In A Language With Only 123 Words, Less Is More


Somewhere on most people’s lifelong to-do lists is the lofty aspiration to learn another language. Some will eventually follow through, but for others, adopting an entirely new vocabulary and set of grammatical rules is just too time-consuming. If that’s the case, aspiring language-learners might be interested in Toki Pona, a language invented in 2001 by Canadian linguist Sonja Lang in what she calls “an attempt to understand the meaning of life in 120 words”—and only 120 words. 

With its limited vocabulary and a syntactical system of childlike simplicity, Toki Pona may be the ideal language for those who groan at the thought of verb conjugation and shy away from semicolons. For Toki Pona speakers—members of a small, but growing, international community—effective communication relies on metaphor. Much like German, which is famed for its notoriously long compound words (e.g. the single term “Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister” to denote the role of “head district chimney sweep”), Toki Pona conveys complex concepts by joining simple ones in sequence. By way of example, Lang asks, “What is a car? You might say a car is a space used for movement. That would be tomo tawa. If you’re struck by a car though, it might be a hard object that’s hitting me. That’s kiwen utala.” In Toki Pona, more than in any other language, context matters.

Colors in particular demonstrate Toki Pona’s radically different approach to language. Although Crayola crayons come in 128+ shades with unique names for each, Toki Pona speakers have only five distinct color terms: loje, laso, jelo, pimeja, and welo—which is to say, red, blue, yellow, white, and black. Instead of green, Toki Pona speakers might refer to the color of grass as laso jelo, or blue-yellow; rather than shades of gray, they might see life only in black and white and pimeja welo. When there are only 14 letters to go around, being able to label something “burnt sienna” drops much lower on the list of priorities.

Lang herself is trilingual (not counting Toki Pona), fluent in English, French, and Esperanto, the most widely spoken constructed language in the world and the closest thing yet to a “universal” tongue. In inventing Toki Pona, she set out not to replace any existing languages, but to build one based on the belief that simplicity is best. In fact, in Toki Pona, pona means both “simple” and “good.” The difference is how it’s used.

English speakers accustomed to an entire glossary's worth of politeness markers—excuse me, please, thank you, would you, could you, if it’s not too much trouble—might be concerned that a less sophisticated language could lead to rudeness or misunderstanding. Toki Pona speakers argue that it does quite the opposite: by eliminating the expectation of such linguistic flourishes, unadorned statements like “give me coffee” are neither polite nor impolite; they are simply functional, and the hearer must give the speaker the benefit of the doubt in assuming that kindness was implied in their speech. In this way, Toki Pona skews toward positivity, because everything by default is pona. Lang’s handbook for learning the language embraces this bias, and is appropriately subtitled, “The Language of Good.”

For those who are intrigued by the Toki Pona philosophy, the real question is how long it would take to master the lexicon. 17 participants in a 2015 TokiPonathon aimed to go from zero to 123 (the current total number of words in the Toki Pona vocabulary) in a single weekend, with some success. Other Toki Pona speakers have estimated that a fairly complete understanding of the language can be attained in around 30 hours. So get to it, readers, and o pona—good luck.

Linguists Say We Might Be Able to Communicate With Aliens If We Ever Encounter Them

If humans ever encountered extraterrestrials, would we be able to communicate with them? That was the question posed by linguists from across the country, including famed scholar Noam Chomsky, during a workshop held in Los Angeles on May 26.

Organized by a scientific nonprofit called Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), the one-day event entitled "Language in the Cosmos" brought together two camps that don't usually converge: linguists and space scientists. The event was held in conjunction with the National Space Society's annual International Space Development Conference, which featured the likes of theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, Amazon CEO and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, SpaceX's Tom Mueller, science fiction writer David Brin, and more.

Linguist Sheri Wells-Jensen, chair of the workshop, said in a statement that it's unlikely we'll ever come face to face with aliens or find ourselves in a "Star Trek universe where most of the aliens are humanoid and lots of them already have a 'universal translator.'" Still, scientists don't rule out the possibility of chatting with extraterrestrials via radio.

Chomsky, who's often regarded as the father of modern linguistics, was optimistic that extraterrestrial life forms—if they're out there—might observe the same “universal grammar” rules he believes serve as the foundation for all human languages. His theory of universal grammar posits that there's a genetic component to language, and the ability to acquire and comprehend language is innate. Chomsky argues that a random mutation caused early humans to make the “evolutionary jump” to language some 40,000 years ago through a process called Merge, which lets words be combined, according to New Scientist. (Not all linguists are convinced by Chomsky's theory.)

At the workshop, a presentation by Chomsky (of MIT), Ian Roberts (University of Cambridge), and Jeffrey Watumull (Oceanit) argued that "the overwhelming likelihood is that ET Universal Grammar would be also be based on Merge." They said grammar would probably not be the greatest barrier in communicating with aliens; rather, understanding their "externalization system," or whatever channel they're using to communicate, could be the greatest challenge.

Another presentation by Jeffrey Punske (Southern Illinois University) and Bridget Samuels (University of Southern California) drew a similar conclusion. Human languages have physical and biological constraints, some of which are grounded in physics, so it follows that extraterrestrial languages would be limited by the same laws of physics, the linguists said.

Douglas Vakoch, president of METI, said in a statement that these theories represent a "radical shift" for scientists working in the field, who have "scoffed at the idea of creating interstellar messages inspired by natural languages." Past radio messages sent out into space relied on math and science, in hopes that those principles are universal.

Sploot 101: 12 Animal Slang Words Every Pet Parent Should Know

For centuries, dogs were dogs and cats were cats. They did things like bark and drink water and lay down—actions that pet parents didn’t need a translator to understand.

Then the internet arrived. Scroll through the countless Facebook groups and Twitter accounts dedicated to sharing cute animal pictures and you’ll quickly see that dogs don’t have snouts, they have snoots, and cats come in a colorful assortment of shapes and sizes ranging from smol to floof.

Pet meme language has been around long enough to start leaking into everyday conversation. If you're a pet owner (or lover) who doesn’t want to be out of the loop, here are the terms you need to know.


You know your pet is fully relaxed when they’re doing a sploot. Like a split but for the whole body, a sploot occurs when a dog or cat stretches so their bellies are flat on the ground and their back legs are pointing behind them. The amusing pose may be a way for them to take advantage of the cool ground on a hot day, or just to feel a satisfying stretch in their hip flexors. Corgis are famous for the sploot, but any quadruped can do it if they’re flexible enough.


Person holding Marnie the dog.
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images for ASPCA

Unlike most items on this list, the word derp isn’t limited to cats and dogs. It can also be a stand-in for such expressions of stupidity as “duh” or “dur.” In recent years the term has become associated with clumsy, clueless, or silly-looking cats and dogs. A pet with a tongue perpetually hanging out of its mouth, like Marnie or Lil Bub, is textbook derpy.


Cat laying on desk chair.
PoppetCloset, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you’ve ever caught a cat or dog poking the tip of its tongue past its front teeth, you’ve seen a blep in action. Unlike a derpy tongue, a blep is subtle and often gone as quickly as it appears. Animal experts aren’t entirely sure why pets blep, but in cats it may have something to do with the Flehmen response, in which they use their tongues to “smell” the air.


Mlems and bleps, though very closely related, aren’t exactly the same. While blep is a passive state of being, mlem is active. It’s what happens when a pet flicks its tongue in and out of its mouth, whether to slurp up water, taste food, or just lick the air in a derpy fashion. Dogs and cats do it, of course, but reptiles have also been known to mlem.


Very fluffy cat.
J. Sibiga Photography, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Some pets barely have any fur, and others have coats so voluminous that hair appears to make up most of their bodyweight. Dogs and cats in the latter group are known as floofs. Floofy animals will famously leave a wake of fur wherever they sit and can squeeze through tight spaces despite their enormous mass. Samoyeds, Pomeranians, and Persian cats are all prime examples of floofs.


Dog outside barking.

According to some corners of the internet, dogs don’t bark, they bork. Listen carefully next time you’re around a vocal doggo and you won’t be able to unhear it.


Shiba inu smiling up at the camera.

Speaking of doggos: This word isn’t hard to decode. Every dog—regardless of size, floofiness, or derpiness—can be a doggo. If you’re willing to get creative, the word can even be applied to non-dog animals like fennec foxes (special doggos) or seals (water doggos). The usage of doggo saw a spike in 2016 thanks to the internet and by the end of 2017 it was listed as one of Merriam-Webster’s “Words We’re Watching.”


Tiny kitten in grass.

Some pets are so adorably, unbearably tiny that using proper English to describe them just doesn’t cut it. Not every small pet is smol: To earn the label, a cat or dog (or kitten or puppy) must excel in both the tiny and cute departments. A pet that’s truly smol is likely to induce excited squees from everyone around it.


Hands holding a puppy.

Like doggo, pupper is self-explanatory: It can be used in place of the word puppy, but if you want to use it to describe a fully-grown doggo who’s particularly smol and cute, you can probably get away with it.

10. BOOF

We’ve already established that doggos go bork, but that’s not the only sound they make. A low, deep bark—perhaps from a dog that can’t decide if it wants to expend its energy on a full bark—is best described as a boof. Consider a boof a warning bark before the real thing.


Dog noses poking out beneath blanket.

Snoot was already a dictionary-official synonym for nose by the time dog meme culture took the internet by storm. But while snoot is rarely used to describe human faces today, it’s quickly becoming the preferred term for pet snouts. There’s even a wholesome viral challenge dedicated to dogs poking their snoots through their owners' hands.

12. BOOP

Have you ever seen a dog snoot so cute you just had to reach out and tap it? And when you did, was your action accompanied by an involuntary “boop” sound? This urge is so universal that boop is now its own verb. Humans aren’t the only ones who can boop: Search the word on YouTube and treat yourself to hours of dogs, cats, and other animals exchanging the love tap.


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