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naming yourself in toki pona

a guide by the Packbats, kulupu Pakapa
for people who don't know any toki pona

thanks to jan Ke Tami for reading the first draft and providing comments

toki pona is a fun minimalist philosophical constructed language made by jan Sonja. As of early 2023, it has been exploding in popularity, and as more and more people who know us Packbats know, this means that there's a very real chance that a friend of yours will want to ask you, "how should I refer to you when I am speaking toki pona?"

There are three reasons why this isn't trivial for your hypothetical friend to answer themselves:

  1. In toki pona, to talk about something, you have to say what it is - and different speakers use different concepts to encapsulate themselves, both for identity reasons (see e.g. Orion Scribner's "A Simple Introduction to Otherkin and Therianthropes") and for fun. (Kind of like titles and pronouns in English, actually!)
  2. In toki pona, one speaks using very few sounds, and those sounds are put together in very few ways. This makes it easy for anyone to speak toki pona, but means many names need to be modified to become toki pona names.
  3. In every language, the correct thing to call someone is what they want to be called.

So: what do you want to be called?

part 1 - what ... are you? or how to choose a head noun

Most entities that can read a guide like this can, at least in theory, be described using words. toki pona doesn't have very many words - circa 2022, the most respected survey and analysis came up with numbers ranging from 118 to 159 in notable use - but they cover enough possibilities to describe most things. (A subset of these that work as nouns are listed off at the end of this guide.)

The reason this matters is because, as mentioned above, the way you talk about anything in toki pona is to construct a phrase beginning with a content word that represents it - its head noun. You can't simply say "'Murika", you have to say "ma Mewika". You can't simply say "Deutsch" (as in: the German language), you have to say "toki Tosi". And you can't simply say "Sonja Lang", you have to say "jan Sonja". For us to refer to you, we have to say what you are.

(Typographical aside: toki pona does not capitalize sentences like English does. Capital letters are only used for proper words - words which just name, and do not communicate any descriptive meaning. But capital letters are typically used for proper words, hence the capitalization you see above.)

The most common choices in the 2022 toki pona census are these words:

  • jan - human, person, character, being. This is far and away the most popular.
  • Living-thing words:
    • soweli - animal, beast, land mammal (e.g. deer, dog, cat, llama, goat, musteloid, lion, human)
    • waso - bird, flying creature, winged animal (e.g. chicken, duck, turkey, eagle, bat)
    • akesi - reptile, amphibian (e.g. frog, lizard, snake, turtle)
    • kasi - plant, vegetation (e.g. bush, herb, tree)
    • pipi - bug, insect, spider (e.g. ant)
    • kala - fish, marine animal, sea creature (e.g. salmon)
    • kijetesantakalu - an April Fool's Day joke word that, instead of being short and broad in interpretation, is long and incredibly specific: an animal from the Procyonidae family (e.g. raccoon, coati, kinkajou, olingo, ringtail, cacomistle).
  • kulupu - group, community, company (very common among plural systems like us for system names)
  • ijo - thing, phenomenon, object, matter, entity, being (a term which encompasses both animate and inanimate nouns)
  • ilo - tool, implement, device, machine

...and, despite everything we just said, no word.

Having no head noun is a strange decision, because it is deliberately making it difficult to say what you are in any way. ...but some people dig that, and maybe you do too, so we want to mention it.

We recommend looking over the word list first, though. You can choose literally anything. We ourselves are thinking about referring to our system as poki Pakapa, for example, because we are Pack-bats.

content phrases in names, as names

So you know how we said "head noun"? Well, you can modify your head noun with other content words - the same words work as both nouns and adjectives (and verbs, and adverbs) - and make a noun phrase to represent yourself. To invent some fictional examples: you can be "jan pona Whatever" (good person Whatever), "kala pipi Whatever" (bug-fish Whatever), "lipu laso Whatever" (green book Whatever)...

...and you can also be just a sequence of content words - a description with no separate proper adjective. To invent some fictional examples: you can be "ijo toki sona" (knowledgeable talking thing), "akesi awen" (persisting lizard), "kon soweli" (animal spirit) ... the language is your oyster. If you do this, you might want to ask for advice from more fluent speakers, but you can do it, no problem.

Note that, if you compare these phrases to the definitions, the words are in the opposite order from English. In toki pona, you start with the noun (what English puts last) and then successively modify it with more words.

You can in theory also modify modifiers to get something like "knowledge-speaking thing", but if you want to use "pi", you really should talk to someone who knows things because that's a minefield of ambiguity and confusion.

part 2 - let's make some noise, or what toki pona sounds like

As we said at the top, toki pona doesn't have a lot of sounds in it. It also has a very simple stress pattern - first syllable is stressed, everything else is unstressed. This is to make it relatively simple for most people to learn to produce and parse the sounds that it does have - all the sounds are distinct, and the stresses help you hear where words start and end.

So let's talk about those sounds and give examples!

the five vowel system

toki pona's vowels are like Spanish, Japanese, and Esperanto. None of these are as precise as the phonetic descriptions below, but using the IPA in the 2014 book, from front to back, you have:

English nerds will notice that there's no schwa (YouTube link to Tom Scott's schwa video, brief emeto mention) - if you're tokiponizing a word that has one, like "about" at the beginning, you'll have to decide based on context whether to drop the vowel or un-reduce it to something else.

English nerds will also notice that there aren't any dipthongs - a vowel like the "ey" in "hey" is two vowels combined into one and used as the nucleus of one syllable. Look for one vowel that captures the overall vibe or separate them out into two with a consonant - whatever feels better.

nine consonants

The consonants, 'j', 'k', 'l', 'm', 'n', 'p', 's', 't', and 'w', are all like what an English speaker would expect, with a big asterisk on that first one, 'j'. Y'know how in "Sonja" it's a "yuh" sound - apparently sometimes called yod? That's what 'j' stands for - that "yuh" sound, like in the German word "ja".

When you go look at wordlists, think about these pronunciations. As an English speaker, you'll probably recognize some words - "wan", "tu", "jaki", "open", and "jelo", for example, all sound a lot like English words, although their meanings are broader than those English words. (You'll probably also see some false cognates like "ante", which does not mean "before", but "difference" or "changing".)

That said, like the vowels, the consonants are very flexible - to paraphrase jan Sonja, if someone says what in English might be spelled "dogi", that would considered the same as saying "toki". We'll talk about that more later.

like ninety-something syllables

Most toki pona syllables are any one of the nine consonants followed by any one of the five vowels. There are four kinds of exceptions to that, though.

First: if it's the beginning of the word, you can drop the consonant part. That's how you get words like "akesi" that we mentioned earlier.

Second: /j/ and /w/ are glides or semivowels - they start like /i/ or /u/ or /o/ and quickly slide into the main vowel. (Compare "stoic" and "wick".) Glides that don't go anywhere make problems for some speakers, though, so in toki pona, /wo/ and /wu/ become /o/ and /u/ and /ji/ becomes /i/.

Third: for palatalization reasons us Packbats don't understand, /ti/ tends to become /si/ for a lot of speakers. (Maybe like how "-tion" is like "-shun" in English?) That said, you can turn /ti/ into /te/ instead of /si/ if that's a better approximation.

Fourth: you can add an 'n' after the vowel, to get words like "jan" and "tenpo".

...actually, hold on, new section.

time for tenpo: assimilation of the place of articulation by syllable-final '-n' sounds

So, [n], in IPA, is the voiced something-or-other-tongue-on-top-of-mouth nasal. You use your tongue to stop air from going out your mouth and let it go out your nose instead.

Simples. Except.

Your tongue isn't the only thing that can stop air going out your mouth. Your lips can create the same blockage and redirection through the nose, and create an [m] sound. These are very similar sounds, and given that '-n' is the only consonant that can end a syllable in toki pona, even though there's no reason to say something like [jam], people could probably figure out what you mean.

...but also? Nasals aren't the only reason why you might stop air going out your mouth. You might want to stop air entirely, in a kind of consonant known as a plosive or ... stop.

So, "tenpo", right? If you are extremely literal in how you pronounce it, you might say it like this:

  1. [t]: Block airflow with your tongue, release it into...
  2. [e]: Mid front unrounded vowel. Good stuff. Then to end it,...
  3. [n]: Block airflow with your tongue, directing it through your nose. Then...
  4. [p]: Shift to block airflow with your lips instead, and release from your lips into...
  5. [o]: Mid back rounded vowel.

Pronouncing it this way is very uneconomical - you have to block the airflow two different kinds of ways, using two different parts of your mouth, in immediate succession.

If you pronounce it [tempo] instead, it's much easier - you close your lips for the nasal and just keep them closed for the stop. And everyone can tell exactly what you mean.

The technical phonology term for this is "assimilation". It is more efficient to say syllable-ending /-n/ with the part of the mouth used to articulate the next consonant in your word, and so people regularly do, deliberately or by accident. (English does assimilation too. Compare "cup board" and "cupboard".) This /-n/-assimilation is a deliberate design choice in toki pona - the spelling doesn't change, but the sound can.

On that subject, though, it is also more efficient to turn /-n/ into [-m] before /m/. And to merge [m]s or [n]s into one sound. So, one last rule of thumb for letter pairs: as well as avoiding "wu", "wo", "ji", and "ti", avoid "nm" and "nn". Just drop the '-n' from the previous syllable and keep the nasal starting the next.

Right, let's talk about turning words into other words.

part 3 - tokiponizing your name

Like, names are just sounds. You don't have to be glued to the one you came in with. You can call yourself anything. You already have enough information to write a new name from everything above.

...but a lot of people like their names, and want to keep them in toki pona. And if you didn't do the "write a description of yourself" route, that means taking the words of your name - whatever names you think are most suiting, most people pick a single personal name or nickname - and changing them to sound the way tokiponists do. We break this down into roughly two steps.

tokiponize the sounds...

The first step of tokiponizing a word - like, say, your name - is figuring out what the individual sounds could be among the fourteen-ish sounds toki pona has. jan Sonja's Proper Names guidance is probably the best resource, but plagiarizing wholesale from it:

  • Voiced plosives become voiceless - [b] goes to 'p', [d] to 't', [g] to 'k'. (That's how you get from hearing "dogi" to writing "toki".)
  • [v] (like in "valve") goes to 'w'.
  • [f] (like in "fill") goes to 'p'.
  • Trilled or tapped 'r' of most languages goes to 'l'.
  • Approximant 'r' of English and the like usually goes to 'w'. (Elmer Fudd fans can attest to the similarity of these sounds.)
  • Back-of-the-throat sounds, including the French or German uvular 'r', go to 'k'.
  • A [-sh] sound at the end of the word (e.g. "Lush") can become "-si" (Lusi).
  • Schwa - that "uh" sound, like the first 'o' in "mastodon" or the first 'i' in "definite" - can become any vowel, and often can be matched to neighboring vowels for aesthetic effect.
  • Affricates like the "ch" from "chip" and the "j" from "jump" - sounds that begin as a stoppage of air and release as turbulence - turn into fricatives - the turbulence one. So, 's' for both of those.

Some quick examples (asterisks mark words which don't fit in toki pona yet):

  • "*Αἴσωπος", Aísōpos, Aesop, has the initial dipthong to deal with, but is otherwise straightforward. From Wiktionary's Attic Greek IPA of "Aisopos", /ǎi̯.sɔː.pos/, we might venture to guess "*Isopos".
  • "*Stuart" is fairly straightforward, but we do have to decide what to do with the (potentially r-colored) schwa of "art" - trying a few options, "*Stuat" sounds close.
  • "*Hambly" is also mostly tokiponish in sounds - the 'h' disappears, the 'a' is very 'a'-like, the 'b' becomes 'p', and the 'y' is a vowel-ish one and becomes 'i'. "*Ampli", therefore.
  • "*Packbat", the name of your arrogant servants writing this guide, is mostly there sounds-wise - the 'b' becomes 'p' and the 'c' vanishes into the 'k', but the 'a's are already pretty tokipona-ish. "*Pakpat", then, at this stage.
  • "*Maia", /'meɪ.ə/, also has a dipthong that we need to crack. "*Mia" feels closest, but hold onto your horses because I think I see an opportunity to be clever.

...and make them into syllables

So, you have an idea of what sounds exist in your name. They might not be shaped like toki pona syllables, though. There's a few ways you can solve this.

First, keeping the number of syllables the same, you can drop, add, or move around consonant sounds to put one consonant at the beginning of each and either a 'n' (for nasal sounds) or nothing at the end. (Nothing, if the next syllable starts with 'm' or 'n'.) Generally in consonant clusters you favor the plosives ('t', 'k', 'p') or the already-syllable-starting ones, and in vowel clusters you usually either grab a consonant that would be lost or use 'w' or 'j'. Remember to avoid 'wo', 'wu', 'ji', and 'ti'.

Second, if there is a consonant you would normally drop that you want to keep, you can add a vowel to hold onto it - usually one that's already in the word, but it can be anything.

Finally, if you don't like the results, change them! There's lots of reasons you might not - you might accidentally make an existing toki pona word, like Meli from Mary - and in that case, make different choices or change sounds outright. Make your name good for you.

Taking our examples:

  • "*Αἴσωπος" became "*Isopos", which is almost a toki pona word, but 's' can't end a syllable. "Isopo" works.
  • "*Stuart" became "*Stuat", but 't' can't end a syllable and the 'a' doesn't have a consonant. One logical choice is to steal one of the "t"s and get "Suta" or "Tuta"; another is to use ... probably a 'w', since we have the 'u' right before it that makes it very comfortable to say, and get "Tuwa" or maybe "Suwa". It's also possible, if the final "t" is important to Stuart, to say "Suwata" or "Tuwata", doubling our 'a' to give it a vowel.
  • "*Hambly" became "*Ampli", but that string of three consonants in the center isn't gonna work. That said, remember how syllable-ending '-n' can change sounds! When 'n' appears directly before 'p', it tends to assimilate and become the 'm' we want. So while "Anli" is perfectly reasonable, "Anpi" would sound almost the same as "*Ampli" - just without the 'l'. And if that 'l'-sound is important, we can add an extra vowel to hold it - could be any vowel, but if we double an adjacent one, we get either "Anpili" or "Anpali".
  • "*Packbat" became "*Pakpat", which has 'k' and 't' ending syllables. The natural solution would be to drop both, but "Papa" is far too mama mije (male parent) for yours truly, so reviving the 'k' to get "Pakapa" breaks that up nicely.
  • "*Maia" tentatively became "*Mia", but look at what we have: an 'a' without a consonant, and the 'i' half of a dipthong which can trivially be turned into a consonant 'j'. So now we can choose between "Mija" or reviving the other half of our old dipthong to get "Meja". Or just be free with it and use "Maja", if that sounds nice.

the summary, to sum up

A name in toki pona is usually one common noun describing the thing named and one or more proper adjectives that name the particular example. This isn't always the case - sometimes a name has more descriptive words, sometimes a name is just a description, sometimes a subject has just proper adjectives and no description at all - but it is usual. All words, stress on the first syllable.

Most people who already have names will make their toki pona name by finding a noun that speaks to them (usually not difficult) and transforming their existing name (usually just their existing personal name) into something that sounds like toki pona words (usually not very difficult).

toki pona words and tokiponized words are mostly made up of consonant-vowel syllables, using aeiou as vowels and jklmnpstw ('j' is yod) as consonants, but you can usually hang an 'n' on the end of a syllable and, at the start of the word, you can drop the starting consonant. Avoid 'nm' or 'nn' (drop an 'n'), 'wo' or 'wu' (drop the 'w'), 'ji' (drop the 'j'), and 'ti' (make it 'si' or change the vowel). Try to keep the same number of syllables, but if you need to save a consonant, add a vowel to save it - you can copy one you already have or just use anything. If you have multiple consonants at the start of a syllable, choose one to keep and drop the rest. If a syllable ends with a consonant, 'n' stays, 'm' and 'ng' and such becomes 'n', and anything non-nasal is dropped. If you have two vowels in a row, steal a dropped consonant or use 'w' or 'j' (but don't make 'wo', 'wu', or 'ji').

Change what you get if you don't like it. Make a name you like. Double-check that you haven't accidentally made a word you don't like. Celebrate!

appendix: some content words

For convenience, we have stolen the text of jan Sonja's public domain definition list, modifying slightly where definitions are outdated, and dropping particles, prepositions, and pronouns (being as these would cause problems if used in names). (If you want to cause problems, a wholly reasonable thing to want, please talk to a fluent speaker to find out how big the problems are first.) There are other valuable wordlists - most famously lipu Linku, but we also recommend the one jan Lentan integrated with the "lipu sona pona" language course and the discussions of toki pona in lipamanka's essays - but the hundred-ish words we include here are all widely known and understood among tokiponists.

We also added a few words - most notably "tonsi", the word for nonbinary. Using genders as head nouns is a little unusual because gender is not usually brought up in toki pona - it's more of a deliberate choice when it is mentioned - but some speakers do make a deliberate choice to use gender head nouns.

A side effect of this methodology: a lot of these aren't nouns. This is an obvious problem because the point is to select a noun to represent what you are ... but this isn't actually a problem, because part of the concept of toki pona is that every content word represents a concept that can act as noun, adjective, verb, or adverb. "toki" as a verb is communicating or using language; "toki" as a noun is a communication or a language. Think about what it would mean to noun-ize a word, and if you're not sure of your nounizing, ask.

(If you need someone to ask, you best option is probably to check communities you're already in - post in a hashtag on Mastodon, in an off-topic section on a forum or group chat, that kind of thing. There are also links on tokipona.org to toki-pona-specific communities that you can try.)

(Don't ask an 'AI' large language model. Those things aren't expert systems, they're expert bullshitters - all they do is say something that sounds like a response to what you typed, with no regard for truth. Ask speakers of the language.)

noun: reptile, amphibian
adjective: no, not, zero
verb: to hunt, forage
ale or ali
noun: abundance, everything, life, universe
adjective: bowing down, downward, humble, lowly, dependent
adjective: different, altered, changed, other
adjective: enduring, kept, protected, safe, waiting, staying
noun: market, shop, fair, bazaar, business transaction
noun: thing, phenomenon, object, matter
adjective: bad, negative; non-essential, irrelevant
noun: tool, implement, machine, device
noun: centre, content, inside, between; internal organ, stomach
adjective: disgusting, obscene, sickly, toxic, unclean, unsanitary
noun: human being, person, somebody
adjective: yellow, yellowish
verb: to have, carry, contain, hold
noun: fish, marine animal, sea creature
verb: to produce a sound; recite, utter aloud
adjective: arriving, coming, future, summoned
noun: plant, vegetation; herb, leaf
pre-verb: to be able to, be allowed to, can, may; adjective: possible
noun: fruit, vegetable, mushroom
noun: hard object, metal, rock, stone
noun: clay, clinging form, dough, semi-solid, paste, powder
noun: air, breath; essence, spirit; hidden reality, unseen agent
adjective: colourful, pigmented, painted (metaphorically: gender, sexuality)
noun: community, company, group, nation, society, tribe
noun: ear; verb: to hear, listen; pay attention to, obey
adjective: sleeping, resting
adjective: blue, green
noun: head, mind; verb: to control, direct, guide, lead, own, plan, regulate, rule
noun: cloth, clothing, fabric, textile; cover, layer of privacy
adjective: cold, cool; uncooked, raw
adjective: little, small, short; few; a bit; young
noun: long and flexible thing; cord, hair, rope, thread, yarn
noun: flat object; book, document, card, paper, record, website
adjective: red, reddish
noun: arm, hand, tactile organ
lukin or oko
noun: eye; verb: to look at, see, examine, observe, read, watch; pre-verb: to seek, look for, try to
noun: door, hole, orifice, window
noun: earth, land; outdoors, world; country, territory; soil
noun: parent, ancestor; creator, originator; caretaker, sustainer
noun: money, cash, savings, wealth; large domesticated animal
noun: woman, female, feminine person; wife
noun: man, male, masculine person; husband
verb: to eat, drink, consume, swallow, ingest
adjective: dead, dying
noun: back, behind, rear
adjective: monstrous, scary; scared
(animal noise or communication)
noun: moon, night sky object, star
adjective: artistic, entertaining, frivolous, playful, recreational
adjective: many, a lot, more, much, several, very; noun: quantity
noun: flavoring, salt, spice; adornment, decoration; extra
noun: numbers
adjective: unusual, strange; drunk, intoxicated
noun: way, custom, doctrine, method, path, road
noun: bump, button, hill, mountain, nose, protuberance
noun: name, word
noun: foot, leg, organ of locomotion; bottom, lower part
adjective: ocular, visual; see lukin
verb: to love, have compassion for, respect, show affection to
verb: to begin, start; open; turn on
adjective: botched, broken, damaged, harmed, messed up
verb: to do, take action on, work on; build, make, prepare
noun: long hard thing; branch, rod, stick
noun: cereal, grain; barley, corn, oat, rice, wheat; bread, pasta
verb: to give, send, emit, provide, put, release
noun: heart (physical or emotional); adjective: feeling (an emotion, a direct experience, touch)
adjective: black, dark, unlit
adjective: ago, completed, ended, finished, past
noun: bug, insect, ant, spider
noun: hip, side; next to, nearby, vicinity
noun: container, bag, bowl, box, cup, cupboard, drawer, vessel
adjective: good, positive, useful; friendly, peaceful; simple
noun: fire; cooking element, chemical reaction, heat source
noun: outer form, outer layer; bark, peel, shell, skin; boundary
noun: area above, highest part, something elevated; adjective: awe-inspiring, divine, sacred, supernatural
noun: body (of person or animal), physical state, torso
noun: round or circular thing; ball, circle, cycle, sphere, wheel
adjective: new, fresh; additional, another, extra
noun: face, foremost, front, wall
noun: image, picture, representation, symbol, mark, writing
verb: to know, be skilled in, be wise about, have information on
noun: animal, beast, land mammal
adjective: big, heavy, large, long, tall; important; adult
noun: sun; light, brightness, glow, radiance, shine; light source
noun: horizontal surface, thing to put or rest something on
adjective: sweet, fragrant; cute, innocent, adorable
noun: water, liquid, fluid, wet substance; beverage
noun: time, duration, moment, occasion, period, situation
verb: to communicate, say, speak, say, talk, use language, think
noun: indoor space; building, home, house, room
adjective: nonbinary, trans, gender non-conforming
number: two
verb: to have sexual or marital relations with
noun: mouth, lips, oral cavity, jaw
verb: to battle, challenge, compete against, struggle against
adjective: white, whitish; light-coloured, pale
adjective: unique, united; number: one
noun: bird, flying creature, winged animal
adjective: strong, powerful; confident, sure; energetic, intense
adjective: absent, away, ignored
pre-verb: must, need, require, should, want, wish
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