On Simplicity in Constructed Speech and the Occult
October 19, 2015 1 Comment
I’ve been interested in linguistics since at least middle school, when I took my first foreign language class. It was a semester-long course in Japanese in my sixth grade, but unfortunately, the teacher had to leave back for Japan one or two months before the semester was actually over. To fill out the rest of the semester, the school had another teacher come in and teach us the basics of Latin, for some reason. For me, it was an awesome twofer! That one semester started off a lifelong interest in languages, much to the chagrin of my mother, who wanted me to stick with Spanish or French because there’d be more money in that. (I still do need to learn Spanish, of course, but for entirely different reasons than either of us would expect.)
However, my interest in linguistics didn’t just stop at learning languages and the methods of communication involving grammar and syntax. I experimented with making a number of experimental constructed languages, also known as “conlangs”, and developed a number of writing systems for each of them. Some of those writing systems eventually became used as ciphers for English, and one of those I developed back in high school eventually became my personal cursive/shorthand script which I still use to this day. Creating languages and writing systems for a variety of ends has always been a hobby of mine, and it’s one that’s shared across many people of different streaks and creeds.
Chances are, dear reader, that you’ve encountered at least one conlang in your time. Klingon as spoken in the Star Trek fandom; Orwell’s Newspeak from 1984; the elvish languages of Quenya or Sindarin, the Black Speech of Mordor, and the dwarvish language of Khuzdul created by Tolkein in his Middle Earth; the script of the Atlanteans from the Disney movie of the same name; the list goes on. Plus, not all conlangs are meant as artistic projects for fantasy worlds. There are a number of constructed languages, such as Esperanto and Lojban, which are intended as actual languages to be used by people on a day-to-day basis, often to encourage lofty goals of world peace or better and more logical cognition. The conlang community has done some pretty interesting experiments when it comes to linguistics, and it’s always held an appeal for me and several of my good friends.
And yes, dear reader, there are conlangs in the occult world, as well. The number of mystical or magical writing systems is just the start of it. There’s the obvious Enochian of John Dee, which should be apparent to pretty much everyone, but there’re other constructed languages lesser-known across occulture.
One conlang is one I’ve known of for years and years now: toki pona. As far as conlangs go, this is a special one marked for its simplicity. Unlike other languages both natural and constructed, toki pona has only 120 words (when I first learned it, it only had 118). A single word can have dozens of meanings, all semantically related depending on how it’s used. For instance, consider the word “moku”. This word refers to something related to consumption or digestion: to eat , to drink, to swallow, to ingest, to consume, to digest, food, meal, snack, something edible, etc. In a sense, each word is a semantic category clarified by its use in a sentence, and not a single meaning. The grammar is likewise very simple with only a handful of possible constructions (though, of course, with endless variations).
Why such a simple language? The creator of the language, Sonja Lang, designed the language to be an experiment in testing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which can best be summed up as “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”. Although strong forms of this hypothesis are generally believed now to be false, it’s still being researched to see how much language influences the way we behave and the way we think. Lang (or, as known in the toki pona community, jan Sonja or “Sonja-person”) designed the language to be as simple as possible, even combining the semantic meanings of “good” and “simple” into the same word, so as to encourage a mindset and worldview focused on simplicity and dressing things down to a basic, simple means of existence. The canonical example of this is that there is no word for “friend” in toki pona, but the way one communicates this is with the construction “jan pona”, literally “good person”. A person who is good, especially to you, is known as a friend. Thus, some constructions become illogical; a “bad friend” would be “jan poka ike”, literally “bad good person”, but a thing can’t really be good and bad at the same time. Thus, if a person is bad to you, they probably shouldn’t be your friend.
One of the side effects of having such a linguistic structure is that toki pona is heavily dependent on context. While you can take a paragraph of English text from any particular source, you can be fairly certain in a short time of what that paragraph is talking about and what kind of text it came from, be it chemistry, physics, literature, law codes, instruction manuals, comic books, or so forth. Because of the generalized nature of toki pona, it’d be much more difficult to do the same, since unspoken (or previously-spoken) context plays such a huge role in toki pona. Thus, toki pona utterly lacks finesse and nuance in words, and relies completely on context and (sometimes) lengthy constructions in order to describe something completely. Then again, to describe something completely kinda defeats the purpose of toki pona. The purpose is to communicate simply and to think simply; this is to speak well, literally “toki pona”. To introduce more complexity than absolutely needed is unhelpful and makes what would normally be clear absolutely unclear, which is speaking poorly, literally “toki ike”.
Let’s bring this back to my life as a magician, shall we? Why would a Hermetic magician, immersed in a cosmos full of complexity and correspondences and nuance and detail, at all be curious or appreciative of such a simplistic, simple language? What good would a language that doesn’t even have a good means of describing numbers above 5 (and was never originally designed to have a words for numbers beyond “one”, “two”, “none”, and “many”) serve a person whose fundamental influences include the great mathematician-philosophers of the Mediterranean? With an utterly small phonemic gallery of sounds somewhere between that of Japanese and Pirahã, how can I be served by such a language when my own Work requires subtle and exact descriptions of barbarous words of the gods?
It’s simple. Complexity and nuance often doesn’t serve us all the time, and it helps to see things in a simple way. toki pona helps to see the forest for the trees and not be overwhelmed by the individual leaves, especially if you’re nowhere close enough to actually enter the forest. It’s a common-enough problem in occulture that we end up theorizing and extrapolating everything to an ungainly degree, insisting on artificial divisions of particular subsets of styles of magic, based partially on Aristotelian impulses for binning things and partially on the influence of fantasy divisions of magic into the occult. However, if we end up theorizing and complicating things to the point where we can’t actually do the Work, then we’ve fucked ourselves over and paralyzed ourselves from getting anywhere. For all the education, training, research, and meditation that goes into a ritual, the rite itself is the simple execution of a series of actions that may or may not have a particular result. It’s the things we feel, the things we see, the things we experience in its most basic, vulgar form that direct, inform, and destroy our theoretical models. After testing, the models should always be adapted to fit the data, as the data can only be interpreted in but so many ways to yield but so many models.
toki pona is a philosophical language, but it’s not philosophical in the sense of the great φιλοσοφοι or the rabbis of old. Those who speak toki pona aren’t much interested in drawing the finest distinctions between abstract concepts, the division of a speck of dust’s width between two things. We explain what happened in the simplest, barest of terms available to us to get rid of confusion and complexity and just come out with it. To abstract away, justify, or obfuscate is really the same sort of action, much as how exaggeration and extreme modesty are two sides of the same coin of lying.
So, how would I be using toki pona as an occultist? I mean, to those who’ve been reading my blog for a bit, I’ve already talked about this all before. (I actually only remembered that I wrote a post just like the present one over two years ago on the same topic with many of the same points. Herp derp.) After giving it some thought, and after having gone through a few more experiences in the time since the prior post, I think my original idea from two years ago is still good: using toki pona for “the description of a desired state or outcome”, how things should be at their core. I can talk about the planetary influences of the choirs of angels all day long and how they impact the sensations of my individual fingertips at different times of the day until the celestial cows come home, but it doesn’t change the fact that all I’m doing is emitting air and sound, especially when the topic is so theoretical and strained that it’s hard to make sense even in a well-described language like English or Greek.
I find that, as I get older and a bit more experienced (however little experience a few years can make), I get less and less interested in theory. Sure, I will always keep researching and understanding different models of reality, and I’ll keep learning correspondences and the theory behind magic, but as I keep coming in contact with it, it gets dry and boring without the moist nourishment of action to apply it all. Besides, it’s only in the application and results of this stuff that I get to see what theory is valuable and what isn’t; by testing these theories, not all of which should have been preserved from the ancients, I get to separate the wheat from the chaff and throw out the useless junk from the useful gems. Invariably, as I understand the theories better, my rituals get simpler and more powerful, but only because of the work that’s already gone into them. And, should I deign to go full-steam-ahead with the complexity and decoration and embellishment of a full Solomonic shebang, it’ll be even more powerful, but the need for that is limited at best and nonexistent at worst.
Simplicity works. That said, simplicity is the highest form of elegance, and it’s working toward that elegance that takes much time and effort. It’s a poor choice to separate out things at the start, when it should be by proof of demonstration that we come to know what’s necessary and what’s unnecessary, what’s able to be separated out and what’s able to be coupled together, what can be kept and what can be forgotten. toki pona helps with that in a few ways. I don’t expect to rewrite Agrippa’s Three Books in toki pona, but it will help in affording me another internal viewpoint to understand some of the things I do.