A long while ago I got excited about a new language called toki pona. It had already been created and there was even a small community of fans and some national press. I joined the rabble not as a conlanger, but as an indiscriminate language learner that wanted to learn a language from start to finish, a goal that has eluded me with my experience with Latin, Spanish, French, Russian, Icelandic, Swedish (and many more!). I learned it start to finish and even got good at it.
I have sort of become a community organizer– not the main teachers (that was jan Kipo through his constant proofreading of newbies’ texts and jan Pije through his lesson plan). Since then, my short attention span kicked in, I’ve learned a bit about conlang design and have evolved some opinions about conlang governance. And there is a baby on the way. And the paths forward for toki pona aren’t attractive at the moment.
Good things happened in the community, I made friends, got a piece of tp art on my wall, we saw jan Wiko pass away, we saw toki pona inspire a lot of art– from visual arts to science fiction short stories, people congratulated me on my engagement in toki pona, I posted about jan Jakopo’s health crisis in toki pona and the community responded in toki pona. And people wrote a lot– something on the magnitude of 100,000 words have been written in toki pona (that’s based on my collection of a 50,000 word corpus and assuming I only tracked down half of the total texts). And there were a lot of people by conlang community standards, several thousand people who heard of it, and a maybe fifty to a hundred people who tried to write it. That sounds small, but that is a huge number compared to most conlangs.
The pros and cons of absentee governance
toki pona governance is probably like the vast majority of conlangs– a burst of attention from the creator followed by long periods of neglect, which is good and bad. The good is that the language is stable during the interum. It’s bad because there is no way for the community to resolve issues outside of natural langauge evolution, a rather slow and ineffective way to evolve a language. Newbies keep showing up who’ve read the bit about taoism, left leaning politics and a probably incorrect mental model of how our minds work. And they bicker (often politely!) with the people who’ve invested the time to gain some technical competency, people like myself who’ve decided that once you start to use it as a language, toki pona behaves like a language– it doesn’t help you see reality directly, help you see reality as a leftie, or any such thing. (If you don’t recognize what I’m referring to, you’d have to track down the discussion jan Wiko, RIP, posted long ago, when he was griping about people using TP to express things that go well beyond simple utterances) It does have interesting technical characteristics with application to a variety of novel real world applications, such as robotics, information representation, medical-conlangs, etc, etc, although that would be true of any small language.
Dealing with the inventor
A conlang fan wants to use the language, not design it. So that means keeping the coversation in the community going and finding new fans. The inventor of a conlang will become a big fish in a very small pond- making them possibly more famous than they want to be. Conlanging is popular with eccentrics and eccentrics attract derision and apeja (a toki pona word coined for this sort of thing) for their conlanging hobby and their non-conlanging eccentricities and jan Sonja got her share of it. I used to say a lot, “We’ll jan Sonja wrote…” but I stopped mentioning the creator and decided to let the creator decide when they wanted to be famous and when they wanted to disappear into the background.
A good percent of conlang creators have a “get-off-my-lawn” approach to dealing with fans. Fortunately, jan Sonja’s approach to fans is mostly to ignore them– which has some advantages, many fans want language reform, which would make it difficult to read and write tp from different eras. With tp I’ve tried to avoid trying to push too hard on any reform. On the otherhand, with no governance structure at all, the power of the rabble to do something more that rabble is diminished to the point where there is no growth, and more importantly, less activity. Period.
jan Sonja’s plans for TP
There were plans to translate Wikipedia into toki pona. There was a successful plan to take toki pona to the media to keep the tp article on wikipedia from being taken down. There were plans to write a book. The plans were shelved for about a decade. There were plans to turn over the main site and “opportunity to write the book” to some toki pona fan. That created some discussion and then was dropped. And now there is a renewed plan to write the book.
Toki Pona’s importance to conlanging
TP created a new category of conlang – the small, internet conlang. Now that the world knows that a conlang can have this sort of success, it is time for people to create new small conlangs, hopefully ones that take into consideration a social media strategy to find fans (not as a universal auxlang– conlang does not equal auxlang), takes into account an explicit governance strategy that goes beyond the current models “get off my lawn” (nb. that was never the tp model) and “wait for our hero to hand down the golden tablets” (nb. I just can’t get behind this sort of governance– after the language has competent speakers, the inventor is not so relevant and maybe it isn’t good for the inventor to put them on a pedestal either)
I plan to leave my tokipona.net website up, to participate in the proofreading of the book (should it continue to materialize), but I’m going to wind down the rest of my toki pona activities. So I’m on to the next project. toki pona will live on as long as archive.org lives on. Ale li pona lon ma pi toki pona.