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July 23, 2015: Can a language survive with just 123 words?

Bobbie Johnson
Jul 23, 2015 · 3 min read

@IfYouOnly brings you one must-read piece story every weekday, and digs into what makes it great.

Despite being barely competent at one language, I am a sucker for stories about all the other ones in the world — particularly the ability to express ideas and thoughts in one language that are inexpressible in English. So when I stumbled across this Atlantic story, I was smitten.

Toki Pona, a constructed language by Sonja Lang with a tweet-friendly number of words, manages to boil everything down to its essence.

“I didn’t realize how complex other languages are until I started speaking Toki Pona,” Krzeminska added. “There are so many different things you have to say before you actually get to say what you want, and there are so many things you’re not allowed to say even though you mean them.”

The Inside Story

There’s also a great little section in the piece which describes another language, Ithkuil (“Combining 58 phonemes within an exacting grammatical framework, Ithkuil is designed to precisely express all possible human thoughts. It is so complex that even its creator often requires 10 minutes or more to assemble a single word.”). That made it clear to me that the author hadn’t just stumbled on a single example. So I ask Roc to explain how he came across the story:

Roc Morin:

“I came across Toki Pona during a larger exploration of constructed language enthusiasts. The first thing to that came to mind when I heard about Sonja’s attempt to reduce language to its most basic elements was the dystopian novel 1984. In the novel, a totalitarian government undertakes a similar mission. Their intent is to limit unnecessary and rebellious thought by culling words that would give those thoughts expression. I was intrigued that Sonja had the opposite intention, to make Toki Pona speakers more aware of what they were experiencing. My own experiments with Toki Pona confirmed that. There is a playfulness to using it that requires dedicated attention.

“In addition, the simplicity of the language itself seems capable of becoming a credible lingua franca allowing people from different countries to communicate in a meaningful way. Other attempts at similar international auxiliary languages, most notably Esperanto, require a large investment from the learner, which seems to be the primary barrier to wider adoption.

“Requiring only a few days to learn, Toki Pona greatly reduces this barrier. Obviously, it would not replace natural languages or be used in any technical capacity, but if its limitations are embraced, I believe it has a great potential for bringing people together.”

Huh. Thanks, Roc. Lukin pona.

If you’ve got any suggestions for stories we should be linking to, respond to this post on Medium with your own suggestions, or tweet @IfYouOnly.

If You Only

If you only read one thing today, make it this.

Bobbie Johnson

Written by

Causing trouble since 1978. Former lives at Medium, Matter, the Guardian.

If You Only

If you only read one thing today, make it this. We highlight great writing and try to find out what makes it special.

Bobbie Johnson

Written by

Causing trouble since 1978. Former lives at Medium, Matter, the Guardian.

If You Only

If you only read one thing today, make it this. We highlight great writing and try to find out what makes it special.

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