Three-vowel system

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Caution: The subject of this article is an experimental or hypothetical style that is not understood by most speakers, or is used only in specific small communities. Learners should avoid using it.
Vowel chart for a three-vowel system merging [e] to /i/ and [o] to /u/

A three-vowel (or trivocalic) system has recurrently been proposed for Toki Pona since the language's inception.

Proposals generally keep the most extreme vowels /a i u/ to maximize the contrast between them. For example, selo would be transcribed /ˈsilu/. These are also the main vowel qualities of the phonology of Arabic and some other natural languages, so in theory this system might make Toki Pona more accessible to their speakers.

Proposals may also give each vowel a different height, such as /a i o/ (an example that preserves the language's name).

Some tokiponidos, such as tuki tiki, use a three-vowel system.

History[edit | edit source]

On 8 July 2002, a Toki Pona Forums user named Viktoro proposed converting Toki Pona into a trivocalic language. Viktoro cited an extremal three-vowel contrast as an explanation for iki being confused with ike and replaced with ona. Sonja Lang replied that she had considered the idea before, but posed that:

  • "[I]t would blur proper nouns beyond recognition."
  • Existing phonotactics, such as the *ti-palatalization rule, could generate knock-on decisions: "would 'sitelen' become 'sisilin' or 'sitalin'?"
  • She would not make "such a radical change… without the support of the majority" and "much consultation and thought".

Both /a i u/ and /a i o/ systems were explored, mainly considered as merging /e~i/ and /o~u/ into allophones.[1]

Ultimately, neither of the systems discussed were implemented. However, the idea of merging /e~i/ may have been leveraged in autumn 2002, when ale was noted to be confused with ala and received the alternative pronunciation ali.[2] It can be said that /e~i/ allophony was applied to this one word.

In the set of 120 main words taught in Toki Pona: The Language of Good, there are no minimal pairs between /e~i/ or between /o~u/. For a time, this led the phonology to be described as practically a three-vowel system. However, Toki Pona Dictionary validated the popularly used word kin, which would conflict with ken, and introduced the word ku which would conflict with ko.

See also[edit | edit source]

  • tuki puna, a detailed proposal by jan Pensa (made in 2017, described and published in 2024)

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Viktoro [vixcafe]. (9 July 2002). "New lessons coming soon! / Trivocalic". Toki Pona Forums. Retrieved 19 November 2023.
  2. Lang, Sonja. (30 October 2002). "ale => ale or ali". Toki Pona Forums.