Podcast of the week: The smallest language in the world
Episode 25 of The Allusionist delves into the fascinating 123-word Toki Pona language
Helen Zaltzman interviews the originator of the language
The Allusionist has been around since 2015, but I’ve only just discovered it. Helen Zaltzman hosts this podcast about language. It is 82 episodes long, and it was a struggle to choose just one to focus on as an introduction to the show. However, this particular episode is so fascinating, philosophical and funny that it seems the right place to start.
Toki Pona is the smallest language in the world. It is 123 words long, and takes about 30 hours to learn. In this short episode, Zaltzman interviews the originator of the language, Sonja Lang, and learns the language with one of her peers, Nate DiMeo. Zaltzman and DiMeo dissect how useful it is to have a language that’s so reductive and simple. Lang, the creator of the language, explains that her goal was to create something that slows us down. Lang compares how we think and communicate to an internet browser that has too many tabs open: do we really need all that information? Toki Pona deliberately reduces things. There are only five words that describe colour – is there any point in trying to truly describe colour?
As Zaltzman and DiMeo learn the language, they discuss it as almost holistic but extremely restrictive. Zaltzman realises it’s almost impossible to make a joke in the language and that it is incredibly hard to be negative. They also discuss how important it is to have words for what we experience in order to be able to express ourselves – to be able to speak in imagery beyond the literal.
The episode lifts the veil on a strange language, and on how we use language. On limitations and excess, on what we need and don’t need. Every episode of The Allusionist is available as a transcript to read on their website. I cannot recommend this enough. One is about how we use the word “Hey”, another is about swearing, another is about the lexicon we use when we talk during sex. In a world that feels like every second podcast is a procedural about an unsolved murder or American politics, The Allusionist is a goldmine of thought. Every episode is short and sharp and brings something new, warm and even philosophical to your ears.