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Programming Upgrades IT Technology

Extinction Of Human Languages Affects Programming? 626

Posted by simoniker
from the look-back-to-look-forward dept.
Tanmay Kudyadi writes "An article from NewScientist.com reports that half of all human languages will have disappeared by the end of the century, as smaller societies are assimilated into national and global cultures. This may be great news if one is looking at a common standard for communication, but it dosen't help those designing the next generation of programming languages. For example, there's an extremely strong link between Panini's Grammar and computer science (PDF link), and with every language lost, there is a possibility that we may have missed an opportunity at improving the underlying heuristics."
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Extinction Of Human Languages Affects Programming?

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  • by grub (11606) <slashdot@grub.net> on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:41PM (#8297997) Homepage Journal

    Well.. that dashes all hope I had for finding a papyrus re-issue of "Babylonian C for Dummies". It's been out of print for millennia.

  • Hard To Believe (Score:4, Interesting)

    by monstroyer (748389) * <devnull@slashdot.org> on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:42PM (#8298011) Homepage Journal
    At the end of the day, the computer understands binary and that's it. In fact, languages are only a means for the human to talk to the computer. After a compile all the way down to the processor, the computer still only cares about two words: ZERO and ONE.

    Just because a language goes extinct doesn't mean we lost an opportunity to develop better heuristics. It just means some programmers will lose touch with programing.

    Currently, programing languages are based around english because the first programmers were english. If programing goes chinese, the only thing that will change is uni-lingual anglophones not understanding what is going on.

    Of course this may change with biotechnology, but our current technology is still electric and i don't think it matters here.
    • Re:Hard To Believe (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Manax (41161) <toertel-slashdot@@@manax...org> on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:54PM (#8298178) Homepage
      You are entirely missing the point.

      The idea is that other languages embody higher-order logics that we haven't yet discovered in western cultures. Consequently, when a language is lost, we've lost another opportunity to learn those logics and apply them to programming.

      Now, personally, I find the idea silly. The paper that is linked from the article is pretty deep, and talking about Sanskrit particularly, which has a long history, and a lot of deep algorithmic aspects. Most of the languages that are disappearing are tiny languages, which may be interesting in their own right, but probably wouldn't revolutionize programming...

      Also personally, it's too bad that these languages are disappearing, if in fact they are. However, I'm all in favor of languages becoming unused. Culling the herd and all that... but each language is a piece of our culture, and I'd personally like them to be archived, so that in a hundred years, we can use our holodecks to recreate a civilization that has been gone for a thousand years, complete with clothing, hair styles, technology and language. :) But that's just me.

      • Re:Hard To Believe (Score:4, Informative)

        by aulendil (243399) on Monday February 16, 2004 @09:53PM (#8300410)
        Sanskrit (or rather samskrta) means "ordered". Ordered because the works of the great grammarians Panini et al. actually was the genesis of Sanskrit.

        So, the deep algorithmic aspects of Sanskrit actually have more to do with Panini himself than with a feature of natural language. Ie. those algorithmic aspects are in a way there because Panini wanted them to be, not because they were there in the actual spoken Prakrit.

        Last, but not least, the works of Panini should be a mandatory read not only by linguists, but by all people who in one form or another works in the field of philosophy and logic.

    • Re:Hard To Believe (Score:5, Insightful)

      by AoT (107216) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:54PM (#8298182) Homepage Journal
      The differences could come in syntax. Imagine if there were a language out there which had a natural syntax structure that was ideal for AI or patern recognition programs.

      I think linguistic and Computer science could, and some would argue should, be much more intertwined.
    • Re:Hard To Believe (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mveloso (325617) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:55PM (#8298191)
      They're not based on english, really:

      for (etude=1; etude GRANDE_FRAB; etude++)
      {
      va_sub(etude, FRIES);
      }

      is valid. Keywords are just keywords, and if you really wanted to you could use macros to replace them with arbitrary words in your language of choice.

      It's more accurate to say that programming languages are linear (or tend to be), because that's how computers work today. What a non-linear language would be is unclear - for the same reasons an OODL is unclear until you find problems where it's ideal.
    • Re:Hard To Believe (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Acidic_Diarrhea (641390) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:55PM (#8298197) Homepage Journal
      I think you missed the entire point. And it's not even as though you had to read the article. The write-up did a nice job of summarizing the reason why people should care about the loss of a human language. Human language structure can give insight into the structure of created languages that may work better for certain tasks.

      And to correct you, the computer does not "care" about anything. Zeroes and ones are what a processor interprets in order to execute an instruction but there's no reason you could not move to a 0,1 and 2 numbering system. Maybe the introduction to computer science class that you're taking hasn't covered this idea yet.

      Language design benefits from having many different languages to examine. That's what this article is about. Take your binary elsewhere.

    • Right now, as monstroyer said, programming languages are (at least) predominatly english. If you search google for answers to some programming question you may have, you'll see everything from German to French to Russian all using English commands, etc. It makes me wonder why localized version of languages weren't made. Since variable names only care about consistancy, I can call a variable whatever, but the commands themselves are still English or English based. So, if we all fall into an English standa
    • by Moderation abuser (184013) on Monday February 16, 2004 @06:21PM (#8298452)
      People who speak different languages, *think differently*.

      Tables and chairs have gender? WTF? Yes they do in other languages. Reverse Polish Notation, is that backwards or what? But you get the picture, people from different cultures and especially languages think differently, different algorithms and structures come more naturally.

      It isn't just programming languages which will lose out when English takes over the world, it's much more fundamental than that, some thoughts, concepts will be easier, some will be harder, maybe even impossible to formulate simply because of the language.

      • by NTiOzymandias (753325) on Monday February 16, 2004 @07:09PM (#8299035)
        To be blunt: No they don't.

        Language does influence thought, simply because people will try to understand something in a way that makes sense from the perspective of their language... But the language won't fundamentally limit their thoughts. I'm sure you can think of times when you had an idea or an emotion that you lacked words for; if the claim in your post was true, you would not be capable of such thoughts.

        Do you really, truly believe that somebody can be colorblind just because they don't have color words more specific than "dark" and "light?"

        Language makes for a convenient labeling system, but it doesn't define your thoughts. Now somebody mod up the siblings to this post so that their useful content can be read as conveniently as the parent.....
        • by Tony-A (29931) on Monday February 16, 2004 @07:46PM (#8299382)
          But the language won't fundamentally limit their thoughts. I'm sure you can think of times when you had an idea or an emotion that you lacked words for; if the claim in your post was true, you would not be capable of such thoughts.

          Methinks the language can be and is limiting.
          If you lack the words and grammar, you can have the thought but it is extremely difficult to do much more than that with it. Analysis or expression of the thought is difficult to impossible.

          Language makes for a convenient labeling system, but it doesn't define your thoughts.
          How do you think, except in terms of those convenient labels?

          Do you really, truly believe that somebody can be colorblind just because they don't have color words more specific than "dark" and "light?"
          Does a B&W photograph or television look realistic? With no words for color, no means of expressing any difference in color, the perceived differences in color just become part of the background noise.

          Given a reasonable degree of flexibility in the language, it's hard to find definitive cases where the language is limiting simply because there are too many ways to route around the damage.

        • by Alan Cox (27532) on Monday February 16, 2004 @08:44PM (#8299858) Homepage
          Well I'm not a linguist but a programming language isnt a process of thought - it is a process of communication and that means you need both the grammatical constructs and vocabulary to express the concepts involved.

          Vocabulary seems less of a problem - lots of languages have words that are sentences to explain in others (hiraeth, zeitgeist etc) but I guess thats no different to a perl programmer and a C programmer arguing about regexp processing. Clearly you can also disambiguate damage ("I had a sandwich") [did you own it or eat it ?] doesn't cause a problem in English even though its ambiguous

          In some ways we know the language and mathematics itself limit the computer - there are things mathematics cannot express for one.

          There are also more fundamental concepts you have to have (passive/active, third party viewpoints, what-if, condition/action, past/present/future/habitual/. and stuff like negation and question words) but I would assume all language has those.

          The thing that makes me most sceptical is that I've heard many asian speakers say they think differently in English, and there is also some brain scan evidence of different activity areas. But I don't speak any asian languages and I'm not likely to be learning Mandarin or Cantonese just to find out 8)

          Likewise all high level computer programming languages tend to have things they cannot directly express. Fortran for example has no way to express "fiddle with CPU register foo"

          Alan
        • by RayBender (525745) on Monday February 16, 2004 @10:12PM (#8300553) Homepage
          People who speak different languages, *think differently*.

          To be blunt: No they don't.

          As someone who is fluent in three languages, I'd have to say that yes, they do. I sometimes sub-vocalize in different languages when I'm trying to things through. However, I don't think it's an absolute law; it's just that certain concepts are easier in some languages than others. Try translating "ombudsman" from Swedish. Oh wait, in English it's "ombudsman"... why?

          Simply put, different languages make it harder or easier to express certain concepts, and I suspect that it follows that those who speak only one language will have their thought patterns affected by this.

          There is a much better example of how language affects thought, and one that I have yet to see a linguist mention: mathematics. Take general relativity and tensor algebra. Einstein spent most of the time between his publishing Special relativity and General simply learning a new mathematical language, one that was better suited to expressing the concepts in his theory. The same sort of thing happened in the development of quantum mechanics (bra-kets anyone?) or even calculus (differential notation).

          Language may only be a tool for expressing an underlying thought, but as the saying goes "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

      • by lawpoop (604919) on Monday February 16, 2004 @07:11PM (#8299043) Homepage Journal
        Most modern linguists would disagree with you. Yes it's true, different langauges order their sentences differently. Japanese goes Object - Verb - Subject while English goes Subject - Verb - Object. Finnish has postpositions and English has prepositions. But the reigning idea in linguistics is that languages are 'functionally equivalent' -- that all languages are equally capable of expressing any idea that one language is capable of expressing. Now maybe an Arabian goat herder doesn't have the background to understand American Football rules, but that doesn't mean that Arabic creates a totally different thought mode in its users.
      • by geekpuppySEA (724733) on Monday February 16, 2004 @07:19PM (#8299121) Journal

        Tables and chairs may be assigned grammatical bins, and these bins can be the same as those assigned to human genders (cf: "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things", George Lakoff), but it does not mean that French people actually think that a table has anything conceptually in common with a woman, besides the pronoun used to replace it/her. (Or a man, I can't remember my French.)

        There is something important lost when the speakers of a language die, yes. But what is lost is not any concept, pattern of thought, or way of looking at the world. Because there is no concept that you cannot translate across the language barrier. There is a word in Russian, I've heard, for that feeling you get when your ex walks into the room. But just because there is no word for it in English doesn't mean that I couldn't just explain it to you. Just because some Native American languages do not have the same adverbs for time that English does doesn't mean that speakers of those languages have no concept of time.

        That line of logic was presented by a linguist named Benjamin Whorf in the first half of the 20th century, and has been discredited by all modern serious linguists.

        There is a "mentalese" that precedes and is fundamental to language. Babies have it. Animals have it to varying degrees. It's, yknow, nice for English speakers to presume that the exotic qualities of other languages means that their speakers have equally exotic mental structures. But they think, by and large, exactly the same as "us".

        • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 16, 2004 @08:05PM (#8299536)
          While I'd agree that major differences in language do not imply major differences in thinking, I would still assert that there are very subtle parts of language that directly affect how you allow yourself to analyse abstract concepts.

          For example, one language (Chinese) does not really easily allow you to talk to another person unless you know their status in relation to yours (social superior, social inferior, social equal). Because of that, the first thing you need to think about regarding another person before you go on to other thoughts is their status in relation to yours. Now take another language, English, where it is very difficult to talk about a person unless you know whether they are a man or a woman. Therefore, to facilitate matters, you are always in the habit of clarifying if someone is a man or a woman if it unclear, even if it is technically irrelevant for your purposes. In Chinese, this presents no problem as long as you know their status.

          A lot of this happens so subconsciously and quickly that it's difficult to really gauge that it happens at all. However, I'd be willing to bet that if you asked English speakers and Chinese speakers if they knew of people, but did not know their gender (and perhaps the number of people who have that status), I would expect English speakers would have a lower "Yes" response.

          Language doesn't affect overall thinking processes, but it subtly affects priorities, qualitative factors, and categorization. In other words, two intelligent people with two different languages would reach the same conclusions (about objective matters), but they could use different means to reach those conclusions. Learning another language can make you aware of the limitations of your language, and minimize the effects of those limitations. But there are plenty of people who speak only one language.
          • by Justice8096 (673052) on Tuesday February 17, 2004 @01:01AM (#8301888)
            Agreed - but for the sake of the readers who have no experience with other Human languages, I will offer the following:
            If you know an object-oriented language like C++ or Java, try learning Prolog. Then see if you don't suddenly find yourself writing programs differently, and integrating pattern-matching concepts differently in your programs.
            It all translates (eventually) to Assembly, so there should be nothing Prolog can do that C++ can't do. And you still contain the same brain, and the same knowledge of Computer Science, and you don't think only in C++, so there shouldn't be a difference there either. But there is.
  • by American AC in Paris (230456) * on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:42PM (#8298013) Homepage
    The way I see it, programming languages of the future aren't going to evolve from spoken language. Instead, the spoken languages of the future will evolve from programming languages.

    In 200 years, There'll be 637 different words for "bug" in the our universal spoken language, ESPERA~1. To express confusion, a speaker will slap his hands over his face, stand stock still, shout "BLUE!", and wait for the other person to walk away.

  • by FortKnox (169099) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:44PM (#8298040) Homepage Journal
    Seriously, this is similar to faking the landing on the moon. Matching natural language to programming will give us obtuse languages that are difficult to understand and have a HUGE learning curve.

    Programming is based on a 'higher understanding' of how to design something, and the only real 'major' difference between the languages should be the syntax. But having a language based on a natural language and a 'normal' computer language would be the difference of VB and lisp. You just can't design an app the same way for both languages.
  • by bckrispi (725257) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:45PM (#8298042)
    Hmm, that's doubleplus ungood...
  • Does it matter? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by LinuxInDallas (73952) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:45PM (#8298049)
    If we have record of that language, then I don't see how much would have been lost. If there were so few people speaking it then what are the chances it would have had a measureable influence on the design of computer languages anyway? Especially considering that the people doing the designing typically come from a small set of backgrounds (euro, asian, american...)
    • Re:Does it matter? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by CyberSp00k (137333)
      If we have record of that language, then I don't see how much would have been lost.

      The ability to read Egyptian hieroglyphics was lost from ~400 C.E. until Napoleon lead the looters into Egypt ~1800 and one of his troops tripped over the Rosetta Stone. [I was watching the History Channel this morning.] Plenty of records of the language were lying about, but no record players.
    • Re:Does it matter? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Theatetus (521747) *

      But we don't have a record, in most cases. I'd say about 50% of human languages are pretty thoroughly documented. Another 30% have sketchy documentation. The final 20% are all but unknown to researchers (most of these are in New Guinea).

      We really need to talk to the dying generation of New Guineans, Siberians, and Africans who speak these disappearing languages so that there will be a record, like you say. But do you have the money to send out a few thousand linguists? Me neither.

    • Re:Does it matter? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by kfg (145172) on Monday February 16, 2004 @06:10PM (#8298343)
      Actually, we don't have a record of most of them, but yes, very, very few people spoke them. That's one of the reasons we don't have a record of them.

      Most of the languages being lost are from New Guinea, which due to the peculiarities of the geography accounts for about 1/4 of all human languages. As tribal isolation is lost the tribal languages die.

      Their loss is of grave concern to linguists, since, as above, they don't even have a record of most of them, but I don't see how this could effect programing languages in any way.

      In fact, it's difficult to see how it effects humanity in general in any way.

      KFG

    • Re:Does it matter? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by colmore (56499)
      I think the way this story is being discussed here reflects Slashdot's sadly narrow worldview. If it doesn't affect software engineering then it doesn't matter.

      This is a wealth of poetry, folklore, and culture that is vanishing. Perhaps it's more efficient for everyone on earth to speak the languages of 3 or 4 dominant cultures, but it means that human society will be far less vibrant.

      Small societies with strong senses of identity and history produce more of interest than many larger societies. Ancient
  • Humbug (Score:5, Insightful)

    by __past__ (542467) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:46PM (#8298058)
    The one thing that designers of programming languages have to accept is that programming languages do not have much to do with natural languages. No surprise - natural languages are meant to communicate with humans, computer languages are primarily (although this might be considered a bug) designed to give unanimous orders to deterministic systems. Big difference. There is no poetry in COBOL, and there is no way do completely specify an algorithm for a von-Neumann-machine in portugese.

    Human languages dying may be a pity (or not), but it does not have anything to do with computer programming.

    • Re:Humbug (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Bendebecker (633126) on Monday February 16, 2004 @06:19PM (#8298426) Journal
      "There is no poetry in COBOL"

      I agree with you there. Nothing written in COBOL could ever be mistaken for poetry. But there is some code in langauges like Lisp that is so elegant that one can only call it poetry.
      • Re:Humbug (Score:5, Interesting)

        by __past__ (542467) on Monday February 16, 2004 @06:59PM (#8298911)
        Indeed. Behold the SBCL [sourceforge.net] advocacy haiku:

        (unless (equalp
        (lisp-implementation-type)
        "SBCL") (quit))
        (How the fuck do you properly indent code in ./??)

        I agree that some programs have a quality that is somewhat close to literature, but maybe not poetry. In particular, I agree with Richard Garbiel [dreamsongs.com] that there should be a Master of Fine Arts in Software [dreamsongs.com].

        I still claim that software is a discipline of its own, and natural languages and its literature are only very loosely related to it.

    • Re:Humbug (Score:4, Funny)

      by JabberWokky (19442) <slashdot.com@timewarp.org> on Monday February 16, 2004 @06:33PM (#8298561) Homepage Journal
      Are you kidding? Not only is there poetry about COBOL [purdue.edu], but it's widely known that Shakespeare invented COBOL [leeds.ac.uk]:

      "Let us ADD our INCOME to our CAPITAL, as the squirrel adds to its autumn horde. Aye, there's the SUM that makes a TOTAL WEALTH. 3000 DUCATS? Is this an EXPENDITURE I see before me? Marry 'tis best 'twere TAKEN AWAY, like as the magpie taketh away the jewel of great price. But hist! Here cometh the INTEREST, and 'tis of no mean interest, i' faith! I had lief ADD a percentage of this, than clasp my fair Rosalind's spleen."

      In all reality, as many people have pointed out, there is a large chunk of poetry written in various programming languages, and the inverse is true as well; many human languages are used in forms that are human "programs". Instead of being stored on harddrives, they are published in cookbooks and engineering texts.

      --
      Evan

  • by Mycroft_514 (701676) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:46PM (#8298064) Journal
    are the ones that do not contain the technical leanguage to survive contact with whatever absorbs them. Look at how English is spreading with words to describe new technology into languages that don't have it.

    The time will come when we only have one language left, but not soon.
    • The languages that are lost are the ones that do not contain the technical leanguage to survive contact with whatever absorbs them.

      Are you kidding?? I'm not sure how literally and how completely you mean this, but I very much doubt that technology is such a prime factor as you imply.

      I'm not a linguist, but I'd be pretty sure that the death of each and every language in history would make for its own PhD thesis. There would be too many factors and too many interactions to boil it down to such a simple

  • Panini? (Score:5, Funny)

    by John Girouard (716057) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:47PM (#8298071) Homepage
    ...strong link between Panini's Grammar and computer science

    I knew sandwiches were related to programming!
    • Re:Panini? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by KH (28388) on Monday February 16, 2004 @07:04PM (#8298969)
      For those do not know, Panini is the author of the Sanskrit grammar. I don't quite figure why the article was linked here in this context. Sanskrit was dead for a couple of millennia, but it's not like it was lost. And it's not like if Sanskrit had not been dead, we would have had a much better computer language today.

      One irony is that Paninikilled the Sanskrit language. He effectively made the language rigid by describing the grammatical rules so beautifully in about 4,000 sutras. If one does not compose a Sanskrit sentence following the rules prescribed in the Astadhyayi (Panini's sutras), it was not sanskrtam (purified). Thus the language became something that keeps changing, or something that has to be learned while growing up. It officially got the status of a dead language, not that it's bad.

      On the other hand, think about this: modern linguistics started after the discovery of Sanskrit, including Panini's grammar. It actually helped forming many linguistic concepts. Modern linguists helped forming computer languages. Is it a surprise that there are many things in common?

      One of my teachers, who happens to be the leading scholar in the field of Sanskrit grammar, always emphasized us that one of the big misconception about the grammar of Panini is that it dictates how to compose a Sanskrit sentence. He said, it is more of a tool to analyze grammatically correct sentence. It does not know syntax. It would appear that, say, a past participle stem from the root pac- may have derived by going through several Paninian rules, but the matter of fact was that there was the form pakta long before the grammar was formed.

      Those mechanisms working in Panini's grammar is amazing and the logic behind it seems indeed like computer language. Still, an article like the one linked here is not much different from trying to find something that was not originally intended to show the supremacy of one civilization. Even the commentators of the grammar emphasize that the grammar is not the first but the speech was the first.

      So, stop moaning about the death of Sanskrit as a language. A techie should be grateful that it was dead as a language, but frozen and kept. No wonder India can produce so many good programmars. For some, programming is something similar to what they have been doing for a couple of thousand years. By the way, I'm not an Indian or a programmar.
  • Um shutup (Score:5, Funny)

    by tomstdenis (446163) <tomstdenis@gm a i l .com> on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:47PM (#8298072) Homepage
    How exactly is C or Pascal based off a spoken language?

    while (alive)

    while (lust && !state(HUNGER)) {
    seek_women(HIGH_PRIORITY);
    if (found) {
    sex_up(BYPAIRS)
    sleep();
    } else {
    sex_up(MANUALLY);
    watch(CARTOONS);
    }
    }

    if (state(HUNGER))
    {
    seek_food();
    if (found) {
    chow_down_like_no_tommorow();
    } else {
    slaughter(NEIGHBOUR);
    chow_down_like_is_tommorow();
    }
    }

    }

    Oh I get it ....
  • by gooru (592512) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:47PM (#8298080)

    "with every language lost, there is a possibility that we may have missed an opportunity at improving the underlying heuristics."

    That sounds plausible to me. However, isn't part of a programming language the ease with which we can use it? If no one could natively use a language or grasp it easily, then comprehending these wonderful heuristics would be extremely difficult. High level programming languages exist for a reason. That's why few people program in assembly--it's difficult to learn. No one grew up speaking assembly, but many people grew up speaking Romance and Teutonic languages. If programming languages were suddenly structured like, for example, Arabic or Chinese, I would likely find it extremely difficult to learn and use them. (Note that I can speak Chinese but can hardly imagine trying to program in it.)

  • by knarfling (735361) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:48PM (#8298088) Journal
    On the plus side, there are new languages showing up all the time. Klingon, Vulcan, Romulan, Cardassian .... Imagine the programming possibilities!!!
  • In related news: (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Krapangor (533950) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:48PM (#8298090) Homepage
    NewScientist renames NewCrackpot

    Honestly, I've never seen such stuff in a well reputated journal. Programming languages are something that must be understood by computers - besides humans.
    If you want a "natural" language for computers then it would have to be necessarily of Chomsky-0 type. Thus Turing-complete. And therefore not decidable which implies that a computer cannot parse it.
    The author fails to realize that human languages are completely different from programming languages. Furthermore his main point is frankly rubbish: it's well known that the grammar for all human languages follows the same basic rules (Chomsky's hypothesis) thus nothing would be lost when old languages die out. Additionally it has been proven that new languages are created all the time.

    • by MonkeyBoyo (630427) on Monday February 16, 2004 @09:28PM (#8300170)
      it's well known that the grammar for all human languages follows the same basic rules (Chomsky's hypothesis) thus nothing would be lost when old languages die out.
      You have got it backwards. A linguist will describe different languages with the same rule mechanisms. How else can you compare languages? Many different linguists have come up with many different rule systems.

      Chomsky's position is that people have language organs in their brain that define a Universal Grammar (UG) of syntax. It is this UG that explains why no natural language exhibits the full power of a context sensitive grammar. [Chomsky takes this position because he denies that meaning has any effect on syntax.]

      Now the funny thing is that given all the noise made over UG very little if anything is known about it. There is not some large collection of rules. In fact every time someone says something like "this english construction behaves the way it does because of a constraint from UG" somebody goes and finds a language like Malagasy where the constraint does not hold and thus it cannot be a part of UB.
  • by GPLDAN (732269) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:50PM (#8298125)
    Which is ridiculous.

    Here's the great truth - the Net has done more in 10 years to advance English as the dominant language than 500 years of foreign occupations did by the British. And, as the article mentions, English and Spanish are incorporating idiomatic elements of other languages as slang and new vocabulary.

    The 2nd truth, languages like C and perl and visual basic have constructs based in English (for...foreach...if/then, print, exit, need I go on..) and understanding these key words also helps push English as the dominant language.

    One can debate the merits of this, but I disagree with the slashdot premise that it cuts off avenues of finding better heuristics, because any attempt at a dominant language will and must evolve, even if it were the sole language of the entire planet.
  • BAH! (Score:3, Funny)

    by EvilTwinSkippy (112490) <yoda&etoyoc,com> on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:51PM (#8298141) Homepage Journal
    Computer science will never find the perfect language. It doesn't exist. Any time you try to render an idea in a language, any language, you have to simplify it.

    We have known that language is an imperfect form of communication. The greeks knew it (hence the god Rumor.) The Taoists knew it. In 6000 yeras of recorded history we have not found a perfect language. If it doesn't work for huminty, why would computers be any different, where context is implied in almost every respect?

    • by El (94934)
      Isn't the imperfectability of formal systems what Goebel's Theorem points out? That you can't devise a useful language in which the sentence "This sentence is false" can be correctly evaluated?
  • Some how... (Score:5, Funny)

    by sofakingl (690140) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:52PM (#8298151)
    I get the feeling that Klingon will end up being better preserved than at least half the languages that could potentially disappear.
  • by rixstep (611236) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:52PM (#8298153) Homepage
    As long as PASCAL, COBOL, and C++ are extinct too, I don't care.
  • by rufusdufus (450462) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:53PM (#8298160)
    This article is just confusion. Somehow the loss of obscure human languages effects programming? In what way? Neither article links makes any mention of such a thing.

    In fact, the very fact that a universal human semantic language seems to exist implies that the loss of specific languages doesn't make any difference.

    Also, human languages and programming languages are very different. Programming languages that actually work are designed with BNF syntax, a very structured formal style that can't begin to describe human language; human language is organic and has no destinct syntax (its statistical only).

    Thus, the thesis of the article 1) isnt supported in the links and 2) doesnt make sense.

  • misleading (Score:5, Insightful)

    by goon america (536413) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:53PM (#8298164) Homepage Journal
    half of all human languages will have disappeared by the end of the century

    This is sort of misleading. A better way to say it might be that half of all languages we know exist in the current day may be extinct in 100 years. All the languages that we know today probably constitute a tiny fraction of all human languages, since languages continuously are created, evolve, merge, die out, etc.

  • by Yoda2 (522522) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:55PM (#8298194)
    Research on human language and computer science are heavily intertwined. Love or hate Chomsky, his work in linguistics paved the way for modern programming languages. Anyone who has taken a theory of computation class will be familiar with this. The flip side is that the the leaps made in defining and constructing compilers for programming languages have provided linguistics with a whole new rigor and set of tools previously unavailable.

    I can easily see how subtilties in the "rules" underlying various spoken langauges can provide insights that could help to improve programming languages. Problem is that I don't thing very many people are expert enough in the linguistics of rare and dying languages AND computer science to find and make use of these possible connections.

    • Um, I look at C and assembler are more about moving data into and out of registers than anything else. The "rules" have more to do with 4th century algebra then 20th century linguistics. Granted, 19th century Boolean logic does contribute a bit.
    • by iabervon (1971) on Monday February 16, 2004 @07:45PM (#8299363) Homepage Journal
      As far as I can tell from studying linguistics and computer science, formal grammars are not particularly good ways of representing either sort of language. Chomsky's main founding point was that formal methods could be used to study natural language; he proposed context-free grammars, and then quickly abandoned them, because no language is actually context-free.

      Computer language syntax picked up context-free grammars, because computer languages are generally context-free, at least to a certain extent. Of course, you can't actually implement an arbitrary context-free grammar efficiently, so they turned to a restricted subset which is sufficient for the important cases. Of course, the grammar is (as natural languages discovered millenia ago) insufficient for anything useful, so they developed interesting semantics behind the overly-strict grammar.

      At this point, the interesting work in linguistics (which relies heavily on obscure languages to test the boundaries of what the human language faculty produces) is in the ways that language goes beyond what is feasible to define and use in an unambiguous way; this is stuff which is unsuitable for programming languages, because it is, by definition, impossible to interpret predictably. Compiler and computer language design has not informed linguistics significantly, because natural language uses an entirely different set of tricks for an entirely different set of goals.

      The research in computer languages, on the other hand, is in bits of semantics which are entirely unlike any semantics used by natural languages, but are understandable by other faculties. It is focused on the formal representation of data structures and processes, two things that natural language is entirely inadaquate for and relies entirely on extra-linguistic methods (such as demonstration) to convey.

      Consider, for example, the addition of a simple bit of natural language to a computer language. Say there were an "it" keyword, which referred to the most recently used variable which type checks in the context in which it is used, except that in the arguments of a method, it cannot refer to the object on which the method is called. Such a keyword would be practically impossible to use reasonably, since it would be extremely fragile and hard to interpret. However, such a keyword is present and its use is required in almost all natural languages. Natural language is really more like a machine language than a high-level programming language; the machine it is for is to be found about your left ear, and it has only been partially reverse engineered.
  • by NewIntellectual (444520) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:56PM (#8298200)
    The idea that obscure languages "becoming extinct" will adversely affect computer science is wrong on multiple levels.

    First, any language properly so-called has referents in reality. Those referents are language independent; that is a fundamental aspect of epistemology. If that were not so, it would be impossible to translate between human languages. Obviously, it is very possible.

    Second, the characteristics of human language which affect computer languages are - what? A computer "language" is a formal syntax to tell an electronic machine exactly what to do, in a particular order. That's it. A lot of Slashdot readers know multiple computer languages (and no doubt, human languages). Aside from speed considerations, any complete computer language can do anything any other language can do, as long as the ability to access given hardware is the same.

    Third, what difference does it make if a language is "extinct" or not? Latin is a "dead" language but it forms the root of many European languages. If anything, computer "languages" can, and do, evolve far more rapidly than any human language, to fit evolving needs and better comprehension of good programming practices. Whether an addition operation is called "Addition", "Summa", "Plus", or "+" is irrelevant really, other than conciseness of syntax (leading to "+" as ideal here.)
  • by Tremblay99 (534187) on Monday February 16, 2004 @05:59PM (#8298226)
    It's tragic that we're losing one of our deepest links to the past.

    Some things to ponder ...

    Linguistic family trees generally mirror genetic family trees. The links between the two assist both linguists and geneticists in determing where we come from and how we got there.

    Every time we lose a language, we lose something unique or even magical. Yiddish has more words for simpleton than the Inuit use for "snow".

    The native languages spoken by the Lapps, Basques and Welsh are relics from before Pro-Indo European language and culture spread from India to Europe, displacing most native languages and cultures.

    Tiny New Guinea contains 1/5 of all the languages spoken on Earth.

    If we lose these languages, we lose a piece of ourselves. Just to keep things in perspective.

  • by Frennzy (730093) on Monday February 16, 2004 @06:00PM (#8298237) Homepage
    Me extinct English? That's unpossible.
  • by WormholeFiend (674934) on Monday February 16, 2004 @06:01PM (#8298251)
    they evolve or merge with more influential ones.

    that's basic linguistics for you.

    I remember in one of my linguistics courses, I read about one scholar who, after describing how the Norman invasion of England added over 10,000 new words to the English language, stated English should be classified as a dialect of French.

    Usually, words in one language which describe something that does not have a concept in the assimilating language stay unchanged. "Sushi" is one example.

    A funny example of a word evolving between languages is "budget":
    Middle English bouget, wallet, from Old French bougette, diminutive of bouge, leather bag, from Latin bulga, of Celtic origin.
    (http://www.bartleby.com/61/9/B0530900.ht ml)
  • by dubStylee (140860) on Monday February 16, 2004 @06:06PM (#8298293)
    Having a wide diversity of natural languages to study impacts future computer science in many ways beyond simply providing a stock of examples to copy.

    For one thing, the study of natural languages will teach us about cognition in general and it is those results which are likely to filter into programming rather than direct borrowing from a language's syntax or structure.

    For another, think of Larry Wall developing Perl out of his understanding of English (and whatever other natural languages he's been exposed to). Suppose fifty years from now a young Swahili-speaking student develops a new programming language - what insights might she have gained from being brought up speaking Swahili? (and etc. for every other language that manages to survive another 50 years).

    Now I don't believe that languages totally determine the way we think. It's possible to think *anything* in *any* language, but some things are easier or less ambiguous in one language or another. In English "He dropped to the ground" - does that mean he jumped, fell by accident, or was pushed? Some languages don't let you get away with that kind of ambiguity of causation (though they have ambiguity of different sorts). So differential ambiguity and ease of expression - those aren't such bad things to look forward to in programming languages of the future.

    And, lastly, as the article referenced on Panini's Sanskrit grammar illustrates, native grammarians may develop rule-based grammers of their own languages and what we can learn from them is the structure of those rules in addition to the structure of the language itself.
  • I don't think so. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Tumbleweed (3706) * on Monday February 16, 2004 @06:08PM (#8298315)
    That assumes that linguists don't know what's 'wrong' each each natural language that could be 'fixed,' which is hardly the case. There are _numerous_ artificial languages in existence, almost all of them unsuccessful. Only Esperanto and Interlingua have much of a following. (No, I don't count Klingon as successful :)

    The problem isn't in creating an easy to use, expressive language. The problem is in getting people to learn and use it. While it may be tragic from a cultural history perspective to lose a language, it won't have any effect on linguistic development.

    This holds true for languages whether spoken, written, or computed.

    IMO, anyway.
  • by Quixadhal (45024) on Monday February 16, 2004 @06:11PM (#8298347) Homepage Journal
    It's called Assembly. Assembly is what lowly humans use because their meat-brains can't keep track of all those 0's an 1's.

    Hey baby, wanna Kill All Humans?
  • I'm not convinced (Score:4, Informative)

    by danny (2658) on Monday February 16, 2004 @06:26PM (#8298489) Homepage
    I think there are better arguments for caring about langage extinction. For a good overview, David Crystal's Language Death [dannyreviews.com] is a decent little book.

    But it's a political (in the broad sense) question in the end - what aspects of human existence matter, and how are resources to be allocated between them?

    Danny.

  • What me worry? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by hcg50a (690062) on Monday February 16, 2004 @06:33PM (#8298555) Journal
    I find it hard to worry about extinction of languages.

    Extinction is a natural part of life, and the only things that become extinct are things that, for one reason or another, cannot manage to survive.

    In the case of languages, the causes of extinction would be lack of utility, lack of speakers or something else.

    Why would anyone want to incorporate what might be unsuccessful features in a computer language?

    Implying that there would be a loss to Computer Science from a loss of a language seems like quite a stretch. At worst, it would seem that the loss would be positive for Computer Science, in the sense of, "Look what would happen to your language if you had concepts of time like this dead language!"

    Also, an extinct language should not be confused with a dead language. Latin, for example, still has tremendous utility and value in the world, partly because it is dead and unchanging. It is the base for many living languages, and is a universal language for a universal church.
  • Priorities (Score:3, Insightful)

    by The Gline (173269) on Monday February 16, 2004 @06:38PM (#8298620) Homepage
    I think we have much bigger things to worry about than programming languages if human languages begin going extinct, like the concomitant disappearance of ethnic diversity.

    Just a thought.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 16, 2004 @06:49PM (#8298781)
    J. R. R. Tolkien would have been quite unhappy to discover that obcure languages were going extinct. Near the end of 1943, English newspapers carried a story about a Harvard-developed basic English that some said should be taught to the whole world. In a December 9, 1943 letter to his son Christopher, Tolkien reacted to the news:
    Col. Knox [Collie Knox, a popular journalist] says 1/8 of the world's population speaks 'English,' and that is the biggest language group. If true, damn shame--say I. May the curse of Babel strike all their tongues till they can only say 'baa baa.' It would mean much the same. I think I shall have to refuse to speak anything but Old Mercian.
    Tolkien wasn't always that irritable. The strain of living in wartime England heavily burdened with responsibilities as both a professor and a member of the Home Guard left him very tired. That said, Tolkien was a long-time opponent of cultural and linguistic assimulation of the sort the AAAS speaker was describing. One result of his attitude is the incredible richess of life in his Middle-earth.

    Somehow, we need to discover a way not only to document these languages but to keep them alive. Perhaps we can find a parallel in those who learn Tolkien's languages for the sheer joy of it. Somewhere in our large world, there has to be a handful of people who want to speak Middle Chulym.

    --Mike Perry, Inkling Books, Seattle

    Author: Untangling Tolkien: A Chronology and Commentary for The Lord of the Rings

  • by ajagci (737734) on Monday February 16, 2004 @07:06PM (#8298995)
    You should realize that some branches of linguistics have notions about how language and the brain are related that are not exactly shared by many cognitive scientists. So, when Harrison says something like, "each language lost leaves a gap in our understanding of the variable cognitive structures of which the human brain is capable. Studies of different languages have already revealed vastly different ways of representing and interpreting the world", take it with a grain of salt. Language loss is regrettable for many reasons, but cognitive science would probably continue to do just fine even if we only had a dozen different languages around the globe.
  • by shokk (187512) <<ernieoporto> <at> <yahoo.com>> on Monday February 16, 2004 @07:46PM (#8299381) Homepage Journal
    It's one thing to see languages die in countries where ceratin languages are forbidden, but in free nations where anyone can speak any language they want, it is irresponsible for an ethnic group to let the language and any other customs die. Watch "Whale Rider" for a modern tale of the New Zealand Maori trying to preserve their heritage. When a people lets their native customs die in favor of another set of customs, those customs really died a longer time ago than they suspect. Only resuming a strong identity is going to salvage the culture.

    It all comes down to taking the time for the things that really matter in life. If a people cherish the Internet and pagers and other modern things more than the things of old then they have made a choice (concious or unconcious) to let the old ways slip into the eternal night. That is why I like to see locale options available for open source projects; the more that these are encouraged, the more lanaguages that can be saved. Countries like China that are taking an aggressive stance against Microsoft and Western commercial software are not just trying to keep from paying licenses, but also saving their culture from becoming english-saturated. If they also push locale options, then there will be plenty of rugged alternatives soon. Without alternate language construction examples, computing languages will likewise mainstream into similar styles.

    Don't get me started about immigrants dumping their own native names for "Tony", "George" and the like when they come into the U.S. A name like "Panseur" (made it up) is just as valid a name.
  • by Maljin Jolt (746064) on Monday February 16, 2004 @08:40PM (#8299819) Journal
    Suddenly, in my library I have a print of Panjali's Mahabhasya, which is an ancient commentary to fragment of Panini's excelent grammar of sanskrit. It contains original text of Panini's, which begins with a verse:

    Atha sabdaanusaasanam.

    which interprets and translates (by me):
    atha sabda anu-sa-asanam
    here-topic (is) sound detail-layout

    Of course, this grammar and semantics theory of the human (and godly) language predates many centuries our western cybernetics theoreticians of the XX. Sanskrit grammar was formally canonized by Panini as well as today's standards of computer coding languages. No other human language before esperanto and modern programing languages was result of such scientific effort.

    Some 20 years ago, it was not a surprise for me, being a programmer and yogi adept at the same time, that the world is "programable" by language. Old magicians and siddhas of ancient times knew the "keywords", even today called "mantras" which enabled to operate the universe itself.

    IT IS THE LANGUAGE WHICH CREATES A REALITY.

    Because it is the same language which operates a mind. And we should ourselves made some effort to operate both of them correctly.

What this country needs is a dime that will buy a good five-cent bagel.

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