No, I’m not about to give you the recipe. Toki Pona isn’t the latest tasteless but quick growing Vietnamese fish foisted on us by desperate supermarket fish finger suppliers. It’s a language; a remarkably constrained language, and one that forces you to think – rather than make assumptions based on your subjective knowledge of a particular word.
As such, reading about it was of special interest to me, since so much of the current hysteria abroad in this septic isle comes down to our personal knowledge of the meaning of particular words, and that in itself is driven by the age and the culture in which we first learned the meaning of that word.
Toki Pona only has 123 words – compare that to the Oxford English dictionary with its 250,000 plus entries. The French language has even more words, one reason why it was considered the best language for diplomatic missive – less chance of misunderstanding, it was said. (If you really want to distract yourself whilst roasting on the skin cancer racks of Brighton beach without the benefit of a cancer inducing cigarette – I do recommend learning Toki Pona in French. That will definitely take your mind off your troubles).
The limited vocabulary forces you to think about each item in terms of what it means to you. There is no word for knife, that essential tool in our civilisation. You would have to use ilo, a tool. Now you have to describe the purpose of that tool in subjective terms – is it a tool used to stab you, bring you harm; is it a tool used to free you from bondage, save you from harm; is it a tool used to cut a delicious steak, to bring you joy and freedom from hunger. We use the word knife, and leave it to the listener to embroider the word with their own prejudices, their own experience of knives, their own memories of past experiences with knives to put what we’ve said in context.
“He was carrying a knife”. Did you see the rescuer, the chef, or the robber? The picture that came into your mind is the one based on your subjective experience of knives, not the experience of the speaker relating the tale of his/her encounter involving a knife. Mark Pagel, who wrote ‘Wired for Culture’, says that our thoughts are ‘channeled’ by our language. Nowhere is this more true than when we adopt specific nouns or verbs to describe a wide range of states and actions.
Take the current words that you are most likely to see at least once in every newspaper. ‘Child’; ‘Rape’, ‘vulnerable’, ‘illegal image’. How about ‘Scout-Master’? Depends on your age, doesn’t it?
Anyone born 1940/1950, hearing the words ‘Scout Master with one previous conviction‘ would be up in arms at the thought of their young son being in such a Scout Group. The very word ‘Scout-Master’, like B.O.A.C cabin-crew, was taken a shorthand for gay, and thus ‘likely’ to interfere with small boys. A younger generation doesn’t harbour these prejudices. In America, those of a younger age group would ask ‘what is the conviction – drink driving, unpaid tax, does it impact on my child’s welfare?’
‘Rape‘ is another such word. To the younger generation it implies “woke up with someone I don’t like the look of, can’t remember how I got here, so was probably blind drunk, therefore perhaps I didn’t consent – that’s me off down to the scented rape suite at the local nick”. An older generation has a totally different view of rape, considerably harsher, and likely to be mildly unsympathetic towards the modern young Ms ‘rape victim’.
So what a word means to the listener is tempered by both the epoch and the culture in which they first encountered the word – by limiting the choice of words, you force the speaker to define what they mean by the word.
Twitter, with its 140 character limit, has made the multitude of nuances of words even more divisive. The Oxford English Dictionary describes ‘swarm‘ as both ‘a group of social insects – especially led by a Queen’ and also a ‘thong or mass, especially moving in turmoil’ – however the latter meaning has steadily declined in use since 1950. The Twitter crowd were oblivious to the meaning that Cameron would have grown up with.
Limited vocabulary – it has its uses.