What is a Language?

Toki Pona is a language created in 2001. It favours simplicity and under-specification – the language has 14 letters, and only 123 words!1  A general consensus among Toki Pona speakers is that it takes only about 30 hours to master.2  Speaking Toki Pona, even fluently, is a continual exercise in the use of metaphor, creativity and circumlocution, in much the same way that learners of a second language rely on these strategies.

When speaking a language that one does not know well, one must improvise to find ways to say things with his or her limited knowledge of vocabulary and grammar. Sonja Lang, a Toronto-based linguist, intentionally created Toki Pona to be a language based on minimal vocabulary and simple grammar. “If you can express yourself in a simple way, then you really understand what you’re talking about, and that’s good,” Lang claims (ibid).

The language has no tense, gender, or number. All words appear to contain a single morpheme. Most, but not all, words can be either a verb, noun, or modifier, depending on their placement in a sentence.3  Speakers string separate words together, and modify word order, in a subjective and context-dependent form of compounding. For example, “tomo tawa,” a space used for movement, could mean ‘car.’ The language places a heavier than usual onus on the listener to follow a speaker’s logic, as the range of potential ambiguity with neologisms is vast. If I say “telo pimaje wawa,” a ‘powerful dark liquid’ I might mean coffee. I could also mean something else.

Contrast Toki Pona with Ithkuil, a created language with 58 phonemes (contrastive speech sounds). First introduced in 2004, and revised in 2007, then again in 2011, Ithkuil is “an idealized language whose aim is the highest possible degree of logic, efficiency, detail, and accuracy in cognitive expression.”4  The drawback to all of this detail is its complexity. According to the article in the Atlantic, “it is so complex that even its creator often requires 10 minutes or more to assemble a single word.”5  This is perhaps passable for a writer with plenty of patience, but not practical for conversation!

The language’s creator, John Quijada, makes no claim that Ithkuil functions as a “natural” language. His goal was in fact quite the opposite, to create a language that “humans left to their own devices, would never create naturally, but only by conscious effort.”

Since the goal is to pack the most semantic content into the least number of syllables, it is unsurprising that Ithkuil has synthetic morphology, in contrast with the isolating form found in Toki Pona (the morphological term ‘oligosynthetic’ has been used to describe Toki Pona and other conlangs with very few morphemes; the term has never been applied to a natural language 6). In Ithkuil, all lexical stems function equally as nouns or verbs; these are then inflected for nine possible configurations, and can take up to 1800 optional suffixes!7

Natural languages evolve across generations. A multitude of factors impact language shift, such as geography, proximity or social standing in relation to other languages or dialects, attitudes towards the language, along with technology and pop culture. What all natural languages have in common is that they evolve within a language community over time with influence from numerous factors.

In contrast, created languages, or conlangs, like Toki Pona and Ithkuil, were created by individuals who based the languages on a philosophy. Neither has been around for even two decades. Regardless of how long these languages may remain in existence, if no one learns either language as a first language, it will be impossible to speak of language shift in the way that we do for natural languages. In this way, created languages don’t ‘behave’ like natural languages in society, prompting the question, ‘what is a language?’


I spoke with the professor for our Philosophy of Language course at CanIL, Dr. Mike Walrod. He says there are some significant differences between the created languages described above, and natural languages.  Created languages are designed for fun, or for demonstrating some things about how languages work.  As such, we could view these created languages as objective collections of linguistic signs, each with its finite semantic range which may be circumscribed by definition.

Natural languages are different in kind. Although scholars are fond of describing the basic regularities of sounds they observe (the “words” of a language, which can be listed as dictionary entries), and the observable syntactic patterns (the grammar), yet in actual practise language is communicative behaviour in a community.  As such, it is more appropriately viewed as EVENT (the ongoing dialogue of a society, ever evolving), rather than as OBJECT, i.e. a static collection or inventory of linguistic units.  (Evidence of the EVENT nature of language is the very frequent need for revised editions of standard dictionaries.  New words are added, new senses listed for existing words, and many terms are demoted or relegated to the “obsolete” or colloquial categories.)

The invention of writing systems led us to view language as object.  When we reduce language to writing, we create distance… a distanciation of the written words from the immediacy of oral communicative behaviour.  Writing provides more permanence, but we sacrifice many of the contextual cues and constraints that guide interpretation. In written language, we attempt to recreate as much as possible, with punctuation, italics, bold print, etc. (and if all else fails, parentheses or footnotes).

In natural language, “words” and “sentences” are always embedded in a situational context. There is an inevitable metaphoricity about such communicative events, because words are juxtaposed in novel contexts, with creative expression and gesture.  Communication occurs, and meaning emerges through and because of the rich interplay of discourse and context.

CanIL offers a course LIN/G 4/599 Philosophy of Language, which examines the philosophical basis of human language and communication.

Written by

Sandra Topelko and Dr. Mike Walrod