Vagueness vs. ambiguity

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Toki Pona is often called ambiguous, especially in comparison to other languages. While Toki Pona grammar allows some ambiguity, Tokiponists such as jan Misali argue that the property usually being described is actually vagueness.[1]

Something ambiguous could mean multiple separate things, whereas something vague can only mean one thing—it is just a very broad, but continuous, range of possibilities.

Vagueness[edit | edit source]

Grammatical categories[edit | edit source]

Out of context, many Toki Pona sentences have no singular translation into English, because English requires speakers to always specify extra information such as number and tense. Therefore:

mi toki 

mi toki.

I talk. / We are talking. / I talked. / We will talk. / I will have talked. / We used to talk. / …

In Toki Pona, these are not separate concepts. It is one broad concept, of any number of people including the speaker, talking at any point in time.

Toki Pona is not exceptional in this regard. Many natural languages do not require these features to be marked, and it would be provincial to call them ambiguous because of it.

Semantic spaces[edit | edit source]

A plate of fruit. Is this description ambiguous, or just vague?

Another feature of Toki Pona is that words tend to have broad semantic spaces.

A good comparison is the English word "fruit". It does not refer to any specific fruit, but it is not ambiguous. It does not potentially refer to apples or oranges or other fruits as separate, mutually exclusive concepts. Rather, the semantic space of "fruit" is broad and covers all of these concepts, and can even refer to a collection of apples and oranges and so on.

As a direct comparison, the Toki Pona word kili encompasses fruits and vegetables and mushrooms, viewed as separate shades of the same thing: edible parts of kasi. The main difference is that more specific words for apples, oranges, etc. do not exist.

Again, Toki Pona is not exceptional in this regard. Different natural languages have different words that cover different semantic spaces. You cannot reliably translate something by translating each word one-to-one. Sometimes, the target language has no equivalent to a term in the source language. At other times, there is a close match, but its semantic space is significantly broader or narrower than the original term.

Ambiguity[edit | edit source]

Syntactic ambiguity[edit | edit source]

English Wikipedia has an article on
syntactic ambiguity.

Syntactic ambiguity occurs when a sentence has multiple possible sentence structures, allowing the sentence to be interpreted in multiple discrete ways. In Toki Pona, syntactic ambiguity often (if not always) stems from the parts of speech.

Certain content words double as prepositions, preverbs, or numbers. Which sense is being used is entirely unmarked in standard Toki Pona, leading to multiple possible sentence structures.

mi pana e tomo tawa sina 

mi pana e tomo tawa sina.

(Preposition sense of tawa:) I'm giving you shelter.
(Modifier sense of tawa:) I gave away your moving room (e.g. vehicle, elevator…).

ona li jo e len luka tu 

ona li jo e len luka tu.

(Number sense of luka:) They have seven (five and two) pieces of cloth.
(Non-numeric sense of luka:) They have two hand-cloths (e.g. gloves, napkins…).

There are also arguably discontinuities between senses in some of these words' semantic spaces, such as lukin as a preverb ("to try") and a normal content word ("look").

monsutatesu[edit | edit source]

Ambiguities may also arise from the inconsistent or circular derivation of content word meanings between noun, verb, and modifier positions. The monsutatesu occurs when this results in a word having conflicting meanings as a verb.

For a popular example, lipu pu defines moku as a verb meaning "to eat". When used as a noun, it is interpreted as something that is eaten: "food". If this noun sense is used as a verb, it means "to be food". Therefore:

mi moku 

mi moku.

I eat.
I am food.

However, at least in this case, the intended meaning is usually clear from context; and Toki Pona is again not exceptional here, as several natural languages have an "eats–eaten" ambiguity.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. jan Misali. (16 December 2021). "what is toki pona? (toki pona lesson one)". jan Misali [@HBMmaster]. YouTube. Retrieved 21 January 2024.