The biggest or the smallest vocabulary? Everything will be ‘pona’!

February 18, 2016 8:26 am

It is by metaphor that language grows. The common reply to the question ‘What is it?’ is, when the reply is difficult or the experience unique, ‘Well, it is like —.’
Julian Jaynes (psychologist)

toki-pona

Is there any language with the ‘largest vocabulary’? I have no idea and I feel it is quite difficult to measure these kinds of things. On the contrary, I believe that every language has its strengths and weaknesses, and that all languages are somehow complementary. Maybe, being a polyglot you may find that sometimes, you feel very confident discussing certain topics in a certain language, while having that same conversation in another language would give you much more trouble. In Arabic, for instance, there is a word for every single stage of the growth of a flower, which is not always the case in other languages. Also, a meeting with field experts is as different from small talk or expressing your emotions and feelings as evaluating the results of the latest football match.

One thing is sure, the desire to surpass others is a typical part of human nature which we tend to project through our possessions and our surroundings: “My house is bigger than yours”, “our holidays were more luxurious than our neighbours’” and generally speaking, even our native tongue will – naturally – be the most melodious and rhythmic language of them all, have the funniest turns of phrase, and will thus be the best choice in the world for anyone who would like to learn a foreign language.

Honestly, is not every language beautiful, special and worth the effort to learn? Are not all languages, whether or not they are part of a broader language group, interconnected? Have they not influenced each other over the course of history? In addition, there are many factors to consider when it comes to studying languages, but one’s personal background, interests and needs, as well as one’s professional goals play a substantial and decisive role. Language is always embedded in a culture, and sometimes intrinsically linked to a religion: a fact that can strongly influence someone’s language preference.

In my opinion, there is no point in a war of the languages, as all languages are used for one common purpose: communication, in any thinkable shape or form. So, the question whether a particular language has a more comprehensive and detailed vocabulary than any other language, should not form any issue at all.

For many years, I have been wondering what it would be like if we used only the most basic words available to us when expressing our feelings, or describing something like a painting or a landscape, instead of overwhelming our audience with complicated, subjectively loaded phrases; what it would be like if we simply said things how we really mean them, without being impolite or disrespectful. Would such a way of communicating be less ambiguous and, therefore, more intelligible to everybody who speaks the language, or would it only lead to more misunderstandings? And (how) would that minimalistic language use change the way we see the world and experience life? In other words, what if, for example, we all spoke Toki Pona, the world’s ‘smallest’ language?

If you can express yourself in a simple way, then you really understand what you are talking about, and that is good. If something is too complicated, that is bad. You are putting too much noise into the equation. That belief is kind of hardwired into the language.
Sonja Elen Kisa, Sonja Lang).

Pronunciation_Toki_Pona

Toki Pona was constructed by the Canadian translator and linguist Sonja Elen Kisa (Sonja Lang). Although the language consists of 14 phonemes and 120 root words, it is possible to express maximal meaning with minimal complexity, because complicated things are split up into small parts, symbolic thoughts are omitted, related concepts are merged and single words are used for several functions of speech. This approach triggers the creativity, requires careful attention to details and forces the speaker to immerse into the moment itself. According to some users, the language is perfectly suited to talk about all positive things in life, and for that reason, Toki Pona is also known as ‘the language of good’ as it helps people live simply and happily.

If I call my friend a jan pona, I am calling him a good person. Often, if we are both tired and everything is too much, we just say, everything will be pona. You are a beautiful person, and everything is beautiful, and everything will be beautiful. And then, everything is better.
An anonymous Toki Pona user.

Do you want to know more about constructed languages? Read this article about supervernaculars.

 

Leen BoelWritten by Leen Boel
Terminologist trainee at TermCoord

 

 

 

 

Sources:

Morin, Roc. “The world’s smallest language has only 100 words – and you can say almost anything”, Business Insider UK, 19 July 2015. http://uk.businessinsider.com/the-worlds-smallest-language-has-only-100-words-and-you-can-say-almost-anything-2015-7?r=US&IR=T

Wikipedia Online, Toki Pona. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toki_Pona [10 February 2016].

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