Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The mother tongue of The Little Prince: Toki Pona

The turmoil at Babel resulted in hundreds of languages. Some speak English, some speak Gaelic (they don't have their own country); there are people who speak German with their partner and Dutch at work. The landscape of languages is complicated. To complicate matters more, people invented artificial languages from Esperanto to Klingon. You may think it's a pastime of the modern ages, but you'd be wrong. The first attempt at creating a better language dates back a few centuries. Why would people do that? Why don't they just have a beer instead of putting in tiresome hours of tweaking with irregularities of grammar?
Well, language creators had a variety of intentions. J. R. R. Tolkien was a linguist by profession, he wanted to dig deeper in his research and understand the inner mechanisms of languages by re-creating them. Zamenhof called himself Doktoro Esperanto, the Hoping doctor, because he assumed he created a language simple enough to learn so it can become an international auxiliary language. If the language of global communication was Esperanto, not English, it would be easier for non-native speakers to learn (and it wouldn't give an unfair advantage to some nations). Lojban and its ilk were created to get rid of the quirks and limitations of natural languages. Lojban means "logical language", its goal is to sharpen our imperfect words and expressions so we can communicate clearly without misunderstanding each other.

All those wonderful initiatives -- and they didn't make it. We don't have movies and TV shows in Esperanto, we watch them in English. We still make mistakes in our communication which can lead to a laughter or a fight between family members or even people of a nation. There is this recurring idea of changing our behavior by changing our language. At a smaller scale, some think we can change the gender bias in our thinking if we modify certain parts of our language. At a larger scale, we would be more agreeable and cooperative if we spoke a more logical language that makes our hidden agenda explicit. Our language influences how we think and thus how we act. We just don't know to what extent. Are the best chefs French because of their language? Were there more Italian composers because Italian is so melodic? How would our lives change if we had a different language?

Toki pona is an artificial language you have probably never heard of. It was created by a Sonja Lang, a Canadian translator with a surprising goal: to make our lives good. Toki pona means good language. If language influences the way we experience the world around us, why not make it a happy experience? According to Sonja, our life is already so complicated and complex, it's time to return to a simpler, happier way of living, to forget about the pains of the past and false hopes of the future (or worries about it if that is your thing). I'm eating bread: "mi moku e pan". I ate bread: "mi moku e pan". I'll eat bread; "mi moku e pan". Toki pona is not obsessed about time and grammatical tenses.
The second edition of the Oxford English dictionary had more than 170.000 words. Shakespeare had a rich vocabulary, he used over 30.000 words; an average native speaker knows more than half of them. You can pass a standard language exam in the EU if you know 1500 words. Toki pona has 123. It's not a typo, it's slightly over a hundred words. It seems impossible at first. How could you express yourself with such a minuscule vocabulary? If you enter that smallish grocery shop around the corner, it has more than a hundred different articles from monster-shaped strawberry candy bars to dry beef-flavored dog food. And you haven't even said, "Good morning, it looks like raining, but I hope those ugly grey clouds will be blown away." A mere hundred words? It must be a primitive language, oonga-boonga style, me Tarzan, you Jane. Well, this language is not suitable to describe a sophisticated medical process, nor can it be used for elaborate legal texts, but it can cover a surprisingly wide range of human experience. The Little prince was actually translated to Toki pona.
You can't be very precise with such a tiny vocabulary, of course. The expression "little prince" translates the same way as Napoleon (small leader), and you can't distinguish between a snake and a lizard. The question is how you handle these limitations. You can get frustrated if you ask for a knife and get a fork instead (both being tools for eating). Or you can choose to activate that half-dormant side of your brain inhabited by poetry, art, fun, and creativity. Then you will laugh at the misunderstandings, you may even smile amused when you realize what the other meant by "land of no water" (desert).

Here is my challenge. I want to learn Toki pona in a few days. It's 123 words and some minimal grammar. Yes, it's not only piling words on words, but you can imagine how minimal that grammar must be if its creator kept the vocabulary small. They say you can learn the whole language in 20 hours or less. I don't want to spend my whole day cramming, so I expect it to take 3-4 days. I'll also need a way to tell if I reached my goal. I'll take The Little prince as my measure. If I can read and understand most of it, I'd be satisfied. I read it many times quite some time ago, I remember it vaguely, so it's not completely fair to use it as my measure, but Harry Potter or Stephen King are not translated yet.

Sonja's goal with creating Toki pona was to help us get back to the Way, to the Dao. My goal with this challenge is not to see if I'm capable of learning a new language or exercise my brain. I wonder if I bend my language to a yoga position of simplicity, will my mind follow? Will I become as simple as the birds in the sky? Will I become as innocent and sensitive as the Little prince? I'll tell you in a week or so. "ni li nasin" -- let this be the way.

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