toki a, jan ale o! mi jan Kekan San! mi wile pana e sona pi toki pona!
Hey everyone, I’m gregdan3, and today I wanna teach you about Toki Pona. A portion of this lesson is going to be in Toki Pona, so get ready! And if you’re already skilled in Toki Pona, skip to this timecode to listen!
Today we’re having a mini-lesson about expression, thinking about what it means for something to “be” a word in Toki Pona.
A lot of analysis in English gets stuck on the idea that a given thing always has some most appropriate head word to describe it, and once that word is found, that’s it.
Having helped a lot of learners over the past two years, I find it’s often because the learner themselves is new to the idea of expressing things in another language- they’re reaching for a singular word or phrase that captures the same idea as the word they want to translate in their original language, which isn’t how Toki Pona or translation itself works at all!
We’re going to challenge that idea, and these learners, to see Toki Pona in a new way. And we’re to do it by looking it a particularly strange creature, and finding a variety of ways to describe it.
Now you might’ve noticed I’m not in front of my chalkboard. And this creature here is why!
In English, this is a jellyfish, and the jellyfish is one of the creatures that ever. From its name alone, you might be tempted to call it ‘kala’ in Toki Pona. That wouldn’t be so bad! If you and a friend were both looking at the jellyfish, you’d probably agree that kala is a great and easy way to get across what the creature is. And of course, there’s a very obvious reason to use the word ‘kala’, even if you had never seen one before in your life: it’s moving around in the water!
But that doesn’t mean kala is the only, or even the best, way to refer to the jellyfish. So, we’re going to play a game about it.
Let’s imagine you are looking at the jellyfish for the first time- and you have to describe it to your friend on the phone. They can’t see it! And for bonus points, they haven’t seen one before either.
Where do you even start? Well, the first thing to realize is this task is hard even in English, and just about any other language. Pretty much all communication depends on having and describing common experiences in order to successfully get an idea from your brain to your listener’s brain. Most languages have the benefit of having more words- more specific ideas that are easily accessed. But it turns out, we can still apply this same strategy to Toki Pona!
So we’ll start here by looking at the jellyfish ourselves, and describing its features. Then, we’ll describe them in relation to other things we know, in order to communicate the idea of the creature to our friend on the phone.
ona li jo e lawa sike, taso lawa ona li telo mute la sina ken lukin e insa ona e ijo lon monsi ona!
mi ken ala pilin e ona tan ni: ona li lon telo. taso, lukin la ona li ko tawa pilin. pilin mi la mi luka e ona la ona li kama lili sama ko.
ona li jo e linja mute mute lon anpa pi lawa ona. ni li sama linja pan mute tawa lukin. taso ona ale li weka pona tan ona ale la ona li kama ala wan. ken la telo ona en ko ona li pona e ni.
kin la linja ona li suli mute a tawa lawa ona. ona li suli sama luka ale jan! taso, ona li lili tawa sijelo jan.
ona li laso sama telo la ona li ken len lon suno lili!
mi sona ala e ni: ona li tawa ala tawa tan wile? lukin la, ona li ken ala tawa wile. ona li tawa sama telo, tan tawa telo. ken la ona li wawa ala la telo li tawa e ona.
ni ale la mi wile kepeken nimi kala. taso ona li ko a li linja a li telo a. kin la ona li tawa wile ala. ni la ona li ko telo tawa mi! ko telo o suwi pona!
Here’s a summary-translation in case you couldn’t catch all that just yet:
The shape of its head is circular, but so watery that you could see inside of it and things behind it!
I can’t feel it because it’s in the water, but to my eyes it looks squishy and gooey. I feel like, if I felt it, it would squish and become smaller like goop.
It has many tentacles underneath its head, and they are similar to noodles in appearance! But they’re distant enough from one another that they don’t knot, and maybe the water and squishiness of it could help this too.
Its tentacles are very large compared to its head! In fact, they’re large compared to a person’s arm! But they’re small compared to a person’s body.
Its shade of blue is so similar to the water, it can be hidden when there is little light!
I don’t know this: can it move because it wants to? To my eyes, it can’t move how it wants. It moves like water does, because the water is moving. Maybe, because it is not strong, the water moves it.
Because of all of this, I want to use the word “kala”. But it’s squishy, stringy, and watery. It also doesn’t really move on its own. Because of this, it’s “squishy water” to me! Be good, squishy water!
The big takeaway here is that words in Toki Pona are descriptive- not names, as in sounds assigned to things, but explanations of what the thing is, how it is, why it is, what it does in various contexts.
There is no “one” most appropriate word as a head- there may be one or even a few that will be better understood by your listener! But by trying to use only one or a handful of words, or by trying to assign one “best” head noun, you actually limit your ability to express things in Toki Pona. That limited view might lead you to call the jellyfish a kala, or maybe a kala ko or kala linja- but you can get so much more more creative.
Instead, accept that the words are only descriptive, and nothing else- and then use lots of description to build ideas in your listener’s mind! As we saw with the jellyfish, there are a dozen, and more, appropriate ways to describe it- many of which would be valid head words of their own for it!
But more importantly, each and every one of these draw on experiences the listener has had, relating the different strange parts of the jellyfish’s appearance and behavior to these.
The only thing that makes a word valid to use is whether your listener understands what you mean.
The reason I put together this mini-lesson is because a group of friends and I came to this very aquarium a few days ago, and had a long conversation- in Toki Pona- about this exact jellyfish. We didn’t come up with one “correct” way to talk about the jellyfish- more, we posed the question: what IS it? ni li kala ala kala? ni li seme? And the conversation spiraled from there into a huge number of different ideas, some silly and some serious, about how the jellyfish looks, acts, and feels to us. ona li ko, li nasa, li jo e linja mute la ona li sama pan linja anu seme? There are so many different ways to approach this idea. Can you think of any more? Post em down in the comment section!
By the way, my lessons on ‘la’ and asking questions are on the way! Apologies for the long delay- my workflow got knocked around all sorts of ways between January and March, and I only just recently got back on track.
Thanks to jan Tekinowi for the thumbnail of this video, and thank you all so much for learning! Have a good one!