Toki Pona, the "language of good," is a constructed language intended by its inventor, Canadian linguist Sonja Lang, to inspire positive thinking and to be easy to learn and pronounce. This writeup is intended to serve as a brief breakdown of what aspects of Toki Pona might encourage or discourage a prospective learner from selecting this conlang over any other conlang they might wish to learn.

The Good

  • Toki Pona has an extremely simple phonology, making its pronunciation accessible to speakers of virtually any other language.
  • Toki Pona has a manual signed form, an accessibility consideration which few conlangs supply to any degree.
  • Toki Pona uses strictly head-initial grammar for modifiers (such as adjectives), making it easy to tell apart compound words which use the same component words. English is especially poor at this distinction; the difference between "boathouse" and "houseboat" being one of the more notable examples.
  • Toki Pona has one of the largest active conlanger communities in the world, boasting thousands of involved participants, hundreds of whom claim fluency. Conlangs rarely develop a large user base, so this is genuinely impressive, and it grants Toki Pona status as one of the "gateway drugs" of conlanging, along with Esperanto, Lojban, J.R.R. Tolkien's Sindarin, Trigedasleng from the television series The 100, and the Mandalorian language Mando'a invented by Karen Traviss for the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels. Conlangs which provide a leaping point into more conlangs tend to be well-liked among conlangers, because they bring more new participants into the wider community.
The Bad
  • Toki Pona offers no way to convey large numbers efficiently.
  • Toki Pona's vocabulary is so compact and heavily polysemous that very common, essential concepts to the human context are undifferentiable from each other: "foot" and "leg" have no distinction, for example, and neither do "large" and "important." While a lack of distinction between these two sets of concepts is not even uncommon in natural languages, these are not even a drop in the bucket of Toki Pona's potential for extreme ambiguity and obfuscation.
  • While this particular concern falls primarily on the user's own ignorance and unfamiliarity with world languages, it isn't uncommon for Toki Pona to be confused with Tok Pisin, a natural creole language of Papua New Guinea. I have encountered this occurring in person, in a university linguistics department, in a conversation between a Papuan student and an American student, who had asked the former what language she spoke, then incredulously remarked, "Okay, but seriously this time; what do you speak other than English?" This understandably was not received well, and the resulting dispute needed to be de-escalated by a third party with the knowledge priors to explain the unintentional insensitivity of implying that Tok Pisin is not a legitimate language in its own right.
The Ugly
  • Toki Pona uses multiple possible writing systems. One writing system, invented by Jonathan Gabel, bears strong resemblance to the hieroglyphic writing system of the Maya and several other ancient Mesoamerican cultures. This, on its own, would not be such a problem, except that there is such extreme self-similarity between glyphs with meanings unrelated to one another, that as writing systems go, it is actually extremely difficult to pick up and use. This completely contradicts the learner-friendly nature of the conlang's phonetic system. To make matters worse, the glyphs definitely do not resemble what they represent, and there is no correlation between the length of a word and the complexity of its glyph.The word 'li' is represented as a circle. The word 'jo' is represented as a complex squiggle which does not resemble any object found in nature or created by human beings. The word 'o' looks like a tiny one-eyed monster resting upon a cushion.
  • Proper nouns such as personal names are required to be converted to Toki Pona phonology. This is not possible for all names in the world, as Toki Pona's rules for conversion do not account for all possible phonemes and consonant clusters present in personal names. Additionally, many different names from different languages of origin, all reduce to the same resulting name in Toki Pona... and worse still, many personal names reduce to syllable combinations that are actual vocabulary words in Toki Pona, not all of which are inherently flattering, and many of which create grounds for confusion. While this may seem a small oversight, names are psychologically and socially important, and I've known a few people who found Toki Pona off-putting for this reason above all other reasons.
  • Verbs in Toki Pona are tenseless, because Toki Pona is completely uninflected. This makes it absurdly difficult to establish the timing of a chain of events which features actions occurring in the remote past, recent past, right this moment, and the intended near and remote futures. Adverbs are necessary to accomplish these tasks, and the adverbs themselves are ambiguous, relying on the user to draw conclusions from logic about which events were more likely to have occurred before or after other events, rather than it being explicitly clear.
The Interesting
  • Prepositions in Toki Pona are able to function as verbs. Prepositions indicating a direction of movement can also mean the actual movement, and prepositions indicating a position can also mean to exist at that position. Difficulty arises over prepositions like "in/into," which can be both directional and positional. Where the Latin language offers the ablative and accusative noun cases to differentiate between "inside" and "into," Toki Pona supplies no such workaround, leaving it on the user to discern meaning from context. Regardless, preposition-as-verb is a fascinating language artifact. It is normal for parts of speech to blur into each other, throughout world languages, but usually not these two specific parts of speech.
  • Toki Pona harvests its word roots from more than a dozen natural languages, meaning that some amount of phonosemantics are present in the language. "Nose" in Toki Pona is 'nena,' for example, adhering to the expectation that words concerning the human nose will contain the phoneme /n/.
  • Toki Pona's userbase has taken to treating Toki Pona as an auxlang (an auxiliary language, one which native speakers of dissimilar languages can use to bridge communication barriers among themselves), despite the language's author having never intended this outcome. It is not unusual in Toki Pona discussion spaces to see other languages avoided entirely, because the users have no other language in common among them.

reQuest 2020: an E2 reVue: "Your opinion (if you have any) on Toki Pona"

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