Unlike English, Toki Pona does not have grammatical tense (or aspect or mood), so verbs are not marked to show when they happen. There are tenseless natural languages, such as most of the Chinese languages, and Toki Pona has some strategies in common for specifying time.
The main way is to directly state a timeframe within the sentence. Once established, it enters the context of the conversation, and that precise time information can then be omitted whenever doing so will not cause confusion.
ona li awen pali
ona li awen pali.
They keep working.
They kept working.
The tenseless approach avoids forcing speakers of such languages to adjust to a new piece of grammar. It also opens some expressive possibilities, for example:
- Leaving out time information to specify that something is true regardless of timeframe. In English, there is no such general tense. "A leap year happens every four years." uses present tense, regardless of whether a leap year does happen to land on this year. "Gravity is a fundamental force." could be mistaken for a temporary statement—"How long until it won't be anymore?" Toki Pona simply lets time information be omitted in such cases.
- Leaving out time information for other reasons, like if you don't know when something happens (or did, or will), or if such information is a secret.
- Reducing redundancy when the timeframe is already obvious from context. This is significant as time phrases tend to be several words and syllables long, and thus would get repetitive. In terms of Toki Pona's philosophy, it also encourages speakers to be mindful.
- Generalizing a statement that happens at multiple points in time; inductive reasoning.
- Emphasizing or reiterating the time when it's important to a specific utterance.
Some phrases for duration are more common than others, though they are not entirely lexicalized. The same phrase in a different context is easily used to convey a different meaning, and the same meaning can be described by multiple phrases.
- tenpo suno - day, daytime, time that has light
- tenpo esun - week (based on the weekly workday cycle)
- tenpo mun - month (the length of a moon cycle is roughly one month), night (time related to the moon)
- tenpo sike - year (Earth circles the sun)[a], repeating time
For approximate durations, one can use tenpo lili and tenpo suli. Some use the same phrases for distances, while others use tenpo poka and tenpo weka. These can then be combined with terms for past and future.
The most commonly used phrase is tenpo pini - "finished time". If you'd like to (or need to) use something else, here are some potential alternatives for inspiration:
- tenpo majuna - old time, time of old things
- tenpo tan - source time
- tenpo weka - gone time (might be confused with far-away time)
- tenpo kiwen - solid time, time that can't be changed
- tenpo mama - ancestor time, time that created the current time
The most commonly used phrase is tenpo ni - "this time", which can be confused with "the time we're talking about". A somewhat common alternative is tenpo lon - "time that exists". Other possible phrases include tenpo mi - "my/our time" and tenpo pi toki ni - "the time of this conversation".
The most commonly used phrase is tenpo kama - "coming time". If you'd like to (or need to) use something else, here are some potential alternatives for inspiration:
- tenpo sin - new time
- tenpo pi sona ala - unknown time
- tenpo ken - time of possibilities
A reoccurring idea from learners coming from English is to use tenpo monsi and tenpo sinpin to refer to the past and future. Although it seems unambiguous at first, spatial metaphors for time vary across languages: Aymara and Toba put the future behind the speaker, Mandarin Chinese does so in some cases (and often prefers a top-to-bottom timeline), French and Italian kinship terms equate "back" with both great-grandchildren and great-grandparents, and so on. Not even English is completely immune: if a meeting is "moved forward", does it now come earlier or later than before?
- It's arguable whether or not this is a lexicalization, as the pu definition of sike includes "of one year".