Source:Toki Pona: The Language of Good/What is Toki Pona?

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Toki Pona
The Language of Good
What is Toki Pona?
Part 1: Lessons
1. Letters and Sounds
2. Words and Sentences
3. Nouns and Adjectives
Part 3: Dictionaries
Sign Language
Place Names
Language Names
Phrase Book
Official Toki Pona Dictionary

"What is Toki Pona?" is the opening chapter of Toki Pona: The Language of Good, by Sonja Lang.

What is Toki Pona?[edit | edit source]

Simple and Natural

Modern languages are cluttered with complex ways to express the simplest things. What is a geologist but a ‘person of earth knowledge’? Is there any useful difference between the words ‘big’, ‘large’ and ‘huge’?

Toki Pona is a language that breaks down advanced ideas to their most basic elements. If you are hungry, you ‘want eat’. To teach is to ‘give knowledge’. This allows us to drastically reduce the vocabulary and grammatical structures needed to say what we have to say.

Simplify your thoughts. Less is more.


Toki Pona is semantically, lexically, and phonetically minimalist. The simplest and fewest parts are used to create the maximum effect. The entire language uses only 120 words and 14 letters of the alphabet.

Each word has been carefully selected to cover a broad range of meanings. For example, kili means any fruit or vegetable, which includes turnips, kumquats and even lingonberries. A lipu is any document, whether a printed book, postcard or clay tablet. A jan (pronounced ‘yan’) is any human being, regardless of whether they are Muslim or atheist, black or white, rich or poor.

In many ways, Toki Pona resembles a pidgin. When people from different cultures need to communicate, they must focus on the elements that are most universal to our human experience.

Toki Pona offers a path for semantic reduction. Just as we can rewrite a mathematical fraction like 4/8 as 1/2, we can distill our thoughts to their most fundamental units to discover what things really mean. We can understand complex ideas in terms of their smaller parts.

An inherent idea of goodness is transparent throughout the language. The expression for friend literally means ‘good person’. Happiness is ‘feel good’. Toki Pona itself means ‘good language’ or ‘simple language’.

Although the vocabulary and grammar are very simple, the language does contain a few essential syntax rules to keep a sentence together. For example, the particle li separates the subject from the verb.


By being so general and vague, Toki Pona often lacks the ability to distinguish finer shades of meaning. For example, by grouping every possible bird species into the single word waso, we eliminate the need to learn hundreds of vocabulary terms. However, we are also left incapable of distinguishing between eagles and chickens. The closest translations might be ‘strong bird’ (waso wawa) and ‘stupid bird’ (waso nasa).[a]

Toki Pona has a rather narrow range of functions. Although it is very easy to meditate and communicate honest thoughts and everyday activities in Toki Pona, it is impossible to translate a chemical textbook or legal document in the language without significant losses. Such texts are products of the complex, modern civilization we live in and are not suited for a cute, little language like Toki Pona.

As an artistic language with limited means of expression, Toki Pona does not strive to convey every single facet and nuance of human communication. Nevertheless, the results we can achieve with so few elements prove to be very interesting, if not spiritually insightful.

If English is a thick novel, then Toki Pona is a haiku.


Training your mind to think in Toki Pona can lead to deeper insights. If many of life’s problems are created by our excess thoughts, then Toki Pona filters out the noise and points to the centre of things. Many of these principles were inspired by the Dào Dé Jīng, which teaches, “Can you coax your mind from its wandering and keep to the original Oneness?”

For example, what is a ‘bad friend’? The Toki Pona expression for friend is jan pona, or literally ‘good person’. You quickly realize that a bad friend is a contradiction in itself. In another example, the word wile means both ‘to need’ and ‘to want’. This helps us bring our desires in alignment with our actual needs.

Toki Pona has a strong focus on context. From the perspective of a passenger, a car might be tomo tawa (an indoor compartment that moves). The driver might see it as ilo tawa (machine for going). If you're crossing the street and — bam! — a car hits you, then it might be a kiwen tawa (hard object that moves).

The speaker and listener understand the meaning of a word through its context. Toki Pona promotes mindfulness. Become fully aware of the present moment.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. According to the "Notes on lipu pu" section of Toki Pona Dictionary:

    In light of a commitment to non-ableist language, the chicken example should be corrected to ‘silly bird’ (waso nasa).

    The Esperanto edition of the book also has a footnote here that translates to:

    Note from the translator: Aside from the translations mentioned here, Toki Pona Dictionary also proposes waso alasa (‘hunting bird’) for eagle, and waso moku (‘food bird’) and waso pi pana sike (‘orb-giving (egg-giving) bird’) for chicken.