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Blogging in Neo Patwa

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.

14 comments

  • Thanks, Tim – I write as a former Esperantist, and remain a great admirer of the language. But as to the present discussion it would help if you quoted me accurately. I didn’t write: “those who are clever enough to learn Esperanto are clever enough to go the extra mile and learn English” but rather “most of those clever enough to learn Esperanto have been clever enough go the extra distance and learn English” – so “most” rather than “all” (as evidenced by the number of second-language English speakers relative to Esperanto speakers, given that the Esperanto alternative is well-known), and I am well aware that the “extra distance” is a lot further than the “extra mile” of the common aphorism.

    A related consequence for Esperanto is that these “most” include the “movers and shakers” who, learning English because they want the latest business news etc., fully understand and exploit the modern political reality – absent in Zamenhof’s day – in which the parties of the Left approach the power of those of the Right, and sometimes surpass them. The failure of Esperanto to meet the expectations of its supporters is surely tied to this failure to achieve a significant constituency among the global masses, in spite intense efforts by the WEA and others. The UN and other international agencies are well aware of Esperanto but would seem unlikely to endorse it – triggering the long-awaited revision to the Fundamento – in the face of this absence.

    As I’ve previously mentioned, the only IALs with proven mass-acceptance have been the pidgins, so it might be logical to follow their example, starting with a list of internationally-acceptable common words, e.g. “hotel, taksi, banco” (and no, for practical purposes it’s unnecessary to differentiate adjectives and nouns except by word order, as many successful languages prove).

    I’d be the first to agree that extra grammatical features allow flexibility and precision (not to mention economy of expression) for advanced speakers – but by the same token they should be omitted as far as possible from an “entry level” IAL for beginners. A hierarchic solution, along the lines I have proposed, might allow both to operate simultaneously.

  • Tim Morley

    Mea culpa for the misquote; in fact I misunderstood what you were saying in that sentence. Sorry about that.

    I’m not sure that the majority of learners of English *are* aware of Esperanto and have made a conscious choice between the two as you suggest. Esperanto does suffer from a lack of wide awareness of its existence, as well as something of an image problem among those that have heard of it but think it died out long ago, never worked at all, or similar. That’s a shame, but it’s up to Esperantists to get their message out as often and as widely as possible if that’s ever going to change.

    On the other hand, there are newspaper and magazine articles published every single day that talk about English as THE international language, even going as far as saying, “we might not like it, but there’s no alternative and there’s nothing we can do to change it”. If that’s the message you read over and over again in every publication you come across, people can be forgiven for believing it.

    The future, as always, is an unknown quantity. We both hope to see a fairly radical change in the current status quo towards some more equitable system, and I’m glad we agree on that. What that system turns out to be remains to be seen, but I’ll continue my efforts to promote what I firmly believe to be the best available solution.

    Best of luck with yours!

  • Having considered what I actually wrote, at least as much apology should really come from my direction. I didn’t express my thought accurately and should have admitted as much besides taking you to task for misquoting me. As the words read, your interpretation and resultant criticism was perfectly valid: in linguistic terms it is obviously easier for the average person in the world to learn Esperanto rather than English. My intended point was that most people clever enough to learn Esperanto view the IAL question in practical rather than linguistic terms; therefore they will choose to learn English (however badly), since the real and potential benefits would seem to outweigh those of learning Esperanto (however well).

    And yes, my impression has been that the sort of people who would want to learn a second language have normally heard of Esperanto. But anyway, the winner-takes-all rule tends to apply in language as much as in other areas of life, doesn’t it? The IAL issue has always followed the money, so there is every chance it might change complexion in the not-too-distant future, given the huge indebtedness of the English-speaking world as a whole. However, I don’t think the result would necessarily be to the immediate advantage of Esperanto, since it is Asia (and China in particular) rather than Europe which is currently in the economic ascendant. I’ve no doubt that Esperanto will continue to prosper but think it more likely that a simple “global pidgin” more amenable to the users of most languages will kick-off the IAL.

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