An extreme creative tool in the box

As a teacher in charge of graphic communication courses at the University of Cergy-Paris, one of my favorite activities is to find new ideas, new exercises to help students be creative. Not that they have difficulties to be original but on a professional level, it is important to know how to torture your mind to go further than your first thoughts.

Grist for the mill

To be creative in this profession, it is first of all to overcome the problems linked to technical know-how. Not saying to yourself “I don’t know how to do that” and turning your back on ideas that could have been good.

Secondly, it is to offer our brain some grist for the mill. This grain often takes the form of one or more constraints, imposed voluntarily or not. Without it, it is a blank page that stares and paralyzes us. Intellectually, we lack a form of fuel that could make our brains tick. We impose on ourselves a specific format, a palette, a graphic treatment; we forbid ourselves this or that, and so on.

To problematize things is a way of life and a duty for creative minds. It means understanding and stating our subject by having chosen an angle and pointing out a paradoxical feature that forces us to put it into discussion. It is not about asking a question but about opening a debate.

Creativity will also come from the angle with which we analyze a request. When we step back and look at it in a broader context, when we take a step to the side, when we reverse it, when we push it to the extreme. In short, changing perspective often helps to dust off reflexes, which for lack of sufficient intellectual stimulation, soon take over and deliver what they have already offered.

The bull by the horns

And in this spirit, why not go even further? It’s by asking myself the question that everything fell into place: For lack of being able to exchange our brain for another one, it is undoubtedly possible to re-wire it a little differently so that it can provide us with a new perspective on what we think. Or on what we think we think. To do this, why not changing the way we speak?

No need to fall back into the inexhaustible philosophical discussion on the relationship between language and thought. Let’s start from the postulate that the relationship is indeed complicated and let’s try.

Obviously, learning a language like Italian or Chinese would be time consuming and it is not said that replacing one lexicon by another can help us in our undertaking. The idea here is to add a linguistic resource to our toolbox which forces us to restructure our thoughts into small, primary and precise semantic boxes. You have obviously understood that I am talking about the simplest language in the world, the one that you learn in a few weeks and whose vocabulary does not exceed 150 words. The toki pona.

The whole vocabulary of toki pona

So much for one word

Let’s take an example: In Richepin’s poem, put into song by Brassens, “Les oiseaux de passage”, the migrating birds symbolize a certain type of free people. How to translate a complex thought with simple words? Difficult, because our vocabulary contains different, sometimes contradictory concepts.

A migratory bird A free man
a passing bird a man without a country
a bird without country a man without constraint
a bird that flies at night a revolutionary
a bird that flies in a group a man with a simple life
a bird that flies high a free spirited man
a bird that comes from far away a man without desire
a bird that does not stay a rich man

in short, the list is endless. Now imagine breaking down a whole paragraph and realizing how potentially unintelligible our thoughts are to the people they are directed to.

By using the toki pona, things become clearer. The concept of freedom does not exist in this language, which is composed of very concrete words (animals, hunting, warrior, plant, sky). The same goes for “migratory bird”, as you may have guessed. So we have to deal with what we have to express and what we have in hands.

waso pi tawa suli - bird that goes far
waso pi tawa sewi - bird that flies high
waso pi ma linja ala - bird without borders
waso pi kama tawa - bird that will go away

… and so on.

Make your choice and seal this thought on a sheet of paper, it will be your “free man”.

Practical case

Applied to a creative activity, this little game is amazing: a request arrives. Around a table, people are busy brainstorming and throwing thoughts on a whiteboard. Very quickly, the board goes black. Then, the ideas are grouped and form sets. Things become clearer and something comes out of it. Now imagine that each person around the table has to express this “something” using toki pona. You will get as many paths to work on as there are people around the table. All these tracks will have been stripped of everything that was considered interfering by its author.

So I gave the class the opportunity to make this little extra effort. After a few days of reflection, the 15 students of the professional degree in digital technology were ready to go and we got started.

After a good two-hour session of learning the language, the students had already learned about 30% of the vocabulary of Toki Pona. At the grammatical level, only the elementary rules had been seen but this already allowed us to make simple sentences.

A sentence generator made for students

That afternoon, the class is at work. Each student is writing and illustrating a book for kids. One of the students summarizes her story for me. It’s a little confusing. She goes in several directions at once and, wanting to address the theme of discrimination, ends up unintentionally advocating it. We then try to formalize the message to be transmitted in toki pona. 3 embryonic sentences are produced without much difficulty and lead to the clarification of the problem:

What she wants to say is:
People are afraid of what they don’t know.
People don’t like what they are afraid of.
By learning about the difference, there is no reason to be afraid of it.

And there you have it, a very simple little book, back on track.

One word less that says a lot.

A few days later, it was another student’s turn to tell me her story: 2050, the school has changed. The teachers give the children a pill of knowledge. In doing so, they can no longer give the wrong answer. Until the day when… (I don’t want to spoil the book). So, I write this nice little script in toki pona and send it to her. And now she’s the one who, by removing one word from my text, gives it back all its meaning.

ona li kepeken e ilo sona lili tan pana sona tawa jan pi kama sona.
it is by using a knowledge chip that he teaches school children.

–> schoolchildren or students: jan pi kama sona
–> became after correction: jan pi sona (the knowers, the savants). The word kama had thus disappeared, and with it the slow process of learning and the associated idea of future. Not to mention the nuance, the debate, the doubt… and the pleasure of reading. One word less that says a lot.

During the second session of toki pona, we did not learn any new words. So far, we know the 30 or 40 most used ones. On the other hand, we were able to evoke all the bestiary of the forest, to evoke the means of transport, the professions… because with our small vocabulary, it is easy to compose the words that we need. The bat is for some a flying mammal, a strange bird, a bird that feeds on blood, a flying night animal. In short, all these definitions are perfectly understandable and help us to direct our thoughts on a much narrower and more precise path than the one provided by our mother tongue. Precise because it is made up of modifiers that complete a very broad-based concept.

Controlled ambiguities

It is often said, and it is assumed, that Toki Pona is an ambiguous language. Each word carries a vast field of possible meanings. But by practicing the language, one realizes that the ambiguities are very controlled. Context is an indispensable element in a conversation or writing in Toki Pona, it directs our attention on the right path. Then, the simple but strict grammar comes to attribute a function to each word. Finally, by voluntarily removing what is superfluous and redundant (number, gender, type…) and by adding details, in a controlled and voluntary way, to our lexicon, we end up eliminating any risk of misunderstanding. Misunderstandings that, let’s be honest, never end up ruining our lives considering that our languages carry things that often have no business being in our mouths.