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The Toki Pona Baby Sign-Language Guide

0: Gestures

There are 4 elements to each Toki Pona gesture:

toki-pona-signs

There are only 9 Toki Pona hand shapes:

body locations

There are 8 body locations:

  1. in front of chest
  2. at side of forehead
  3. at side of chin
  4. at left shoulder
  5. at left elbow
  6. on top of left fist
  7. on stomach
  8. under left slanted forearm

1: Basics

For baby sign-language, speak Toki Pona with your hands while speaking your native tongue (e.g. English) with your mouth. Your reusable gestures will become associated with spoken words. The goal is to create a minimal gesture vocabulary for bootstrapping speech.

8 words offer a surprising amount of contextual nuance:

jaki yucky, filth, garbage
ko mush, paste
lape sleep
len clothes, fabric
moku eat, drink, food, meal
pona good, simple, clean
telo liquid, wet, wash, water
tomo home, house, room

All Toki Pona words in this guide can be used as nouns, adjectives, and verbs.

To modify a Toki Pona word, add more words after it. With “liquid” (telo) and “cloth” (len), you can talk about wet clothes (len telo) and laundry detergent (telo len). Always use the first term as the main noun/verb and additional terms as the adjectives.

You can combine our 8 basic words into many concepts:

jaki ko poop “mushy yucky”
jaki telo pee “liquid yucky”
len jaki diaper, dirty clothes
len lape blanket, pajamas “sleep fabric”
len moku bib “food fabric”
len pona clean clothes
len telo damp clothes, swimwear “wet clothes”
moku ko mushy food, baby food “mushy food”
moku telo drink, liquid food, milk “liquid food”
pona telo wash, bathe, clean “wet clean”
tomo jaki bathroom, outhouse “yucky room”
tomo lape bedroom “sleep room”
tomo len closet, laundry area “clothes room”
tomo moku kitchen “food room”
tomo pona clean room
tomo telo boat

In the beginning, only sign for immediate actions/objects. Don’t sign “milk” unless you have milk in your hand. Do not gesture for desires or aspirations.

2: Descriptions

You can extract incredible mileage out of 15 words. In full Toki Pona, you have a specific word for sweets (suwi), but “fun food” (moku musi) allows you to recycle terms from an even smaller vocabulary.

kalama sound, noise
lete cold, ice, uncooked
lili small, short, young
musi play, fun, art, toy
seli hot, fire
suli big, tall, old
supa horizontal, table

With 7 additional words, we achieve vast explanatory power:

kalama lili quiet “small sound”
kalama musi music “fun noise”
kalama suli loud “big sound”
ko musi clay, playdoh “fun mush”
lape lili nap “small sleep”
len musi costume “fun clothes”
moku lete cold food, uncooked food
moku lili small food
moku musi snack, candy, treat “fun food”
moku seli hot food, burnt food
moku suli big food
moku telo seli warm soup “hot liquid food”
musi lili small toys
musi suli big toys
musi supa crafts “table fun”
musi telo swim, water toys “water fun”
musi tomo dollhouse “house toy”
supa lape bed “sleep surface”
supa moku dinner table “food surface”
supa musi play table, iPad “play surface”
supa seli stove “fire surface”
telo lete cold drink, cold water
telo seli hot water
telo seli jacket, sweater “hot clothes”
telo suli ocean, lake, pool “big water”
tomo lili fort, crib, playpen “small room”
tomo musi play room, playpen
tomo seli oven “hot room”
tomo suli family room “big room”

Note that you can add multiple adjectives to a noun, e.g. “hot liquid-food” (moku telo seli). Each additional term applies to all the preceding words.

3: The World

With daily-life covered, extend your sights to the outside world:

jan person
ma outdoors, land, soil
kasi plant, tree, vegetation
suwi sweet, candy, sugar
pan bread, grain, dry cereal
kili fruit, vegetable
akesi reptile, creature
soweli land animal, meat
kala fish, sea creature
waso bird, poultry
pipi bug, insect, spider

Here are some new combinations available from our added wordset:

jan lili small person, child
jan pona friend “good person”
jan suli big person, adult
kalama jan talking “people noise”
kalama ma nature sounds
kalama musi jan singing “fun people-noise”
kalama soweli “woof”, “meow”
kalama waso bird sounds
kasi kili suli fruit tree “big fruit plant”
kasi moku vegetable “edible plants”
kasi pona flower “good plant”
kasi suli tree “big plant”
ko ma mud “earth paste”
ma kasi forest, jungle
ma kili orchard, garden, farm
ma soweli corral, ranch
ma telo beach, lakeside, wetland
moku kala lete sushi
moku soweli dogfood, catfood
musi jan lili doll “small person-toy”
musi ma play outside “outside fun”
pan telo cereal “wet bread”
soweli moku beef, pork, meat “edible animals”
soweli pona dog, cat, pet “good land-animal”
telo jan blood “people liquid”
telo kili juice “fruit liquid”
telo ma rain “land water”
telo suwi soda, soft-drink
tomo soweli doghouse, barn
tomo waso birdhouse, coop

Again, Toki Pona has more nuanced words from its full vocabulary. But for baby sign-language, reuse a smaller number of terms. For example, use signs for “people noise” (kalama jan) over “talk” (toki).

4: Names, Shapes, and Colors

Toki Pona offers pronouns and people descriptors, but I suggest using names/titles instead. Create unique gestures for people’s names (Toki Pona has an official way to do this, but it’s not necessary). Instead of signing “me” (mi), gesture “person Dad” (jan Dad). Instead of saying “mother” (mama meli), say “person Mom” (jan Mom). Instead of gesturing “you” (sina), gesture “person __” (jan __). You can use your unique gestures to indicate possession or association. “My room” (tomo mi) could instead be “Dad room” (tomo Dad).

Create unique gestures for people’s names, but reuse general descriptors for everything else. In order to maintain a laconic vocabulary, use shapes and colors to describe the world. Spaghetti is “string food” (moku linja). A banana is “long fruit” (kili palisa) or “long yellow fruit” (kili palisa jelo). Card games and origami can be described as “flat fun” (musi lipu). Playing catch is “spherical fun” (musi sike). Milk is “white liquid” (telo walo).

sike round, cycle, ball
lipu flat thing, page, leaf
linja string, hair, flexible
palisa rod, stick, long thing
kiwen rock, hard thing, metal
jelo yellow
loje red
laso blue, green
walo white
pimeja black, dark, shadow
suno light, sun

5: Body Parts

body parts

Exploit innate proprioception to explain surroundings. Many objects have fronts (sinpin) and openings (uta) and bumps (nena) and legs (noka), just like you!

insa stomach, inside, between
kute ear, listen, obey
lawa head, mind, guide, lead
luka arm, hand
monsi back, behind, rear, butt
nena nose, bump, button
noka foot, leg, bottom, under
oko eye, look, read, watch
poka hip, side, next to, near
selo skin, shell, outer layer
sewi up, above, sky, top
sinpin face, front, wall
uta mouth, door, window, lip

Your body offers an excellent reference for spatial awareness. Little people can be picked up (sewi) and set down (noka).

Body parts are also verbs! To kick is “to leg” (noka). To pick-up is “to hand” (luka).

And learning about your body naturally leads to insights about feelings and experience. Happiness is “good feeling” (pilin pona). Pain is “bad body” (sijelo ike).

pilin emotion, heart, feeling
sijelo body, physical, torso

6: Commands and Desires

Your baby will discover that they can request non-immediate things, i.e. future objects and distant objects. This is your cue to start using commands like “stop” (pini) and “away” (weka). You can also describe imminent events, e.g. “soon sleep” (lape kama).

But speak with with simple nouns and adjectives when possible. A “clean surface” (supa pona) is concrete; a “finished meal” (moku pini) is abstract.

Communicate consequences over opinions. “Mom is sad” (pilin ike Mom) carries more weight than “you are naughty” (sina ike).

seme what, why, how
wile want, need, wish
tawa go, moving, towards
weka absent, away, ignored
awen stay, wait
pini done, quit, stop
ala not, none, no
ike bad, complicated

7: More

These terms may be useful additions to your gesture vocabulary:

esun shop, business, purchase
mute many, lots, more, much
nasa strange, weird, drunk
pakala broken, damaged, harmed
poki bag, bowl, box, vessel
sitelen image, symbol, writing

8: Beyond

Toki Pona is a wonderful little language – I’ve only scratched the surface in this short guide. If you’d like to go beyond baby sign-language, consider reading the official guide and the official dictionary. I also highly recommend watching Jan Misali’s free Toki Pona lessons.