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.

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