suweli mute, lots of animals
    • (nearly) obvious meanings — suweli poki– box animal, turtle
    • completely non-obvious meanings — suweli sewi /sewi suweli — holy animal? animal religion?  Huh?  Many of these combinations sound poetic, but I suspect if we surveyed people about what it might mean, we’d get a lot of “don’t know”s
    • tricky meanings — suweli moku/moku suweli, animal food/food animal, ie. food made of animals/edible animals.  Or is it animal feed and cattle respectively?  There might be a right answer, but it is tricky, at least for me.
    • undefinable meanings — suweli suweli — a true beast? kind of beasty? A real animal? Very beasty?  Beasts (plural)?  This is undefinable because there isn’t any official ruling on reduplication and there isn’t much reduplication in the current corpus of toki pona texts online.
    • trivial meanings — suweli suweli — beastly beast.  This just makes a verbose language more so.

Triples and Phrases

I don’t like triples (and quadruples) as much as I like two word compound words.  The modifiers in triples can swap position:

  • kala lete pimeja anpa — deep dark cold fish– deep sea fish.
  • kala pimeja lete anpa — deep cold dark fish–deep sea fish
  • kala anpa lete pimeja — dark cold deep fish– deep sea fish

It would be less work to get everyone to call deep sea fish “kala anpa”.

It isn’t always obvious if the pi is necessary or not

  • kala pi lete pimeja — fish of the dark cold
  • kala pi pimeja lete — fish of the cold dark
  • kala pimeja lete — cold dark fish

Two word compound words don’t need “pi” since the modifier is obvious, although the semantic intent may be less obvious than a long string of modifiers and “pi”‘s

In rapid speech, I have no idea how people are going to be able to decide where to put the “pi”. 

  • Cold dark tea time of the soul — with an ‘of’
  • the soul’s cold dark tea time — no ‘of’
  • tenpo telo wawa pimeja lete kon – the soul’s cold dark powerful water time
  • tenpo telo-wawa pimeja lete kon – soul’s cold dark time of tea

so far things make sense, so do we need some “pi”‘s?

tenpo pi telo wawa pimja lete kon — soul’s cold dark (powerful water) time

Or how about something I found on the web

  • telo nasa pi wawa ala– without power drunken water, week booze
  • telo nasa wawa ala– powerless drunken water, week booze.  [Unless there is some popular alternative meaning for nasa wawa, I'm not sure how the "pi" helps me]
  • tomo pi telo nasa — room of drunken water, [wait! double take time!]
  • tomo telo nasa– weird bathroom

Sigh.  Honestly, I plan to leave out the “pi” except when I say something and do a double take.


In English is is pretty easy to take a long phrase and plug it into the place of a noun. 

I saw a fish. 

I saw that which you describe as an animal which swims through the water, doesn’t breath air and has shiny scales.

Toki pona has a much narrower set of valid nominals/noun-phrases.  I’ve already covered noun + modifier, and noun phrase + pi + noun modifier. 

You can use the conjuction

kala en moku — fish and food, maybe a fish sandwich

You can use a predicate, which is a noun phrase + a prepositional phrase

kala loje lon linja telo  — red fish of the river, salmon

But that is 9 syllables for what could be said with two syllables in English, and four if we used “kala loje” exclusively for salmon and some other word pair to describe red snapper with “kala uta”

What is simpler?

  1. mi lukin e kala loje lon linja telo.  I see a red fish from the line of water. (I’ve got breath to spare, I’ll talk until you understand me.)
  2. mi lukin e kala loje. I see a salmon.  (Hope you’ve heard this word pair before in this context, if not look at me with a puzzled look so I can explain)
  3.  mi lukin e kala loje.  I see a red fish or a red snapper or a salmon (I’m not sure which, I’m not sayin’ either, but it’s one of these options, I’m being ambiguous today.)
  4. mi lukin e kala (loje).  I see a fish. (I don’t really care if you understand me.  I don’t think you care what I’m saying either. Actually I might be talking about some red colored pond scum. I’m being knowingly ineffective in communication.)

3 and 4 both are simple in the sense of economy of words and not requiring an extensive knowledge of idiomatic toki pona or non-obvious compound words.  But they are both kind of hostile.  That conflicts with the “pona” part of the toki pona philosophy.

On some mailing lists, I imagine #1 would be considered ike mute, i.e. overly complex.  Unless one wants to be ineffective at communication to the point of hostility, we can either resort to using non-obvious compound words (or idiomatic noun phrases if you like), or be verbose.


Make your context clear.  Use obvious compound nouns when possible. Use non-obvious compounds in preference to circumlocutious phrases, but be sure to use them over and over so your reader can learn them.  If you don’t think your listener has heard your particular compound word before, use it in part of a verbose phrase before using it as a simple two word phrase.

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