By Stacy Shannon
A language is more than just a set of words and grammatical rules. It is the marking of an entire culture (or subculture). According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the language we speak affects the way we think. In fact, some linguists went so far as to support this hypothesis that they claim that a multilingual person could have slightly different personalities when thinking in different languages.
In other words, language is a powerful psychological and cultural device, not just a tool of communication. Still, it’s undeniable that the main purpose of any language is the act of communication. According to Aristotle, this communication happens in three steps:
- The idea worth communicating (talking about) is born in the mind of the person.
- The person in question selects a set of notions and symbols that would perfectly describe this idea.
- The recipient interprets these symbols and notions and, ideally, gets the same idea that the first person had.
While a lot of people may not consider a programming language to bear many markings of a real language, the purpose is pretty much the same. You have an idea; you choose the code that will describe it as accurately as possible, and you hope that the end result will be as close to your original thought as possible.
New Lingua Franca
The first thing worth discussing is the concept of Lingua Franca – the universal language. The term was coined in an era where French was a dominant international language, in a similar way that the English language is today.
However, there are some languages that are used by people belonging to the same group or a profession. For instance, the majority of medical terms are in Latin, especially medical case reports. This means that even if you live in the United States and go to the doctor while on a holiday in Japan, upon your return, the doctor back at home will be able to interpret your medical case report. Needless to say, Latin is also a professional Lingua Franca for many other sciences like biology.
For mathematicians across the globe, the use of Arabic numerals has made communication incredibly easy. Moreover, even though different elements have various names in different languages, the atomic number would be enough for a chemist to tell them apart.
A similar thing is happening with programming languages today. They are starting to act as a modern Lingua Franca to programmers across the globe.
The Language of Data
Transferring data into words can be hard, seeing as how it usually requires you to take something that’s in raw form, and turn it into intelligible information. This is a multiple-step process that consists of analytics, intelligent search of collected data, and record management for the historical value of the given data.
In order to understand how all of this works, it’s essential that we dig a bit deeper into the topic of semantics. Instead of focusing on the way that words look (morphology), or the way they sound (phonology), semantics are primarily focused on the meaning of given words.
This is why tools like Semantic AI are essential for the interpretation of this data. The concept itself is an amalgamation of various symbolic AI and statistical AI methods. Furthermore, the process itself is focused on making machine learning more effective and accurate.
To make the long story short, since linguistics consists of a number of related fields (morphology, phonology, semantics, pragmatics, syntax, grammar, etc.), a similar thing was necessary for a programming language to function. Fortunately, all of these intricate rules and causalities could be automated and made more systemic with the use of an adequate tool.
Programing Language Syntax
Previously, we talked about numerous concepts that can make the language as a phenomenon into something fully functional. One of these things is syntax. The simplest way to explain syntax would be to say that it’s a list of rules regarding the structural organization of the sentence.
If you know a language instinctively (like the majority of native speakers), you’re completely unaware that you’re even using these rules. This, however, doesn’t mean that you don’t abide by them or that you can alter them of your own volition. For instance, when it comes to adjectives, the only natural order is always:
This is why a new folding bike and a folding new bike do not have the same meaning. It is also why big loud radio sounds a lot more natural than loud big radio. Ultimately, it is why a beautiful old big green antique car is the only natural-sounding form of the given phrase.
To make the long story short, just because you’re unaware of the fact that you’re using a syntax rule every time you utter a phrase or a sentence, this doesn’t mean that there are no rules.
The biggest problem with this concept is the fact that there are no native speakers of programming languages. This is why not a lot of people know these rules intuitively. However, it is undeniable that kids are starting to learn code and programming languages earlier than ever before. This alone might be enough to partially bridge this gap.
Family Tree of Languages
Previously, we’ve talked about the programming language as a potential Lingua Franca of the future. Well, this is a pretty bold claim to make, especially seeing as how there are currently over 2,400+ programming languages out there. This also means that saying that you “know how to program,” might be less indicative than you would hope. Sure, you know how to write code – in what programming language?
Like with human languages (yet another powerful parallel), not all languages have the same popularity or number of users. The most popular programming languages (according to statistics from May 2021) are:
- Python (29.9%)
- Java (17.72%)
As you can see, each of these languages holds a relatively big share of the total user market. This ratio also corresponds quite accurately to the ratios of some of the most popular human languages (by the number of speakers).
Still Heavily-reliant on Humans
The last thing worth mentioning on this topic is the fact that programming (same as creative writing or translation) is still heavily reliant on humans. Sure, there are some major strides, attempting to improve machine translation, a most recent one being Facebook’s machine translation but, when it comes to it, these solutions are still not perfect.
This reliance on human-based interpretation of language and creative use when it comes to programming is so similar to human language that it only proves just how related these two topics are. Both human and a programming language are merely tools of expressing original thought – creating something out of nothing.
One of the most beautiful things about language is that it makes human collaboration, socialization, and our entire civilization possible. Since every language perfectly represents the society that speaks it, it is only natural that the role of programming language is so prominent in the digital era.
While the difference between human and programming languages is quite striking, there are more similarities than you would expect to find in these (seemingly dissimilar) fields. Also, it’s quite curious how so many concepts, rules, and fields seem to be relevant in both of these fields.
After all, the term itself is called programming LANGUAGE for a reason.
About the Author
Stacey Shannon is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She’s passionate about writing, cats, and coffee.
Stacy considers herself a creative person and someone who can implement a lot of different subjects in innovative projects, and wish fulfillment.
Find her on Twitter @StaceyShann0n.