Toki Pona: Is it really all that simple?

Guy Deutscher wrote “The Unfolding of Language.”  One speculation was, what do languages look like before people have a chance to agree on the detailed rules?  He posited that a language can be define with a few grammatical rules that are so simple, that it makes Toki Pona look like Calculus III.

Rules Named by Deutscher

1. “Monsieur Jourdain’s Principle” Related words appear close to each other.  That is, modifiers must be as close as possible to what they modify.  Verbs must be close to their subject and object. 

2. “Caesar Principle” Clauses follow time and importance.  If it happened first, move it to the front of the sentence.  If it is important, move it to the front of the sentence. 

3. “Me first Principle” Actors go first in the sentence.

4. “Don’t be a bore” Previously mentioned actors and things do not need to be repeated. 

Rules name by me, inspired by Deutscher.

5. “Content is king” All words are content words.  No syntactical markers.  The same word may be used to indicate things, actions or descriptive qualities by placing it near the appropriate words

6. “Laziness is a virtue” Any word that can is unambiguous after dropping off the last syllable must drop its last syllable (or half a syllable). 

Corollary for phonetic systems.  If lexicon that is (mostly) unambiguous after merging two sounds must merge those two sounds.   Any lexicon that is (mostly) unambiguous after shifting vowels and consonants according to Grimm’s Law must shift those vowels and consonants, (e.g. kh -> k -> h -> 0 )

7. “Popularity Contest” Any content word that the community uses consistently near another may be fused to that word.  This rule violates “Content is king” and “Laziness is a virtue”, but overtime this can be corrected.  Any fused word can be shorted or dropped if another nearby content word becomes more popular. 

8. “Abstractions are all Metaphors” No abstract words are allowed unless they are a metaphor for a real life phenomena.  For example, the word for “to have” must use the same word for a physical state, like proximity.

Corollary to “Abstractions are all Metaphors” The initial lexicon may only contain words that have concrete representations.

Implications for Conlang Design.

To design a conlang using the above rules, you’d need:

A phonological system.

An initial lexicon.

Check the phonological and lexical system for efficiency (make sure that words are already as short as possible)

A dictionary of metaphors for expressing abstractions.  For example, the dictionary should list metaphors like “IDEAS are LIGHT”  If I was writing a conlang and didn’t want to repeat the metaphors of my parent language, I should say something like “IDEAS are PLANTS”, i.e. relating a visible, physically creative object in the environment to an abstract idea. (And I need to look up the name of the guy who wrote the most about this kind of analysis of metaphor in language)

A speaking community.  My hypothesis is that if they are children, the language will evolve out of the simple stage by adulthood and will look like any other modern language.  If the speaking community is adults, then it will become a pidgen and acquire the grammar of the communities first languages.  This has an interesting implication: semantic prime and simple languages can only exist for a few years when spoken by very young children, after that, they will evolve into full blown languages.

Implications for Toki Pona

The word phrases are not dynamically stable.  They must merge over time, they violate the principle of laziness.  The phonetic system is not stable.  An example is the “p”, which according to Grimms law will change to a quicker/easier to pronounce sound.

The metaphor system is absent.  Current speakers are just raiding their parent language’s metaphor system.  Conlang’s get criticized for re-lexing, i.e. picking new words for an existing language and and leaving the grammar intact. Toki pona “re-metaphors”, i.e. we are expressing our parent language’s methaphors in Toki pona words.

The “la” clause violates the “Me first” principle. In toki pona, we say, “Tomorrow there is a birthday party, I’m going to it”.  The “Me first” principle says that the simpler structure is”I’m going to a birthday party tomorrow” because the topic of conversation is put first. 

Toki pona’s design goal is simplicity.  The inclusion of grammatical markers and a strict word order system are indicative of an language that has evolved beyond the simplest stage.  Whether this is a problem or not is a matter of taste.

Toki pona is already undergoing dynamic changes due to the popularity principle.  The yahoo mailing group dialect has made number grammatically obligatory for first person plural pronouns.  If we run forward the linguistic time clock, I’d hypothesize that “mute” will become obligatory, fuse to all plurals and lose the “te” or the “ute”

Comments are closed.