Toki Pona
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2001, Toronto translator Sonja Elen Kisa invented a language, “my attempt to understand the meaning of life in 120 words.” She called it Toki Pona (“good language”) and focused on minimalism, trying to find the smallest core vocabulary needed to communicate. With only 120–125 root words and 14 phonemes, the language helps its speakers to concentrate on basic things and to think positively — Kisa told the Los Angeles Times, “It has sort of a Zen or Taoist nature to it.”

To her own surprise it’s begun to grow. By 2007 Kisa estimated that 100 people spoke Toki Pona fluently, and it’s since expanded in online forums, social media, and even hacked video games. Here’s the Lord’s Prayer:

mama pi mi mute o, sina lon sewi kon.
nimi sina li sewi.
ma sina o kama.
jan o pali e wile sina lon sewi kon en lon ma.
o pana e moku pi tenpo suno ni tawa mi mute.
o weka e pali ike mi. sama la mi weka e pali ike pi jan ante.
o lawa ala e mi tawa ike.
o lawa e mi tan ike.
tenpo ali la sina jo e ma e wawa e pona.

And above is a contract written by Jonathan Gabel in the sitelen sitelen writing system, arranging for sale of the contract itself as a piece of art. Official site, dictionary, language course.

Words to Remember

Designed by a multidisciplinary team at Melbourne’s RMIT University, Sans Forgetica is a typeface that’s intended to reduce legibility, on the theory that the “desirable difficulty” of reading it will result in deeper processing and, ultimately, better retention.

The back-slanted, incomplete letters form a “simple puzzle” for the reader, RMIT lecturer Stephen Banham told the Washington Post last October. “It should be difficult to read but not too difficult. In demanding this additional act, memory is more likely to be triggered.”

The team say they’ve tested the font on university students and found that “Sans Forgetica broke just enough design principles without becoming too illegible and aided memory retention.” You can try it yourself — they’re offering a free download and a Chrome extension.

Form and Function

It’s sometimes suggested that the modern QWERTY keyboard was designed so that typewriter salesmen could impress customers by typing the phrase TYPEWRITER QUOTE on the top row of keys.

It wasn’t, but they could.

Changing Times

Sign-language expressions adopted by modern monks who live in an atmosphere of silence:

bulldozer = bull + push
boiler room = boil + room
computer = I + B + M
machine = “place fists together then twirl thumbs around one another several times”
dump truck = unload + machine
tractor = red + horse
machinist = brother + work + machine
jelly department = sweet + butter + house
refrigerator = cold + house
gasoline = oil + fire
plane = metal + wing

“There are signs for turkey (thank + God + day + bird: an original sign meaning “Thanksgiving Day bird”) and hen (egg + bird) but the latter designation refers to the hen as a source of eggs and not of flesh.”

From Monastic Sign Languages, ed. Jean Umiker-Sebeok and Thomas A. Sebeok, 2011.

A Mouthful

In 1854, a correspondent wrote to Notes and Queries asking about the origins of this couplet:

Perturbabantur Constantinopolitani
Innumerabilibus sollicitudinibus.

[“Constantinople is much perturbed.”]

He got this reply:

“When I first learned to scan verses, somewhere about thirty years ago, the lines produced by your correspondent P. were in every child’s mouth, with this story attached to them. It was said that Oxford had received from Cambridge the first line of the distich, with a challenge to produce a corresponding line consisting of two words only. To this challenge Oxford replied by sending back the second line, pointing out, at the same time, the false quantity in the word Constantinŏpolitani.”


Reader Eliot Morrison, a protein biochemist, has been looking for the longest English word found in the human proteome — the full set of proteins that can be expressed by the human body. Proteins are chains composed of amino acids, and the most common 20 are represented by the letters A, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, W, and Y. “These amino acids have different chemical properties,” Eliot writes, “and the sequence influences how the whole chain folds in three dimensions, which in turn determines the structural and functional properties of the protein.”

The longest English word he’s found is TARGETEER, at nine letters, in the uncharacterized protein C12orf42. The whole sequence of C12orf42 is:


And there are more: “There are also a number of eight-letters words found: ASPARKLE (Uniprot code: Q86UW7), DATELESS (Q9ULP0-3), GALAGALA (Q86VD7), GRISETTE (Q969Y0), MISSPEAK (Q8WXH0), REELRALL (Q96FL8), RELASTER (Q8IVB5), REVERSAL (Q5TZA2), and SLAVERER (Q2TAC2).” I wonder if there’s a sentence in us somewhere.

(Thanks, Eliot.)