Issue #31: English Language

The Winner Takes It All

You surely heard that old story, where one fish asks another “how is the water today?” and the second replies, “what the hell is water?” Similarly, few of us seem to think about English. It is all around us.

We expect to read code comments in English. We expect our colleagues to speak and write it fluently. We expect the documentation for newly hyped open source libraries to be available in English. We expect a magazine like this one, about programming, to be written in English. We expect software conferences to be held in English, regardless of where in the world they take place. Authors rightfully brag about having their books translated to other languages; a privilege nowadays reserved only to the most successful titles.

At every moment in history, there has been a particular Lingua Franca. Ancient societies in the Fertile Crescent used Greek or Aramaic for commerce and exchange. Various populations in southern Africa have used Swahili to trade and negotiate for centuries. For millions of people across Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile, Quechua serves the same purpose. Pakistani and Hindu share Hindi-Urdu. Many Islamic countries officially speak the Arabic language. French spread throughout the world between the Siècle des Lumières and the Napoleonic wars. In Annus Mirabilis 1905, Einstein published his four famous papers in the Annalen der Physik, in German, the Lingua Franca of maths, chemistry, and physics at the turn of the twentieth century, usurping the throne that Latin had enjoyed since the Renaissance.

Historically, one of the major factors favoring one or the other of these languages has always been wars, followed by hegemony.

However brilliant German science was, by 1930, the menace of nationalism and antisemitism caused by Nazism forced the most brilliant minds of the century to migrate. Many, including Gödel, Einstein, and Von Neumann, ended up in Princeton, sitting in offices next to one another. Even though they spoke fluently German among themselves, their published contributions to science shifted to English, almost overnight. After all, those who paid their salaries and/or proofread those papers, most probably did not speak German. Not even Einstein’s nurse spoke it, which means we will never know what his last words were.

In his 1992 best-seller novel, “Fatherland”, Robert Harris imagined a parallel universe in which the Axis won World War II. A certain number of events, starting in a hypothetical 1942, culminates with a German ICBM hitting New York. This establishes a “cold war” between the USA and Germany, the latter controlling all of Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals. One critical fact contributing towards their victory was the realization that the Enigma code had been broken by the British, prompting the immediate deceit and successful invasion of Great Britain.

Let us push this Gedankenexperiment a bit further, and hopefully Mr. Harris will not mind me doing so: after such events, Konrad Zuse’s Plankalkül begets a foundation for the programming languages of that particularly dystopian future. Students of the new science of automatic computing end up using German keywords for their Web 2.0 languages, and this, all over the world.

But of course, history is written by the winners. And in this “reality” we happen to share, the British and American Empires, victorious at the end of the Second World War, rewrote history as expected. Instead of Konrad Zuse unleashing Plankalkül with German keywords, we had Grace Hopper unleashing COBOL with English keywords (with a particularly verbose set thereof). Instead of MOVE 123 TO HOUSE-NUMBER. it could have been 123 AUF HAUSNUMMER VERSCHIEBEN. Und so weiter.

The rest, as they say, is history.

McCarthyism and the closed nature of the Soviet block came along, and the banning of all things Russian and German followed (in particular, early contributions to programming, like the aforementioned Plankalkül, only to be forgotten and rediscovered decades later), and imposed English as the Lingua Franca for this brave new world. Among those, the computer industry, another invention as American as a Ford Mustang, or at least so think the Americans.

Because not everything computer-related came from America, but certainly almost everything came in English. Python from the Netherlands; Linux from Finland; Pascal and Scala from Switzerland; Lua from Brazil; Eiffel from France; Ruby from Japan; Erlang from Sweden; ARM and the ZX Spectrum from Britain; C++ from New Jersey; Hungarian notation from… you get the idea.

Starting in the 1970s, BYTE Magazine and Dr. Dobb’s Journal, both in English, spread the word of the computer, always in English. The first blockbuster movies produced in Hollywood with spaceships, robots and computers, were all spoken in English. The biggest corporations selling computers were American, and needless to say, held their daily standup meetings in English.

These days, the largest Wikipedia is the one written in English. Social media buzz around computer-related news happens, to a large degree, in English. The author of these lines, blessed with a quite limited knowledge of German, is able to live and work in Zürich thanks to English. The most watched programming tutorials series in YouTube are in English.

And the most popular programming languages taught in said tutorials have long lists of reserved keywords and class libraries bearing names of English origin. if, else, while, end, repeat, do, begin, class, Object, and the list continues. Learning programming means, to a large degree, to improve your English without one realizing it. Or maybe even to learn it from scratch.

But it does not need to be like that.

The rise of Netflix made people forget that until the 1980s, most TV series had their titles translated to other languages; in Argentina, we did not watch “Knight Rider” but “El Auto Fantástico” (every Tuesday at 7 PM on ATC). “Little House on the Prairie” was known as “La Familia Ingalls”. In Switzerland, I did not watch “Mazinger Z” but “Goldorak”. There was no “Star Wars” on theaters, but rather “La Guerre des Étoiles”; film which, interestingly enough, had a needlessly more grandiose title in Spanish: “La Guerra de las Galaxias” (after all, there was apparenly only one far, far away galaxy involved in said war a long time ago).

These days, everybody binge-watches “Breaking Bad”, “Lost”, “The Gilmore Girls”, “Keeping up with the Kardashians”, or “Friends”, and we do not bother translating the titles of those shows anymore. Most people actually just watch the original version; after all, it is hard to translate jokes in New Yorker English to other cultures. Most kids learn English this way, and you could mistake them with native Philadelphians by the age of 18.

The stronghold of the English language has only increased since the invention of the World Wide Web by a British scientist.

Regular readers of this magazine know that I grew up in Argentina, a non-English speaking country. A country where, during and after the Falklands War in 1982, the English language was actually banned from Argentine media for a short while. I later moved to another non-English speaking country, Switzerland, one that by the way has four official languages. (And no, English is not the fourth, in case you get to answer that while playing Trivial Pursuit.)

In that second country, I decided to study physics. I read English and French translations of the Russian Mir series of books about maths and engineering. And I used Excel 5.0 to prepare my laboratory reports. Excel 5.0, running under Windows 3.1 and released in 1993, was the first version of Excel with support for Visual Basic for Applications. Since I was living in the French-speaking side of Switzerland, the University provided us with a version of Excel 5.0 localized into French.

What many people do not know today is that, back then, this localization did not only apply to menus, but also to functions. Weirdly enough, that Excel even came bundled with a regionalized dialect of VBA, in French.

French-spoken VBA looked like this, circa 1994:

Proc Auto_ouvrir()
    Application.Attendre Maintenant + HeureVal("00:00:02")
Fin Proc

I think it sounds better in Québécois.

There was no ELSE keyword; its equivalent was SINON; you can imagine the rest. This fact could have been simply anecdotal if it were not for a major issue: that these macros were completely and utterly incompatible with English versions of Excel. They would simply not run in other localizations. So much for interoperability between the French and American branches of your multinational, even if you are running one the most popular productivity tools ever created.

As late as in 2010, there were people in forums asking for help in translating such monsters into the English dialect, so that they would work in more recent versions of the spreadsheet. Such “feature” of Excel was finally dropped around 2003, apparently, for the Microsoft Office Lingua Franca of VBA: English.

In the March 1981 issue of BYTE Magazine, in page 300, one can find an article titled “The New Literacy: Programming Languages as Languages”. In it, the author (a certain Jon Handel) compares the same (purposedly simple) program written in BASIC, ALGOL, and APL.

The choice of APL for such article is an interesting one; while Swift programmers make fun of using Emoji characters as variable names, APL used Greek symbols as keywords back in 1966. Whether your keyboard would provide easy access to those or not, was clearly something beyond the consideration of its creator.

In a rather interesting twist, the author compares languages with pointers to Russian. Arrays to plurals. Variables to nouns. Operators to auxiliary verbs. Und so weiter.

As much as we try to liken programming to art, and as extension, to consider programming languages as prose, it is quite a stretch to do so. Even though Kernighan & Plauger’s “The Elements of Programming Style” borrows its title and purpose from Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style”, it is hardly conceivable to reduce a spoken language to a Backus-Naur form.

This non-algorithmic nature forced automatic translation systems to choose other solutions to make computers understand the nuances and subtleties of human speech. From Qopuchawi to Deepl, simple algorithms have never been enough. Qopuchawi used an intermediate language (Aymara) featuring trivalent logic. Deepl on the other side uses powerful machine learning models to achieve its outstanding results.

The crossing between popular culture, fictional war scenarios, and languages other than English, has taken serious hits during the twentieth century.

The action of the motion picture “Starship Troopers” is set in a Buenos Aires of the future… where everybody speaks English, except for the main character, Rico, who speaks Tagalog. The only explanation for such a situation is… Paul Verhoeven. (When the movie was released I was living in Buenos Aires, and of course the whole cinema was cheering and screaming victory at the end of the film. Spoiler alert: the movie does not mention what happened to the Falklands.)

In the Star Trek universe, everybody speaks English, even Vulcans. Well, everyone except Klingons, who understandably speak their own language, and quite a strange one for that matter. Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of the warp drive, has an English sounding name. Picard, whose name is of Swiss origin, Pavel Chekov, and so many others, they all speak English.

Such a language of choice for the Earth government is an accepted fact of the trekkie canon, even though, according to said canon, World War III took place between 2024 and 2053.

Clearly, whoever won that war, spoke English.

Cover photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash.

Adrian Kosmaczewski is a software consultant and evangelist. He is a published writer, trainer and speaker. He holds a Master's degree from the University of Liverpool.