Programming by Linguists I

Why do we speak of programming languages instead of programming notation? The latter seems a more accurate term for the mixture of words, punctuation, symbols, and and spacing that make up most programming, which owes more to mathematics than to language. We even call it code, an admission that it is not a real human language. Real languages allow infinitely more variety of expression, but are correspondingly harder to define precisely. Programming languages presumably grew out of a need to express concepts particular to computers in a way that could be engineered in electronic circuits. Engineering does not allow for ambiguity, which is a good thing. This all makes sense given that the pioneers of computer science were engineers and mathematicians. But I like to speculate: what would a programming language designed by a linguist look like?

It would almost certainly use far less punctuation. Natural languages tend to have a much higher ratio of words to punctuation and layout. Chinese, at one extreme, has almost no punctuation; English, at the other, has a fair amount. In either case, however, the punctuation and layout serve only as indicators for what would normally be conveyed by tone, inflection, and rate of speech.

Most programming languages are difficult to impossible to understand when spoken, unless one “reads” the punctuation characters aloud, which disrupts the flow of speech. Who ever reads this:

for (int i = 1; i <= 10; i++) {
        printf("%d\n", i);

as “for open parenthesis int i equal zero semicolon i less than equal ten semicolon i plus plus close parenthesis open bracket print f open parenthesis double quotation mark percent d slash n double quotation mark comma i close parenthesis semicolon close bracket”? No one, except maybe a beginning C programmer. On the other hand, how does one read the above program aloud? One can describe what it does in a sentence, “Print the integers from one to ten, one per line” but that version does not even scratch the surface of what the computer does.

To be continued…

One Reply to “Programming by Linguists I”

  1. […] In one of my first posts, I asked “Why do we speak of programming languages instead of programming notation?” My thought was, and still is, that code in any existing programming language is just one possible representation of an abstract computational process. Higher-level languages like Lisp are good because they bring the written representation closer to the abstraction. But are programming languages necessary at all? […]

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