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The Language of Good December 1, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, French, Toronto.

Since I have joined so many language exchange websites, I am quite used to receiving language exchange requests from time to time. Back in September, I received yet another one. But this time it was a bit unusual.

First of all, she was a native French speaker (bilingual French/English to be exact) asking for a Cantonese exchange. In the past, I often received requests from French speakers wanting English in exchange, or Cantonese learners who did not know French. This time it seemed to be a perfect match. Even better, she lives in my city!

Secondly, this person is no novice to the Cantonese language. In the past, I usually received requests for Cantonese help from people who knew virtually no Cantonese. There was no way we could communicate anything in Cantonese. This time, the person turned out to be the site owner of Cantonese.ca, a website which contains a lot of resources for Cantonese learners. The site has not been updated for a while, and she admitted that her Cantonese was rusted. That was why she wanted to pick up her Cantonese again. Besides Cantonese, she has also studied Dutch, Arabic, and Esperanto.

I later found out that this person was Sonja Elen Kisa, the creator of the language Toki Pona.

Toki Pona, which means “the language of good” in its own language, is a conlang which has only 14 basic sounds and 118 words. It is designed to be a simple language with simple vocabulary. Yet it turns out that with such a small set of vocabulary, it is quite sufficient enough to express a lot of complicated ideas. In fact, when Sonja created the language, she wondered why the vocabularies in our natural languages have to be so complicated.

Toki Pona has since caught the interest of language enthusiasts around the world, and it has also caught quite a significant media attentions, too.

In recent months, I have been communicating with my daughter, who is now 2 and a half years ago. I often have to avoid using complicated vocabulary. For example, instead of saying “fuel up”, I would tell her that our car is ‘hungry’ and needs to ‘eat’. “Turning off something” can be substituted by “putting it to sleep”. Even the concept of death can be conveyed as the person is “no more”.

So why do we need such complicated vocabularies in our languages. This just made life difficult for language learners and lovers like us.

I and Sonja exchanged a few emails and that was about it. She seemed to be quite occupied. I read from somewhere that she is in the process of writing a book about Toki Pona. Last week, I bumped into her again in a Cantonese Meetup group.



1. Rmss - December 2, 2007

Funny that you met her this way ;-). Normally people get in touch with her because of the language, like me.

I’m even translating lessons from English to Dutch, just because a nice amount of Dutchies want to learn the language.

2. chris(mandarin_student) - December 5, 2007

I have looked at Toki Pono and am interested in learning it at some point, I suspect it could be a wonderful little utility language for more universal communication in extremis.

I don’t see it as a replacement for modern languages though, I feel as though it only works because we have a more complex language to map from. Would the thought processes of someone who only learned Toki Pono from childhood be restricted in some way?

3. Rmss - December 5, 2007

“Would the thought processes of someone who only learned Toki Pono from childhood be restricted in some way?”

I know someone who lives near where I live who is fluent in it, and has learned how to express almost everything with it. He told me that he’s a bit autistic and that Toki Pona actually helps him because he’s able to form simple thoughts which gives him a sort of peace of mind. He also gave me some examples of how to explain more complex things, and when I asked how he knew what mix of words to use, he just said: it goes automaticly.

So what if someone would speak it as only language? I don’t know what would happen, but it is possible that he/she could function totally normal.

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