Languages and their SQLs

Languages are the vessels of culture and history. Unfortunately, many of them are also going extinct at an alarming rate. As English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and a handful of other languages dominate the globe, ancient tongues are often unable to compete for a userbase of fluent speakers; leaving them vulnerable to some of the same selective pressures that might unseat the inhabitants of an ecological system.

The organization Ethnologue estimates that there are approximately 6,900 languages in use today across the globe. Many scholars argue that the actual number could be much smaller than that, given that many languages are closely related to one another, and are spoken fluently by very few people. Michael Krauss (a linguist and language documentation advocate) and UNESCO estimate that up to 80% of global languages are at risk of extinction in the next 50-100 years.

Patricia Ryan on what we miss when we insist on English.

But while the languages we humans have spoken for thousands of years are experiencing a global crisis not unlike the one facing most of our mammalian cousins, there is one linguistic taxon that is experiencing a period of growth and prosperity – computer languages.

In the same period of time that most of the world’s languages have become classified as endangered, more than 8,000 computer languages have come into existence. The exact number is difficult to determine, though the Programming Language Popularity project and Transparent Language Popularity Index are attempting an index. Many computer languages are close cousins, and a few dominate the landscape on the shoulders of others, but it’s interesting to note that as we move towards a real-world environment of linguistic homogeneity, we’re experiencing an explosion in virtual linguistic diversity.

From a great history of computer languages in Wired, at the DigiBarn

But for me, here’s where things get puzzling. While I’m an English speaker (the so-called language of the Internet), an elder digital native (an evolution of Mark Prensky’s term), and a creative type when it comes to all things technological, I don’t speak a single programming language – certainly not anything like Glagol, anyway. How could this be? How could someone raised on computers, employed and engaged in the interactive industry, and pretty geeky by many standards, not be able to program?

I said that I can’t program… but depending on your definition of the term, that’s not entirely accurate. SQL is not a language I speak (how many programmers do “speak” in their tongue?), though I do read and write HTML, and I have been known to dabble in simple JavaScript. I’ve never written a graphics driver, but I do muck around with some frequency in software suites like Max/MSP and Quartz Composer. My introduction to “app development” was with HyperCard, and Macromedia Director, not Objective C.

If computer literacy is defined as familiarity; perhaps acquired through rote learning, with a set of specific tasks and workflows; and computer fluency is defined as the ability to apply advanced concepts about the functionality of a computer and its languages to the solution of problems; then I have a real problem when it comes to classifying myself. I’ve always felt comfortable in front of a computer, particularly when I don’t know exactly how to approach the problem before me, or where an application of critical design thinking is just the ticket to help identify a solution. You could say that I’m conceptually high-functioning, and essentially literate, but can one be classified as fluent without a mastery of the basic skills underpinning the whole Wizard of Oz show?

The tools that I learned to “program” interactive experiences on were tremendously eye-opening, but rather limited when it came to compatibility. Flash and Director relied on proprietary plug-ins to play back content from a CD-ROM, or (gasp!) in a browser window. At the same time, the HTML standard managed by the World Wide Web Consortium promised increased compatibility… but fewer flashy features. No tweening, translucency, or motion graphics for you, open standards zealots.

The Wilderness Downtown: Digital Natives' Citizen Kane.

HTML5, the most recent version of the W3C’s standard, is bringing much of the glitz of Flash and Director back into the browser… and in a way that ensures broad compatibility without the restrictions of proprietary technology. If you’ve seen Arcade Fire and Google (and Chris Milk’s) collaboration, The Wilderness Downtown, you’ve got a good idea of what HTML5 enables. That said, I suspect that most people are familiar with HTML5 and its potential only because of Apple’s famous decision to “ban” (the oft-delayed and resource-flogging) Flash from its iOS devices.

Perhaps designed to cater to people like me (high-functioning conceptual creatives who flunked out of math class), a new and interesting generation of production tools is emerging that promises to address issues of compatibility and ease-of-use simultaneously.

Applications like Tumult’s Hype (and Adobe’s Edge) are offering the ability to author slick HTML5 experiences through an accessible interface… it’s what iWeb probably should have been on day one (and probably will be within the next few years) – a web-app creator for the rest of us.

Macromedia's Director vs. Tumult's Hype... interaction design for the rest of us?

While these tools are incredible, offering users with an understanding of design patterns rather than code the ability to churn out new content and product, they’re troubling in that they rely on increased computer literacy without offering much in the way of enhancing fluency. They offer enormous numbers of people previously not capable of authoring interactive content experiences the opportunity to do so, with the caveat that they need not learn much about what’s under the hood in the process.

What might the long-term effects be of offering users a language of concepts and design patterns without an underlying vocabulary? Must all designers, programmers, or architects be linguists in order to produce meaningful and innovative work? What connections might exist between computer literacy and fluency, and the bigger social picture? In the United States, the level of a person’s functional literacy can be roughly correlated with income level and risks associated with committing a crime. Are technophiles like me, managing high-level semantic fluency with few syntactic skills, an at-risk group for media piracy or affiliation with Anonymous?

In the real world, we are witnessing a struggle to preserve languages in the face of an almost virally expansive linguistic homogeneity. What makes us think that the emergence of a dominant digital language (even if it’s an open standard) will enable an equitable representation of ideas, views, and other information in its realm? Perhaps the legacy of projects like the Long Now Foundation’s Rosetta will be to digitize languages on the brink of extinction today… so that their unique attributes might be analyzed and adopted into the computer languages of tomorrow.

Trevor Haldenby is an interactive producer and photographer living in Toronto. He has attended Wilfrid Laurier University, Rhode Island School of Design, CFC Media Lab, and is presently completing his MDes in Strategic Foresight & Innovation at OCAD University.
@trevver | |


  • HB

    What will be just as interesting is watching how the democracy and fluency of spoken languages over time becomes codified and institutionalized into the scheduled-updates timelines of programming languages. Dictionaries aren’t capable of keeping up with our ever-changing use of words, but at least we don’t have to conform to dictionary standards to make things happen.
    The one hope I have is that learning the obsessive-compulsive persnicketiness of hand-coding will encourage more people to take more care in their own verbal and written construction. Remember punctuation, guys? I want semi-colons to get more everyday use than just the closing of a command.

  • Trevor Haldenby


    Dictionaries are one thing that can’t keep up with our ever-changing use of words, but we’re another one ourselves… we have to LEARN new language, whereas a computer language that self-architected and expanded its vocabulary automatically (and exponentially) could pick it up lickety-split.

    It would be interesting to map a database of punctuation that looked at what the meaning was across languages, old-school and for programming. If the semi-colon both closes and extends depending on context, who knows what we can expect from the interrobang.

    Thanks for your comment!