Are toki ponans from Qo’noS?

Tlingans dispense with all human-like formalities. After all they are aliens.  They don’t say hello, they say “What do you want?” They don’t say “Can I help you find anything today?” They say “Buy or die!”

It has been speculated that “polite talk” is one of the universals of human language.  So if a constructed language lacks the machinery for politeness, it isn’t a human language.

I came to this conclusion after running into a troll on the toki pona IRC channel.  I tried to say to the troll, “I understand you.” This has has multiple readings, because after all this is toki pona.  It can also mean, “I will improve you” or “I will teach you” and probably five more things.  The troll thought he’d been put in the one down position socially and started to get angry.  This persisted after I tried to say, well “mi sona e sina = I understand you”.  The troll thought I was correcting him and putting him in the one down position again.

I was working on saying, “Relax, sorry, I’m just shooting the breeze”, which in toki pona requires a circumlocution of several pages.  There is an abbreviated style of toki pona, but that isn’t the point, the point is that both abbreviated and wordy forms are ambiguous.  A common style for reducing ambiguity is to repeat the message over and over in various formats until at least 3 or 4 of them will likely be parsed the same way by the interlocutor.  My point is that when you are at the point of fisticuffs, you need to convey messages of low polysemy, i.e. diplomacy.

Before I could click send, the troll was already cursing me in several languages and trying to teach me proper toki pona (and get out of the one-down position).  I was already fed up with trolls and was left wondering, “Why me?”

Special note on politeness and “dropping unnecessary words”

This is “bald on-record” speech.  It is used in human languages for emergencies, commands in work situations, when the speaker doesn’t care about how the hearer feels, etc.  Examples from wikipedia: “Watch out!” “Gimme the hammer!” “Get back to cleaning the latrines!”

Lexical Polite Speech

The words, please, thank-you, mister, mrs, are pure polite speech.  Toki pona is in the awkward position of being a language of few words, so if a word was left out, then either a new word has to be added, a meaning assigned to an existing word, or new idioms, and finally grammaticalization

Idioms in toki pona are short noun phrases and verb given a first among equals meaning by the language designers fiat.  With out an official idiom, any noun or verb phrase you can think of is likely to contain many alternative meanings, most unintelligible, some polite and some insulting!

I think grammaticalization is the best hope for adding polite speech to toki pona because it already has 123 words, up about half a dozen since first publication.

Grammaticalization of Polite Speech.

You can’t talk about grammaticalization of polite speech without talking about Japanese.  Pronouns vary by politeness, so do verbs, etc.  Indo-european languages do as well, especially with respect to the two forms of “you”.

I’m not sure the language community has a lot of wiggle room here, the basic sentence structure is well established, and converting non-clitics to clitics (or content words to function words) is a language designers prerogative. The community has been been turning some words into prepositions, but so far we don’t have any wholesale grammaticalizations, or clitics that have any community acceptance.   Just as a crazy example, an idea to have three different vocatives for subordinates, equals and superiors would never catch on unless the language designer added it to the canon.  (That’s just an example, I’m not sure what grammaticalizations would get the most bang-for-the-particle)

Special note on “pona”/”mi tawa”

Pona means “good”.  I think it’s short for “li pona” or “ale li pona”.  Its an idiom for hello.  I really do no think it is a stand along replacement for any other polite phrases.  Besides, “pona” also is a valid intransitive imperative to “Improve!” which isn’t very polite.

“mi tawa” doesn’t translate very well either.  In English this is rude, “I’m out of here”.  In English, Icelandic, Russian the cultural equivalent is  “until we meet again”

“tenpo kama la mi tu li lukin e sama”.  We’ll meet again.

Some Possible Toki pona Phrases- Honorifics

jan pona o … O friend!  Too familiar for a stranger.  Doesn’t express “my good man!” any more either.

jan sama o … O my equal!  Useful.  Depends on your real culture as to if you’d use this or not.

jan sewi o … O God!  Well, this also means “higher person”, but “jan sewi” is an idiom for “God” so, among alternative meaning for “jan sewi”, “God” is first among equals.  The “jan sewi” phrase is completely useless for conversation now– you just can’t call your interlocutor “jan sewi”

jan pi ma tomo 0 … o man of the city! o citizen!

Softening Requests.

ala la sina ken la pana e pan tawa mi?  If it is nothing, can you hand me the pancakes?


mi pana e pona tawa sina X.  This has been attested since 2005.   I give to you the good for your X. (which you just gave).

mi pilin e pona tawa sina tan pana sina.


mi pilin ike tawa sina.

Accept apology.

mi li kama jo e pilin sina.


pilin ike mi la o sona e ni: mi pakala tan lape mute. I feel bad, I want you to know that I made a mistake because I slept to late.  Sorry I’m late, I overslept.

Accepting Excuses

mi li lukin ala e pakala sina.  I don’t see your mistakes.

*not* mi li sona ala e pakala sina. I don’t know of your mistakes.  This also reads as “I don’t understand your mistakes.”:

Ignoring a Faux Pas

ni la sina pakala ala.

ni la mi lukin ala.  I didn’t see it.

Calling “Uncle”!  (giving in, primarily out of respect for rank)

pona kin la mi pali e ona. (unwilling)

…. (hmm how to say, “I’d be glad to do that”)

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