Video lesson still to come!
Table of Contents
- Words to Know
Words to Know
|(between context phrase/sentence and main sentence)
|A right parenthesis, or curve
|start, begin, enable, open
|A box with open top and horizonal line in center
|finish, stop, disable, close
|A vertical line, flat caps on top/bottom, like capital letter
|money, cash, barterable thing, thing of value
|Circle with two horns like cows
|trade, barter, shopping, economy, exchange
|A fancy letter “L” with loops at top right and bottom left
|cloth, cover, clothing, secret, hidden
|Box with 3 small lines from the bottom left, right, and center
|moon, star, planet, celestial body
|A crescent moon with points facing the left
|new, fresh, update
|3 lines a bit away from the center, pointing left, right, and up
|love, respect, affection, emotional connection
|2 hearts; the top heart is covered a bit by the bottom heart
|air, ghost, spirit, unseen agent
|2 wavy vertical lines, like smell lines in a comic
|line, rope, string, hair, connection
|A wavy horizontal line like a rope or string
|circle, spiral, sphere, cycle
|A big circle with a small circle inside it
Every example has more information than just a translation beneath! All of them include extra info on how to think about a certain phrase, what other ideas it is comparable to, and much more.
Intro to la
la is Toki Pona’s most complex piece of grammar. But it’s still simple like the rest of the language, so let’s dig in!
First, la is about context. When does something happen? What is it related to? la tells you that when one thing is going on, another thing happens.
The thing before la is a condition for the thing after it, like if and then working together in English. This may be a requirement, such as if the thing after la only happens when the thing before la does! It can also be where, when, or why something happens, like prepositions. Sometimes, it can be two statements only related by happening at the same time! la is very broad, but there are many useful patterns you can pick up on to better understand them.
When reading la phrases, it’s helpful to think of them like this:
 la 
In the context of , 
If , then 
Because of ,  happens.
Keep these shorthands in mind as we explore the different ways la can be used!
Phrases and la
Feel free to skip around! There are many examples here, each with different perspectives on how la works. But be sure to read them all by the end!
la and perspective
The context could be a subject or object, such as a person or thing. This is useful for discussing perspective, like the preposition tawa:
mi la sina sewi lon utala!
To me, you’ll win in the fight!
In my opinion, you’re going to win the competition!
Here is a restatement using tawa:
sina sewi lon utala tawa mi
Here, the la phrase has mi in it- this could mean “in my opinion” or “in my perspective”. mi being context for the rest of the sentence is a way of saying that something is relevant to the speaker- relevant to you! Check under the spoiler for your understanding.
la and location
But the context isn’t limited to people or things- it can also be places, like with the preposition lon:
sewi la sina ken lukin e suno mute
In the sky, you can see many lanterns!
In the rafters, you can see lots of lights.
Here’s a restatement that uses lon:
sina ken lukin e suno mute lon sewi
Here, sewi is the context. Since sewi is often a location, this could refer to where something happens, or where something is! This isn’t the only interpretation though. Check under the spoiler!
la and cause
The context could be an action or idea too, and refer to cause and effect like the preposition tan:
pali sina la jan mute li kama pona
You worked, so people healed!
Because of your work, many people have gotten better.
This is similar to using tan!
jan mute li kama pona tan pali sina
Here, the context pali is an action- working or creating. The la phrase refers to cause: pali must happen for everything else to happen! Even this works like one of the prepositions- most phrases in la work like one of the prepositions! This doesn’t work every time, but it can help your understanding go far!
la and description
The context in la could be a description, which is especially useful for contrast:
laso la kasi li pilin pona. loje la kasi li kama moli.
When green, plants feel good. When red/brown, plants die.
Green plants are healthy. Red plants are dying.
Contrast is one of the most important ways to express complex ideas in Toki Pona!
Here, two contexts are used in separate sentences to explain a deeper idea! They each give context for their respective sentences, and together give more information than either one alone. The first sentence uses laso: “If green, then…”, and that is contrasted with loje: “If red, then…” Check under the spoiler for the translation!
Fun fact: these sentences are the least like the prepositions. Instead, these sentences have context that works a lot like modifiers!
la and feelings
Sometimes, the context will be the speaker’s opinion or feelings about the main sentence, like an interjection:
ike la soweli mi li moku e lipu sona mi!
Unfortunately, my dog ate my homework!
Upsetting! My cats chewed up my textbook!
Here’s another version with ike as an interjection:
ike! soweli mi li moku e lipu sona mi!
And here, the context ike tells us how the speaker feels about the statement. It’s like an interjection!
la and meaning
Sometimes, it won’t be clear what the context is when you hear it. It could be a place, object, action, description, or many more things- and that’s okay!
utala la mi pana e kiwen!
- In a fight, I threw a rock!
- In the context of fighting, I give a rock.
The context completely changes the interpretation here! Without utala, most listeners wouldn’t assume the rock is being thrown. With it, this is a fight!
Here, utala works like a location, idea, or action depending on perspective. This is all about interpretation, but the result is the same: the main sentence happens in the context of a fight!
la and whole prepositions
Lastly, you can have any full prepositional phrase in la! This is the same as having that phrase at the end of the sentence, how we learned it before:
lon tomo la mi lape
In a home, I sleep.
Here’s the same statement without la!
mi lape lon tomo
This is exactly the same as having the preposition at the end of the sentence- so why would you use it? For style, for fun, maybe because it feels more clear! This is a choice you have more than anything else.
Because so many la phrases are similar to prepositional phrases, you can often drop the preposition itself and have the same meaning as with it. This especially applies to lon and tawa, and sometimes tan and kepeken.
tomo la mi lape
This restatement without lon can mean the same as the above example!
Notably, sama phrases won’t usually mean the same thing if you drop the preposition.
sama kasi la mi awen lon ma
Like plants, I stay still on the ground.
Here’s the same statement without la!
mi awen lon ma sama kasi
sama needs its preposition to be understood, but sama prep phrases can still be used in la!
Be careful- not using the preposition can introduce other interpretations! Be ready to restate yourself if somebody isn’t sure what you mean!
Phrases and la summary
That was a lot of information! Let’s take a moment to review everything so far.
Think back to the start of the lesson, and this example of how la could be interpreted:
In the context of , 
When la has a phrase, it works most like this. Look back over the examples, and see how often this applies!
Otherwise, any valid phrase may be before la, and those phrases can act like almost any part of speech or function in Toki Pona! In short, the context can be any almost anything, so experiment!
These prepositional meanings are most common when la has a phrase. The other uses, such as cause and effect, are still possible with phrases before la. But cause and effect is most often expressed with full sentences before la, which are next!
Sentences and la
la has one more important use: you can use a full sentence for context!
Terminology note! When I use “sentence” in this section, I mean statements before and after la. Here’s an example of each sentence underlined: sina pona la mi pona.
You might see “sentence” used to refer to a complete statement including la- that’s valid too, so be aware!
When you have a full sentence, it can express anything- so instead of breaking down many possibilities like I did with phrases, we’ll work through several examples and build an understanding. Let’s get started!
sina pona la mi pona
- If you’re good, I’m good!
- When you’re well, I’m well!
- You’re happy, so I’m happy!
Here, the context is “sina pona”, which you understand by now! The main sentence is “mi pona”, and you know that too! But with la between them, the meaning of the second sentence now depends on the first. You might say, “if sina pona, then mi pona”. Check your understanding in the spoiler!
jan li pona la mi wile lon poka ona
- If people are good, I want to be at their side.
- When people are good, I want to be close to them.
- People are good, so I want to be near them.
This is a bit more complex! Now we have a sentence with li, but that’s okay. We note that ona in the later sentence refers back to jan in the first, and we can once again imagine the two working together like “if” and “then” in English. Here’s a similar example with “so”: jan li pona, so mi wile lon poka ona. Check the spoiler!
kasi li moku e telo la ona li kama suli
- The flowers drank water, so they became tall!
- If the trees consumed water, they will be huge!
- If the plant drinks water, it will grow big!
Here, we have a statement with e before la. It doesn’t matter how complex the sentence before la gets- the sentence after will still depend on the one before! But at this point, you should be comfortable with sentences like these.
ona li tawa tomo la ona li kama wile lape
- When they’re traveling home, they get tired!
- While they’re going home, they want to sleep!
- When they left for home, they needed to sleep.
Sentences before la work the same with prepositions, pre-preds, and any other part of speech or function. Like I said, these are normal sentences, with all the same rules we’ve learned.
sina kama kala la sina tawa telo
- If you became a mermaid, you would swim!
- When you’re a whale, you travel in the water.
- If you were a fish, you’d go to the water.
If you remember back to the early lessons, there was a suggestion to ignore parts of the sentence, read what is left, then add back the ignored part. For example, with modifiers, you could look at only the first word, and go back for the modifier(s). You can do this with la too, but unlike modifiers which only get more specific, la changes the sentence. You’ll need it! Still, this strategy can help you.
There’s a million different ways to express a sentence before la- I can’t cover them all! But trust that, if you understand the sentences before and after la, you can figure out what they mean with la between!
By the way- sentences can get complex, both before and after la! It’s generally better to break down speech into more sentences, but you can still have complex ones, so here’s a really involved example:
jan li alasa e kiwen wawa lon tenpo suno ale la ona li pakala e ilo mute li kama wile pali ala
- When somebody pans for gold all day, they’ll break lots of pans, and want to give up
- If everyone is looking for iron while the sun is out, they’ll break their pickaxes and want to stop trying so hard!
- The people were hunting for tungsten every day, so they broke their drills and wanted to quit!
- People are searching for strong rocks the whole day, then they broke their tools and wanted to stop working
All these different interpretations are just because of interpreting Toki Pona in English- the Toki Pona would only mean one thing in one context!
There’s a lot going on here! An action, a time that action happens, and the effect of that action on the subject! The sentence before la describes a circumstance- what happened before, what will happen, or a hypothetical situation that could happen. The sentence after describes what that circumstance causes. Interpret each individually, then connect them as though “if” and “then” were used. Check under the spoiler for your understanding!
Sentences and la summary
Think to the start of the lesson again:
If , then 
When la has a sentence, it most often works like this! The sentence before la is what causes the sentence after la to happen.
You can often interpret each sentence individually, then figure out what they mean together from that! And this generally expresses cause and effect.
Other uses of la
You can have multiple consecutive la phrases, but keep them short for clarity:
ken la mi kama jo e ilo musi mute la mi ken pana e ona tawa jan poka mi!
Maybe, if I get lots of fun toys, I can give them to my friends!
If possible, I will get several game consoles, and gift them to my neighbors!
You’ll notice that one of the phrases is just a word, and the other is a sentence. Mixing the two is totally fine!
sina pali la, sona mi la, sina ken ni!
If you work, then to my understanding, you can do this!
Here, the phrase and sentence are in the opposite order. Just as well!
It might be that both contexts apply to the last “main” sentence, or that the first applies to the second and the second applies to the last sentence. Like when we learned about pi, context matters- but shorter sentences, and fewer phrases, are clearer!
if la, then o
You can combine la with o to make your instructions conditional. Here it works with a sentence:
sina lukin e kasi suli la o tawa nasin kiwen. nasin li tawa kulupu tomo
When you see the tall trees, travel down the rocky road. The road goes to the city!
If you see tall trees, take the gravel path. The path takes you to the village!
These are the same as the if , then  way to interpret. But now, the “then” part is then do !
It works with a phrase too, but it can be a bit less clear what you mean. Try this one out:
tenpo poka la poki kasi o lon supa
Soon, the flower pot must be on the table.
Sentences are often more clear than phrases because they provide more information about when or why you should do something- still, experiment! Clever, brief statements can convey a ton of info.
Check out my side lesson for more tricks with la!
Toki Pona to English
You meet an old man in a dark cave, close to your journey’s beginning. He tells you of your dangerous trials ahead, and offers you an important tool: a blade. He tells you what you have to do:
sina kepeken ilo utala sewi la sina ken pini e ike pi akesi wawa
If you use the gods’ sword, you can stop the evil of the great lizard!
When you use the blade of flight, you can defeat the mega toad!
You’re out in a dark sky park waiting for the last rays of the sun to disappear. As the skies clear, you see all the stars come into view brighter than you’ve ever seen them, and say in amazement:
wawa a! sewi li pimeja mute la mi ken lukin e mun ale!
When the sky is very dark, I can see all of the stars!
You’re discussing with a friend how love feels, and how your relationships work. You ask them, how did you make your relationship work? And they answer:
jan li olin e mi la mi olin wawa e ona
When somebody loves me, I love them deeply.
Following your discussion with your friend, you want to show your partner you love them. You start with a compliment, something you might have overlooked before, and say:
mi lukin e sina la mi lukin e linja sina. ona li pona mute tawa lukin
When I see you, I look at your hair. It’s so pretty to see.
You and 30 of your closest friends are waiting outside a campground, which is specially set up for a fair! You’re excited to get inside when they open, and you explain to everyone there what’ll happen:
tenpo suli li open la mi ale li ken musi lon supa musi!
When the carnival is open, we can have fun on the teacup ride!
When the party begins, we can all dance on the dance floor!
You arrive home one day to find your house totally clean thanks to a friend! But it’s not perfect: the entire house smells strongly of cleaner! It’s making you a bit sick, so you have to explain to them:
sina weka e jaki la mi pilin pona. taso kon ike la mi pilin jaki
You got rid of the trash, which I appreciate. But the strong scent makes me feel ill!
You’ve never much liked the chore of shopping. To better convince yourself to go out and do the work, you buy yourself a treat on the way. You bring a friend along on one shopping trip, and while stopping for your treat, you explain to them:
mi tawa tomo esun la mi kama jo e poki pi telo pimeja! mi ni lon tenpo ale.
If I go to the store, I get a cup of coffee! I do this every time.
You and a friend are on a carnival ride! You didn’t particularly want to go, but it’s too late, you’re on the ride! It starts spinning wildly, and you sit way down in the cup and try to wait it out. Then you start to feel bad and tell your friend:
poki ni li awen tawa sike la mi kama nasa jaki…
If this ride keeps spinning, I’m gonna be sick!
You are sitting under a flowing waterfall, feeling the icy water hit your back and wash down into the pond around you. You sit still and take in the sensation, and as you do so, you think to yourself in your meditation:
mi esun e kon la mi awen lon
If I exchange air, I remain alive.
You’re scritching your bunny’s pretty coat, recently grown thick because of the winter. Apparently you were a little rough with the critter, because some of their fur came out! You feel a little bad and say to your bunny:
mi pilin e linja sina la mi pakala. mi weka e linja lili sina!!
When I was touching your hair, I made a mistake. I pulled a little of your hair off!
I was touching your fur, but I messed up. I removed your tiny hair!
You recently finished an intense course on welding. A friend texts to ask how it went, so you go to your garage to make them a gift. When you see them again, you hand them two fused soda cans with a perfect weld between them, and say this of your skill:
open la mi sona ala. pini la mi sona ale.
At the beginning, I didn’t understand. At the end, I fully understood.
You’re sitting in physics, learning about how gravity works to keep objects on the ground. Your teacher makes an example of how different throwing a frisbee would be on other planets, saying:
sina tawa e sike lon ma la ale li pona. sina ni lon mun suli la sike li weka a!
If you throw a disk on the ground, everything is fine. If you do this on the Moon, the disk will be gone!
You walk into work one day and find your boss looking super rough and disappointed, staring sadly at a big tuba sitting in the corner. You ask your boss how they’re doing, and they explain the story:
mi esun e ilo kalama musi sin. ona li kalama suli suli la jan pi ma ale li ken kute. taso jan mute li wile ala kute la ona li utala e mi!
I bought a new musical instrument. It makes such a loud sound that everyone everywhere can hear it. But tons of people don’t want to hear (it), so they fought me!
English to Toki Pona
If I stare into the sun for too long, I won’t be able to see.
mi lukin e suno lon tenpo pi mute ike la mi ken ala lukin!
mi lukin e suno lon tenpo suli la mi kama ken ala lukin!
mi lukin e suno lon tenpo suli la mi ken ala lukin!
Your donations have helped us afford a new nursery!
sina pana e mani la mi kama ken pali e tomo pi jan lili kepeken mani!
mani sina li ken e ni: mi pali e tomo pi jan lili
When I push on the side of the building, I hear cracking noises!
mi alasa tawa e poka tomo la mi kute e kalama pakala!
mi wawa e poka tomo la mi kute e kalama pakala!
I didn’t know how to open the store, so I hid instead!
mi sona ala e nasin open pi tomo esun la mi weka! mi len e mi!
mi sona ala e nasin open pi tomo esun la mi len e mi!
If you fall asleep on the train, you’ll end up in a far away place.
sina lape lon tomo tawa la, sina kama lon ma weka
sina lape lon linja tomo la, sina kama lon ma sin
My cat loves me because I give her food and play with her!
mi pana e moku tawa soweli mi. mi en ona li musi. ni tu la ona li olin e mi
soweli mi li olin e mi tan ni: mi pana e moku tawa ona. mi musi lon poka ona.
The new couch is great for sleeping on. I slept on it last night and I feel great!
supa suli sin li pona mute tawa lape! mi lape lon ona lon tenpo pimeja poka la mi pilin pona a
These planets are so far from stars, you can’t see them because they’re not lit!
mun kiwen ni li weka mute tan mun suno la, sina ken ala lukin e ona tan suno ala
There are two different mun here: the planets and the stars. Use modifiers to distinguish them!
When you’re finished, come help me push the wagon!
sina pini la o kama! mi tu o tawa e poki
sina pini la o pona e mi! mi tu o tawa e poki
I thought I was done working, but another stack of paperwork came in…
pilin mi la mi pini e pali. taso, pali sin li kama…
pilin mi la mi pini e pali. taso, lipu pali sin li kama…
Hold on tight to the rope, so I can help you up!
o jo wawa e linja! ni la mi kama sewi e sina!
o jo e linja! ni la mi sewi e sina!
Last year, I made a secret room! But one person saw it, so it’s not secret anymore.
tenpo sike pini la mi pali e tomo len. taso, jan wan li kama lukin e ona la ona li kama len ala!
Here’s something important about this entire lesson, exercises and all: the way I described la here is by no means perfect. It’s not the only way you can think about how la works, and it’s not necessarily the best way- this is a breakdown of how I see and teach this part of Toki Pona’s grammar. You’ll get different explanations from other speakers- so the best you can hope for is to have a good idea in mind that gets you close to right! And you’ll know you’re there when you read and understand the sentence.
Either way, the raw grammar still applies, and so do all these provided translations!
As a short review, la comes in two forms:
- Incomplete sentences, as in phrases and individual words. Most often these are interpreted as “in the context of , ”. They can also convey condition like modifiers, or circumstance like prepositions!
- Complete sentences, which can be as long and complex as any sentence without la! These are often conditional, interpreted as “if , then ”.
This is a complete list of everything la does grammatically, but not everything it can do in meaning. Also, all the given English interpretations are only approximations of how la really works, and aren’t perfect.
la and expression
la makes Toki Pona come alive with meaning and expression! So many new and unique things can be said with la, it’s hard to imagine Toki Pona without this piece of grammar. You can describe circumstance, context, cause and effect, everything a preposition can do, and more.
What if I don’t get it?
If you’re ever confused by another speaker’s statement, try asking them what’s up with Questions in the next lesson:
sina toki e ni lon poka pi nimi ‘la’: … ni li toki e seme?
And while you’re at it, don’t worry about not getting la yet. Most speakers say it took them the most time to understand la compared to all the other words and grammar. If you keep trying, you’ll get it!
Remember, these lessons aren’t comprehensive. The guidance and interpretations only tell part of the story- nothing can replace practice and immersion, so try la in a conversation in ma pona pi toki pona a!