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Speed of Thought

Page history last edited by Dave Raftery 15 years, 2 months ago

The most interesting aspect of this account [of Navaho radio operators using their native language to encode American naval communications during World War II in the Pacific] is that Navaho simply does not possess a multitude of technical military terms — there was no way it could.  However, they thought up a very clever scheme to get around this — namely, using combinations of existing words to stand in for terms missing in their language (much as in the language Toki Pona).


It may seem as though language which narrows mental horizons is applicable only to totalitarian purposes, but this is by no means true.  In 2001 Sonja Kisa, on the basis of Taoist philosophy, worked out a language called Toki Pona, whose name translates as ‘good language’.  As in Orwellian Newspeak, the vocabulary of Toki Pona is limited.  However, in contrast to Newspeak, whose goal was subjugation and control, Toki Pona has set itself a different task.  It follows the philosophy Less is more.  Its goals include the breaking down of concepts into their component parts, excluding superfluous synonyms, an emphasis on the ‘good’, a sound pleasant to the ear.  This rather primitive language is called upon to liberate thinking from unnecessary words, make humanity wiser and teach it a simpler approach to life.


It hasn’t taken long for Toki Pona to achieve extraordinary popularity.  Literary works are being translated into it, and poetry is being written in it.  There is even a variant of the universal encyclopedia Wikipedia in Toki Pona (tokipona.wikipedia.org).

Ellochka Shchukina [a.k.a. Ellochka the Cannibal, a character in Ilja Ilf and Evgenij Petrov’s 1928 novel The Twelve Chairs] easily got by in life knowing only thirty words.  Well, Toki Pona has no more than 118 (you can find a list of these on the language’s official site at www.tokipona.org/nimi.html).  As this is only four times larger than Ellochka the Cannibal’s vocabulary, some ambiguity is unavoidable.  This isn’t always a bad thing, however.  When speaking Toni Pona, a person concentrates just on the basic features of things, not getting involved in unnecessary details.  Toki Pona is a ‘contextual language’ — i.e., in any given specific situation it distinguishes only those things which are critically important to understanding.  For example, a duck in Toki Pona is literally translated as water bird, but if there is a critical need to show exactly what water bird is being talked about, one can refer to a duck, for example, as a stupid water bird.


Just as one can reduce the fraction 37/148 to 1/4, so in Toki Pona one has to break down semantic constructions to simple and indivisible units of meaning.  Instead of saying, for example, I’m hungry, you say I want to eat.  Instead of teach it’s give knowledge; instead of health — a good body; instead of happinessfeeling good and so on.


Toki Pona enthusiasts maintain that in speaking this language, we discover for ourselves the deep meaning of things otherwise hidden behind the intricate constructions of traditional language.  You can learn Toki Pona in four hours, but once it is learnt, you can never forget it your whole life.  Speakers of the language maintain that learning it has given them a whole new outlook on the world — a more philosophical outlook.


I must admit that I did not take the time to learn Toki Pona myself, and so it’s hard for me to say whether it actually changes one’s consciousness or not.  It is safe to say, however, that the author of Toki Pona, Sonja Kisa, is a real free-thinking person, free from any kind of prejudice. -- Stanislav Koslovsky

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