The question of whether modern information technology has a positive or negative effect on global language diversity has been debated since the very beginning of the global online conversation. On the positive side, localized to fit the needs of regional communities, the Internet may allow populations a much-needed forum within which to cultivate and protect their own language. On the negative side, the Internet may simply aggravate the homogenizing effects of globalization, accelerating the spread of a handful of “lingua francas” while assimilating thousands of less well-known local languages into a giant global melting pot.
One of the very tangible manifestations of these issues of language diversity appears within the global blogosphere, where there is an incentive to adopt a foreign language (normally English) when the goal is to speak to people outside of a local context. But what if people did not have to give up their own language to communicate across language boundaries? What if there was a simpler alternative to the complex sounds, irregular grammar, and cultural baggage of “International English”, a language flexible enough to be shared by people across the world?
This is the thinking that went into the construction of Neo Patwa, a pidgin language thought up by Japan-based blogger Jens Wilkinson and featured regularly in his blog, as well as that of fellow Neo Patwa blogger Jack Parsons. I asked Jens some questions about the origin, motivation, and future of Neo Patwa.
What first got you interested in the idea of creating Neo Patwa, and how do you see it as different from other constructed languages?
Nearly all constructed languages are based on European languages to some extent. I wanted to make a language that would be truly multicultural. It seems only fair that if we are to try speaking with a common tongue, it should incorporate elements from different cultures around the world.
What is wrong with English as an international language?
It is true that English is very widely spoken. But this is unacceptable for two major reasons. One is simply that English as a language is difficult for people of many other languages. There are too many vowels, and we have horrible words like “sixths” (four consonants in a row!) Even I have a hard time pronouncing it. Also, English has lots of irregularities and idioms.
The second reason is that using English as an international language gives an unfair advantage to native speakers of the language. And even as a social phenomenon, it gives rise to the idea that one culture is superior to other cultures.
Now, can we do anything about it? I think actually that spreading a language like Neo Patwa, even on a small scale, can help create awareness of the idea that we should not let a limited group of native speakers have a hold on the language that we all use for inter-language communication.
Q: Where did you find inspiration for the grammar, vocabulary, and style of Neo Patwa?
I got a lot of inspiration from languages such as pidgins and creoles, which developed in situations where people with different mother languages were trying to communicate. After all, that is what an international language should do. For example, Swahili was developed by Arabian traders communicating with speakers of Bantu languages mainly. And Malay developed as a trading language between people speaking a variety of languages. I also tried to incorporate things from the world's largest languages, i.e. English and Mandarin. For that, Singlish was a big inspiration, because it is a language developed in a crossroad between mainly English, Chinese, and Malay languages.
How has your experience been so far blogging in Neo Patwa?
I've been blogging in Neo Patwa mostly as a way to practice the language. Though Neo Patwa is ready to use as a kind of pidgin, there are still many elements that need to be developed. I hope to develop it in cooperation with people who are speakers of a multitude of languages.
What do you see as the next step for Neo Patwa?
For the moment, I'm concentrating on finding people who are interested in experimenting with it and making suggestions on how to make it better. I really hope to get cooperation from people who speak non-European languages, to avoid a European bias where possible.
If we are to have a scientific, evidence-based solution to the international auxiliary language (IAL) problem we should build upon what has worked in the past, and the pidgin/creole precedent with which Neo-Patwa is identified seems to be the best foundation, given that completed jargon/pidgin/creole progressions represent the only unconditionally successful IAL developments in terms of penetration through all social sectors within their target areas. Regionally-specific historic phenomena they might be, but there is no inherent reason why an effective modern IAL on similar principles should not now be promulgated in an organised manner throughout the world.
Antony Alexander http://langx.org
James you really should be quiet. I am currently learning Neo Patwa for it can assist me in my learning of Chinese, plus I have also made the use of Linglese to help me transcribe words till I have an adequate understanding of Chinese characters.
I wholly agree with what Jens Wilkinson says about blogging in English for an international readership: while it’s currently the best way to reach a wide audience, it does and always will discriminate against people who’ll never have the time or the resources necessary to reach the necessary level of English, and will always confer privileges on native English speakers.
In fact, I said as much at the Global Voices Summit in London a couple of years ago. Search for my name on this page:
Using pidgins and creoles is an interesting approach to developing a new language, but I have to wonder whether Jens is aware of Esperanto, and if so, what concrete reasons he has for wanting to re-invent the wheel.
Esperanto has been around for 120 years; it has a couple of million speakers in over 100 countries, which is still a long way short of English, perhaps, but is a couple of million more than Neo Patwa. A good number of these speakers are Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc. and whenever I have raised the question of inequality with them (because Esperanto looks rather European at first glance) the response is always the same: “it’s here, it works, it’s at least 10 times easier and quicker than either of us learning each other’s native languages, so let’s just get on with it”.
The number of Esperanto blogs keeps on growing — see here for a partial list:
and Kalle Kniivilä’s was singled out for particular praise on Global Voices a couple of months ago:
In short, I wholeheartedly support the move to challenge the use of English as the default international language, but I see far more value in going with a well established and thriving alternative than to start again from scratch.
It’s great to see people working with new languages. I’m a big fan of esperanto. But I think advanced machine translation will be the way forward longterm.Even now google is refining tools that let you search in one language for results in another. Perhaps a cool new pidgin language to develop would be one that worked well grammar-wise with automated translation into other languages.
Few in the constructed IAL movement would deny that Esperanto is an excellent, pioneering piece of work of enduring influence, but whether it is capable of becoming the IAL of the whole world in its present form is another question. Yes, Esperanto is much easier to learn than existing “national” languages, but that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the best new constructed IAL available. There will always be naturally-gifted linguists everywhere but the IAL should be for the masses and some peoples tend to find Esperanto difficult: the Chinese, for instance, whose grammar is analytic rather than synthetic. To give a fair assessment one should also mention the large numbers of students who have tried to learn Esperanto but have simply given up. Even English-speakers tend to find Esperanto quite challenging – not least because it has several grammatical constructions their own language manages quite well without. In English-speaking countries Esperanto was a “household word” seventy years ago but has since almost entirely faded from view. It might be added that your estimate of 2 million speakers is at the top of the range: Wikipedia estimates the number at between 100,000 and 2 million.
Briefly, I believe that the genius of Esperanto will find its way into the IAL of the future, but not at the initial mass-entry level – where a “global pidgin” somewhat along the lines of Neo Patwa would be more appropriate. My website, previously mentioned, examines this proposition in some detail.
In response to Tim’s question about “reinventing the wheel,” obviously that’s something that I’ve thought about, because once you get past the question of “why not English,” the next question you confront is “then why not Esperanto”?
For me, it sort of boils down to this. I’ve read a lot about contact and pidgin/creole languages, and the one thing that seems overwhelming is that they simplify or lose inflection, and use a small vocabulary. So that, for example, they will often have a very small number of prepositions compared to natural languages. And this seems natural, because after all, pidings are spoken between people who come from different language backgrounds. And they are naturally doing what is necesary to achieve the best communication. And so, Esperanto has always seemed “too inflected” to me, if that is clear. I don’t know why there is a plural/singuar distinction, for example, or why there is a distinction between “he”, “she”, and “it.” Plus I never really liked the different endings for nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. And as you mentioned, there is the European vocabulary. I know it’s not really that big a deal, and many non-Europeans are happy to use it. But my thinking is, if we’re going to have an international language at all, why not make it global in the first place?
In any case, I don’t think that having a number of possible choices is really a bad idea at this point. I’m happy to see people using Esperanto or Ido or Interlingua, or Toki Pona for that matter. And hopefully they will all blend into something that is a real world language.
Anthony: I’d be interested to know the basis for your statement that “English speakers find Esperanto quite challenging” — compared to what? It’s a language, that you can use for poetry, shopping lists, declarations of love, slander, military commands, botany, IP networking… so yes, it takes a certain amount of effort to learn and acquire. It’s challenging compared to (say) Sudoku, or learning to sew a button onto a shirt, but compared to any other language, it’s an order of magnitude easier and quicker to learn.
Jens: it’s good to know that you’re aware of Esperanto and consider it worthy of attention, but I’m not sure I agree with your analysis of it. Esperanto is almost entirely free of inflection (taking “inflection” to mean “words changing their form when it’s not necessary for communication”). As Claude Piron says in his essay Esperanto: A Western Language? — “Chinese, Vietnamese and Esperanto […] have in common a feature that sets them apart from most languages, especially the Indo-European ones: they are composed of strictly invariable elements which can combine without restriction.” Doesn’t sound like a heavily inflected language to me.
You say that pidgins and creoles “simplify or lose inflection, and use a small vocabulary”. That’s certainly true of pidgins, but often when they mature into creoles, they re-acquire a mass of each (at least, that’s my understanding, but it’s not something I’ve studied closely, and I don’t speak any creole myself).
As I said above though, Esperanto is free of inflection, and uses (and re-uses and re-uses) a relatively small number of roots to make a vast, flexible and expressive vocabulary.
You say you don’t know why there are inflections for plurals, or distinctions between he/she/it. Well, the answer is, “because there are — why is that bad?”. If all these features were absent, someone else would stand up and say, “Well, Esperanto’s rather restrictive and unexpressive, because it doesn’t use plurals, and there’s no way to distinguish between he/she/it.”
Esperanto exists. It works phenomenally well in its role as an easy to learn, near-neutral, truly inter-national language, as witnessed by anyone who attends, for example, a World Congress of Esperanto. (For info, this year’s was in Yokahama and had 1900 registered participants).
If you want to tinker around with new languages, that’s as respectable a hobby as any other, but to claim that your new, untested, as yet unused project of a language, or even a hypothetical as-yet-undefined non-existent language, is somehow an improvement on the 120-year history of Esperanto is… well, it’s as if you’ve written the first few hundred lines of a new computer operating system, and you’re claiming already that it’s comparable to, or even superior to Windows, Linux and Mac OS X, and that you’re expecting the world to beat a path to your door.
I meant that English speakers find Esperanto challenging in comparison to their own language, which manages quite well without distinct transitive and intransitive verb forms, a separate reflexive pronoun, marked nouns and adjectives, plural adjectives, the accusative case inflection and ubiquitous diacritics. Yes, these remain vestigially in odd words and constructions, but context mostly allows English to cope quite well without them. In comparison with the pidgins (which approach the basic linguistic universals) Esperanto seems even more needlessly complex, since the typical pidgin allows essential mundane communication without articles, plurals, auxiliary verbs, the denoted genitive case or differentiated adverbs – and uses serial verbs rather than the infinitive and anaphora rather than embedded clauses. Some of these omissions are also characteristic of Chinese, Japanese and other national languages. The relative absence of inflections in pidgins also made them easy for analytic Chinese-type languages.
While not going as far as Toki Pona, there is surely a lot to be said for the IAL starting out as a lowest common denominator – a sort of “global pidgin prequel” to an Esperanto-type language. Whatever might be justifiably claimed in its favour, Esperanto has hardly been an unqualified success after 120 years, and in some countries has apparently gone backwards. I think the essential problem may have been that most of those clever enough to learn Esperanto have been clever enough go the extra distance and learn English, given the vastly greater economic prospects, speaking-community and range of literature associated with the latter.
IMHO what is needed now is a basic but serviceable IAL for the mass of non-linguists: a language that should start out as an international core vocabulary: a language it would be simple for most people in most countries to learn. Once that had become established, a developing IAL might embrace more sophisticated sociolects up to and beyond the level of Esperanto. I believe it would now be in the interest of multinational corporations and government agencies to establish such a basic IAL on the pattern of the historically-successful pidgins and for similar reasons.
Anthony: this is clearly something you’ve thought a lot about, and you certainly seem to know quite a bit about Esperanto — good for you.
I would strongly dispute your claim that “those who are clever enough to learn Esperanto are clever enough to go the extra mile and learn English” — that’s certainly not my experience at all. I’ve met a large number of Esperanto speakers who speak the language perfectly adequately after a year or so, and very proficiently after four or five years, but who still sound like rank amateurs in English. Yes, they may be able to make themselves understood for some purposes in English, but they sound like stumbling half-wits in English as opposed to their powerful, eloquent argumentation in Esperanto. (Most of them started their English study long before their Esperanto too).
The difference between learning the two languages (to whatever level you specify) isn’t just a question of an “extra mile” for English as opposed to Esperanto. As I said above, it really is an order of magnitude more straightforward to get there in Esperanto.
As for the list of features that you say English “manages perfectly well without” — well, it’s true that people struggle with the accusative ending and the reflexive pronoun, I’d agree with you there (and yes, I’d be surprised to ever find either of these features in a pidgin language), but they do allow such flexibility and precision for more advanced speakers that I think it’s worth the effort to master them.
The plural adjectives and the distinct transitive and intransitive verb forms are just something to get used to, and don’t present much of a problem for very long, in my experience as a learner and teacher of the language.
And the marked nouns and adjectives (and verbs and adverbs) are an absolute godsend to learners! They are an incalculable aid to comprehension and to production, really one of the “genius” (
[previous message got aborted; don’t know why; continued below]
…really one of the “genius” (your word!) aspects of the language that make it vastly easier to quicker to pick up and run with.
Good luck to you anyway in developing your new IAL. I’m pleased that you recognise and acknowledge the richness of Esperanto as a source for your project, and hope that your development and promotion work will not resort to denigrating its foundations.