Living In a Land of Invented Languages

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They've been advertising the book "In the Land of Invented Languages" by Arika Okrent on The Register web site for a while, and I finally caved in and bought a copy. And I have to say it's quite an amazing book. It really makes you think about how languages have evolved, and how we use language today. It even contains a list of the 500 most well-known invented languages; and a whole chapter that explores the origins and syntax of Klingon.

Even the chapter titles tempt you to explore the contents. There's a whole chapter devoted to the symbolic language representation for human excrement (though the word they use in the title is a little more graphic), and another called "A Calculus of Thought" that describes mathematical approaches to and analysis of language. Though the chapter title I liked best is "A Nudist, a Gay Ornithologist, a Railroad Enthusiast, and a Punk Cannabis Smoker Walk Into a Bar...". Meanwhile the chapter on Klingon explains that "Hab SoSlI' Quch" is a useful term for insulting someone ("Your Mother has a smooth forehead").

The book ranges widely over topics such as how languages work, and the many different ways that people have tried over the years to categorize languages into a set of syntactic representation trees that separate the actual syntax from the underlying meaning. A bit like we use CSS to separate the UI representation from the underlying data in web pages. It raises an interesting point that, if every language could be categorized into a tree like this, translation from one to another should be really easy.

For example, the problem we have with words such as "like" that could mean two completely different things ("similar to" or "have affection for") would go away because the symbolic representation and the location within the syntax tree would be different for each meaning. Except that you'd have to figure out how to convert the original text into the symbolic tree representation first, so it's probably no advantage...

But it struck me that the book makes little mention of the myriad invented languages that we use in the IT world every day. Surely Visual Basic, C#, Smalltalk, LISP, and even HTML and CSS are invented languages? OK, so we tend to use them to talk to a machine rather than to each other (though I've met a few people who could well be the exception that proves the rule), but they are still languages as such. And the best part is that they already have a defined symbolic tree that includes every word in the language, because that's how code compilers work.

However, it seems that our computer-related invented languages are actually resolutely single-language in terms of globalization. A web search for print("Hello World") returns 12,600,000 matches, whereas imprimer("Bonjour tout le monde") finds nothing even remotely related. It looks as though, at least in the IT world, we are actually forcing everybody to learn US English - even if it's only computer language keywords.

Does this mean that computer programming for people whose first language is not English is harder because they need to learn what words like "print", "add", "credential", "begin", "file", and more actually mean in their language to be able to choose the correct keywords? Or does learning a language such as Visual Basic or C# make it easier to learn English as a spoken language? Are there enough words in these computer languages to make yourself understood if that's the only English words you know? I guess it would be a very limited conversation.

So maybe we should consider expanding the range of reserved words in our popular computing languages to encompass more everyday situations. Working on the assumption that, in a few years' time everyone will need to be computer literate just to survive, eventually there would be no need for language translation. We could just converse using well-understood computer languages.

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Living In a Land of Invented Languages