Toki Pona: The Particle Pi

As show in several of my posts, when you are looking for a word you have a few strategies:

Oversimplification and omission. Translate it as one word

Pick a grammatical pattern than doesn’t require building a new word to convey the meaning you want to convey.

Translate as a word with a modifier

Translate as several sentences that slowly build up to the precise idea you are conveying.  For example, translating “nostalgia” with all it’s connotations might take five or six sentences.

Translate as a word with several modifiers

There are a limited number of single word modifiers.  A typical exercise with noun-modifier pairs shows that the results are either idiomatic (not obvious), generic (sometimes a red stick is just a red stick), useful, overly specific (translates very well as a very specific technical term).

Having exhausted substantive modifier pairs, we must move on to phrases with pi.

What does a pi phrase mean?

word 1 + pi + word 2 + word 3 = (word 1 ( word 2 (word 3) ) )

Word 3 modifies word 2

Word 2 and word 3, modify word 1

While I’m sure the above algebra is correct,

Pyramid Test for translating “bar”

Are the following supporting our intended meaning?

  • tomo– room, place — yes
  • tomo telo — water room, restroom **wrong**
  • tomo telo nasa — weird water room, weird restroom ** wrong**

So we add a pi and test again

  • tomo– room, place— yes
  • tomo pi telo nasa — place of booze, bar — yes

And telo nasa also has to pass the pyramid test

  • telo- water— yes
  • telo nasa- drunken water —yes

What does a “pi”-less phrase mean?

Each word and word phrase modifies everything that came before.

word 1 + word 2 + word 3 = ((word 1)  word 2 ) word 3)

word 3 modifies word 1 and word 2

word 2 modifies word 1

Pyramid Test for “your new black hat”, are the following true:

  • len — clothing
  • len lawa — head clothing, hat
  • len lawa pimeja – black hat
  • len lawa pimeja sin – new black hat
  • len lawa pimeja sin sina — your new black hat

Pyrmaid test for “smile”

lawa — head

lawa sinpin — front of head, face

lawa sinpin pona — good front of face


Illegal: [word] + pi + [word]

Often the best English translation of “pi” is “of”.  In English there is no problem with, “John of Akron”, but in toki pona, this isn’t grammatical, or so I’ve been told.

Tricky, but legal: [word] + pi +[word] + pi + [word] + [word]

pi may be followed by a word or a word phrase.  In other words, you need a pair of words to follow pi for the last two words of the phrase, but not the middle.

Stairs (downstairs)

Test without pi

  • nasin – path
  • nasin anpa – downward path
  • nasin anpa supa – flat-surface downward path
  • nasin anpa supa mute — numerous flat-surface downward paths. ***

The paths aren’t numerous, the flat surfaces are, so we need a pi to stop numerous from modifying downward or path.

nasin anpa pi supa mute — flat surfaces of the downward path

Testing again:

  • nasin anpa — downward path
  • nasin anpa pi supa mute — downward path of steps
  • anpa pi nasin pi supa mute — downward of path of steps

If we want the numerous flat things (supa mute) to describe nasin, and then “nasin pi supa mute” to describe … ouch my brain broke.  Sorry I’m going to have to update this later after I do some more research.

(Wouldn’t it be cool if more academic linguistics articles ended that way?)

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