When I started studying Toki Pona (approximately five weeks ago
), what puzzled me most about la
was the placement of the comma.
An early proverb of jan Sonja’s is:mi pona e ale mi, la mi pona e mi.
but if we understand la
as “if”, the following segmentation would seem more appropriate:mi pona e ale mi la, mi pona e mi.
and in fact all three variants are widely used: comma la
comma, and no comma at all.
I came to terms with la
only after attempting to reconstruct what was going on in jan Sonja’s head when she devised this strange function word. I think this is relevant, even if I agree that often etymology sheds little light on the current language. I wanted to contact jan Sonja to ask her directly how much off the mark I was, but I didn’t, because I know that she doesn’t usually answer these times. Now this thread is the right place to post my speculations.
Toki Pona was born when the many still unresolved controversies about were dividing linguists and language lovers alike. jan Sonja sided with the ones who considered a recursion-free, number-free Pirahã the voice of an innocent, better mankind ( anyone?) She wanted no recursion and no numbers in her language either. However, a minimal, recursion-like-but-not-really-recursion structure exists in Pirahã as well. Indeed it’s almost impossible to communicate anything beyond “I Tarzan you Jane” without it. la
is the word jan Sonja chose for that in Toki Pona. She later said that she took it from Esperanto “la”, but this cannot be true, because Esperanto “la” simply means “the” and is only superficially similar to our la.
I think she took it from her native language, French, where “là” (with an accent) means basically “there”, but has a lot of other uses, especially in the spoken language. I'm an everyday user of French, but no native speaker, so I’ll show sentences by natives that I’ve found with Google. I’ll also give funny word-by-word English translations to let non-French speakers understand what is going on. Tu crois ça? Là je suis d'accord.
You believe this? There I agree.
sina pilin e ni, la mi pilin e sama.
This easily evolves into “If you believe this, I agree.”Qu'il te fait des promesses et tout ... Et là, t'apprends qu'il sort avec deux filles.
He makes promises and all... and there, you learn that he's dating two girls.
ona li kepeken e lawa toki wawa e ali... la sina kama sona e ni: ona li unpa e meli tu.
An easy step to “When he makes promises, ...”J'ai compris votre cri d'appel au rassemblement du peuple... hein, quel peuple ? togolais ou sénégalais ? parce que Sénégalais, là c'est déjà fait autour de Macky Sall.
I understood your rallying cry for the people’s unity... huh, which people? Togolese or Senegalese? because Senegalese, there, it’s already done around Macky Sall.
Mi sona e toki wawa sina: sina wile kulupu e jan mute. A, jan seme? jan Toko anu jan Seneka? jan Seneka, la jan Makisali li pini pali e ni.
Again: “if Senegalese...”
Therefore I don’t think that “if” is the original basic meaning of la
. The original function is that of a recapitulative adverb, or, in jan Mato’s words, it’s used to mark “things that look like time, topics or adverbs”, a bit like in spoken French. A full-fledged “if” is a Toki Pona development which hasn’t (yet?) (fully?) happened in French. If you want to stress topicality, put a comma before la.
If you want to stress that this is (almost) a dependent clause, put the comma after it. None of the above, no comma.
My stance on multiple la
’s is that they don’t nest, and that they all set different parallel conditions for the main sentence. If they nested, this would be multiple recursion, very ike
almost by definition, while in parallel, they could help establish the rich context most Toki Pona sentences need to be understandable. But there is no agreement in the community, and I’ll try to make my case tenpo kama wan la.