depression
January 18, 2015

Speak in a made-up language to feel better

John Hopton for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

In 2001, Canadian linguist Sonja Lang came up with Toki Pona, an invented language which has only 120 words. It uses words from English, Esperanto, Finnish, Dutch, Chinese and others, with changed meanings, to produce a simplified language which can assist in the treatment of mental disorders, and also has the potential to persuade those of us who find learning foreign languages difficult.

The Globe and Mail’s Siobhan Roberts explains that Lang devised Toki Pona, which she describes as her “attempt to understand the meaning of life in 120 words,” as a coping mechanism during a bout of depression. The theory is linked to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which proposes that the way in which people think and behave is influenced by what language they use. Lang says that thinking in Toki Pona helped to slow down her runaway thoughts. She believes her own stripped-down language, which uses only 14 letters based on the Latin alphabet, “helps you see patterns, and how things are connected in different ways.”

However, it appears that the extent to which Toki Pona makes life easier depends on what you are trying to do with it. If processing your own thoughts or trying to understand linguistics then it could be highly valuable. If you are trying to apply it to everyday life, possibly not so much.

When attempting to translate a coffee shop order of waffles with bananas and whipped cream, Lang used: “Mi wile jo e pan pi sike mama waso e kili suwi jelo e telo mama soweli kon.” It includes the literal translation of bananas, "kili suwi jelo," ("yellow fruit") and waffles translates to "pan pi sike mama waso" (“cereal-grain-product of bird maternal round-things” - the bird maternal round-things being eggs.)

Some translations make more sense - the phrase "Canada has two official languages" is "ma Kanata li jo e toki suli tu," with the literal translation being, "Canada land has two big talks." It’s the sort of thing you often come across in foreign languages which is both much cuter than English and makes more sense (when you hear that “snot” in Japanese is “nose water” - hana mizu- you wonder if we need the word snot at all).

Creating new languages is not unheard of, of course. The fantasy genre does it in projects which are committed to building a whole new world, from Tolkien’s spine-tingling poems in Elvish to the weird and wonderful tongues of George R. R. Martin’s characters, with Khal Drogo’s words frightening us even more than his massive tits did. Then there was The Wire (What? They were speaking English?).

But whereas the purpose of new languages in fantasy is to build complex detail, the goal of Toki Pona is to reduce the complexity of language, on the premise that minimalism is psychologically beneficial.

Pekka Roponen, a psychiatrist at the central hospital of Hameenlinnan in Finland, is studying the language's usefulness in treating patients. He says that: “Classical languages can be used in your inner world to avoid something,” noting that the Finnish language is notoriously complex, and that the country's suicide and depression rates are among the world's highest.

He asks his patients to record their daily thoughts in Toki Pona, saying that it, “is meant to focus on the positive, so negative thought patterns and cognitions can be transferred and eliminated by simply using the language.” Or possibly “wicked brain shouting made to lie on calm head sun lounger,” to have a crack at Toki Pona.

The mini-language has multiple uses. Like pidgin languages, reduced versions of existing languages intended to enable two groups who have no common language to communicate, Toki Pona, with its largely online following, could represent a means of communication between people the world over. Could we master Toki Pona in one weekend? If so, it might give people who fear language learning the confidence to push on and study full languages.

The learning site Memrise recently held a 48 hour “Toki Pona-thon” in London, during which time around half of the 17 people involved learned the language fluently in the two days, adding to the 100 or so around the world who already know it. By day two, some spent the morning speaking nothing but Toki Pona, according to attendee and Guardian journalist Ellie Violet Bramley.

One participant even put together this Toki Pona version of the famous Taxi Driver scene after only 14 hours of study, proving that any of us could be terrifying people in new languages quicker than you can say “absolutely not, Mr. Bickle.”

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