Natural Semantic Metalanguage and Toki Pona

Natural Semantic Metalanguage is a theory that claims there is a common set of semantics underlying all natural languages. This is a descriptive theory, but we can also use it to evaluate constructed languages and perhaps use it prescriptively to help us create effective constructed languages (or at least let us restrict them consciously rather than accidentally).

I’ve taken the chart of NSM semantic primes from 2016 and written the Toki Pona equivalent of each prime in it, and crossed it off a list of Toki Pona words. The result is a mapping of NSM to Toki Pona, but it also tells me a few other things:

  • There are some primes in NSM that have no direct representation in Toki Pona. This highlights areas of Toki Pona that contribute to the sense that there are things you can’t say in it.
  • There are several overloaded words in Toki Pona that function as more than one NSM prime. This helps explain the "fuzziness" you feel using Toki Pona.
  • The non-primes in Toki Pona’s lexicon form a useful minimal vocabulary for people interested in language construction.

Interestingly, there are only a few primes that appear to be handled grammatically in Toki Pona. Almost all the primes in NSM are realized as independent Toki Pona words. This suggests to me that Toki Pona is extremely well-constructed.

Now, onto the chart:

NSM Prime Toki Pona
I-ME mi
YOU sina
SOMEONE jan
SOMETHING-THING ijo
BODY sijelo
PEOPLE jan mute
KIND <none>
PART wan

In the first section, we see a pretty good mapping from NSM prime to Toki Pona. “KIND” has no mapping, which makes sense, because Toki Pona is in general very bad at making distinctions between type (by design). I’ve marked wan in bold to draw attention to the fact that it represents multiple NSM primes. In fact, wan means one, unit, element, part, piece, or make one—in other words, as a noun, it means a single thing or one of many things, but as a verb it means to unify them into a wholeness, so it is a kind of auto-antonym, which is surprising in a constructed language but occurs not uncommonly in natural languages.

NSM Prime Toki Pona
WORDS nimi
THIS ni
THE SAME sama
OTHER-ELSE ante
ONE wan
TWO tu
MUCH-MANY mute
ALL ali
SOME <none>
LITTLE-FEW lili

mute and lili are both pretty polyvalent; mute winds up covering a lot of scenarios.

NSM PrimeToki Pona
TIME-WHENtenpo
NOWtenpo ni
MOMENTtenpo
(FOR) SOME TIME<none>
A LONG TIMEtenpo mute
A SHORT TIMEtenpo lili
BEFOREtenpo pini
AFTERtenpo kama

As you can see, Toki Pona is fairly weak at time. tenpo pini and tenpo kama mean “finished time” and “time to-come” and that’s about all you get. There’s definitely no distinction between points and intervals. The ambiguity here is probably intentional—intended to focus your attention on the here-and-now rather than placing sentences into arbitrary points in time and space (unlike Lojban).

NSM PrimeToki Pona
WANTwile
DON’T WANTwile ala
FEELpilin
DOpali
SAYtoki
KNOWsona
SEElukin
HEARkute
THINKpilin

Toki Pona has a full set of the mental predicates, the only ambiguity is the merging of “think” and “feel”, which was definitely an intentional choice by the inventor to steer discourse in a certain direction.

NSM PrimeToki Pona
HAPPENkama
BE (SOMEWHERE)lon
LIVEali
DIEmoli
THERE IS<none>
BE SOMEONE/SOMETHING<none>
(IS) MINEpi mi
MOVEtawa

Here we see lon used to place things and people as well as define them. It doesn’t seem like a perfect fit for any of these primes but it is closer than nothing. Toki Pona probably relies more on the null copula to say things like “this is a cat” (ni li soweli). I’ve underlined ali because “life” is an oblique meaning. Toki Pona doesn’t seem to have a word for “live.”

NSM PrimeToki Pona
TOUCHpilin
INSIDEinsa
PLACE-WHERE-SOMEWHEREtomo
HERElon
ABOVEsewi
BELOWanpa
ON ONE SIDEpoka
NEAR<none>
FARweka

I’ve underlined tomo because the sense “a general place” is definitely secondary to the sense “a room (indoors)” so it is an oblique association with the NSM prime. Also weka means “away” in a sort of vague way that might mean far but isn’t the main sense. And once again we have pilin for something sensory. That there are no real words for near and far is probably intentional—again, Toki Pona emphasizes the here-and-now—the surprise is that there is not really a word for here at all. It’s apparently just always implied; soweli mute li lon means both “there are cats here” and “lots of cats exist” and no distinction between them is possible.

NSM PrimeToki Pona
NOT-DON’Tala
CANken
BECAUSEtan
IFla
MAYBEken la
LIKE-AS-WAYnasin

la functions as a strange bit of grammar in Toki Pona, separating an “adverb” or “context” from the rest of the sentence. Conditionals are handled this way, as are temporal constructions. I think it’s likely that this area was intended to be simple and weak but grew more complex as the community expanded. Anyway, all the primes are available here, but not all as single words.

NSM PrimeToki Pona
VERYkin
MORE-ANYMOREmute
SMALLlili
BIGsuli
BADike
GOODpona
TRUElon

Once again, mute and lili reappear as common adjectives. lon in the sense of “true” is probably oblique. There’s no explicit way of saying false; you would simply negate the statement somehow.

So, what does that leave? Quite a bit:

  • a (ah, ha, uh, oh, ooh, aw, well)
  • akesi (non-cute animal, reptile, amphibian)
  • anu (or)
  • awen (stay, wait, remain)
  • en (and)
  • esun (market, shop)
  • ilo (tool, device, machine)
  • jaki (dirty, gross, filthy)
  • jelo (yellow)
  • jo (have, contain)
  • kala (fish, sea creature)
  • kalama (sound, noise, voice)
  • kasi (plant, leaf, herb, tree, wood)
  • kepeken (use)
  • kili (fruit, pulpy vegetable, mushroom)
  • kiwen (hard thing, rock, stone, metal, mineral, clay)
  • ko (semi-solid or squishy substance)
  • kon (air, wind, smell, soul)
  • kule (color, paint)
  • kulupu (group, community, society, company, people)
  • lape (sleep, rest)
  • laso (blue, blue-green)
  • lawa (head, mind)
  • len (clothing, cloth, fabric)
  • lete (cold)
  • linja (long, very thin, floppy thing)
  • lipu (flat and bendable thing)
  • loje (red)
  • luka (hand, arm)
  • lupa (hole, orifice, window, door)
  • ma (land, earth, country)
  • mama (parent, mother, father)
  • mani (money, material wealth, currency, dollar)
  • meli (woman, female, girl, wife, girlfriend)
  • mije (man, male, boy, husband, boyfriend)
  • moku (food, meal, eat, drink)
  • monsi (back, rear end, butt, behind)
  • mu (cute animal noise)
  • mun (moon)
  • musi (fun, playing, game, recreation, art)
  • nanpa (number)
  • nasa (silly, crazy, foolish, drunk, strange, stupid, weird)
  • nena (bump, nose, hill, mountain, button)
  • noka (leg, foot)
  • o (vocative)
  • oko (eye)
  • olin (love)
  • ona (she, he, it, they)
  • open (open, turn on)
  • pakala (blunder, accident, mistake)
  • palisa (long, mostly hard object)
  • pan (grain, cereal)
  • pana (give, put, send, place, release, emit, cause)
  • pimeja (black, dark)
  • pini (end, tip)
  • pipi (bug, insect, spider)
  • poki (container, box, bowl, cup, glass)
  • seli (fire, warmth, heat)
  • selo (outside, surface, skin, shell, bark, shape, peel)
  • seme (what, which)
  • sike (circle, wheel, sphere, ball, cycle)
  • sin (new, fresh, another, more)
  • sinpin (front, chest, torso, face, wall)
  • sitelen (picture, image, draw, write)
  • soweli (animal, especially land mammal, lovable animal)
  • suno (sun, light)
  • supa (horizontal surface, e.g furniture, table, chair, pillow, floor)
  • suwi (candy, sweet food)
  • taso (only, sole, but)
  • telo (water, liquid, juice, sauce)
  • unpa (sex, sexuality)
  • uta (mouth)

More details on the Toki Pona vocabulary can be found at the semi-official wordlist, by consulting pu, the official Toki Pona Book or perhaps by reading a tutorial.

Ideas for further work:

  • Create an NSM-complete Toki Pona by filling in the missing primes and disambiguating multi-valent words
  • Create an inflected Toki Pona by converting NSM primes into bound morphemes on the remaining TP lexicon