Home About Subscribe Search Member Area

Humanist Discussion Group

< Back to Volume 33

Humanist Archives: April 16, 2020, 9:35 a.m. Humanist 33.771 - the 'secret' of a programming language?

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 33, No. 771.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                   Hosted by King's Digital Lab
                Submit to: humanist@dhhumanist.org

        Date: 2020-04-15 10:44:09+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty 
        Subject: the 'secret' of a programming language

In "Linguistic anthropology in the age of language automata", Paul
Kockelman quotes from Edward Sapir's "The grammarian and his language":

> All languages are set to do all the symbolic and expressive work that
> language is good for, either actually or potentially. The formal
> technique of this work is the 'secret' of each language. [p. 155]

Sapir's 'secret' is Kockelman's target, that is, in Kockelman's terms, a
language's orientation to a referent (sense) and associated feeling of
orientation (sensibility). He then applies this idea to programming

> In particular, while any program written in any programming language
> may be written in any other programming language ... it is likely
> that different programming languages (not to mention interfaces,
> architectures, and so forth) have different “secrets” – different
> symmetries built into them (that make certain problems easier or
> harder to solve), and different sensibilities disciplined by them (as
> embodied in those who habitually program in them). [p. 720]

Those here with a background in linguistics will recognise the principle 
of linguistic relativity best known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, i.e. 
that the structure of a language shapes the cognition of its native 

I would be most grateful for pointers to discussions relevant to 
programming languages and indeed for discussions here. It is easy to see 
in a vague sort of way that the 'secret' of Fortran would be very 
different from that of, say, Perl or R, and both of these from those of, 
say, ALGOL or LISP. But can we (or has anyone to your knowledge) gone 
further, assembled evidence, brought specific differences into focus 
and drawn widely applicable conclusions?


Paul Kockelman, "Linguistic anthropology in the age of language
automata". In N. J. Enflield, Paul Kockelman and Jack Sidnell, eds. The
Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology. 708-33. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Edward Sapir, "The grammarian and his language". In Selected Writings of
Edward Sapir in Language, Culture and Personality. Ed. David G.
Mandelbaum. 150-66. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1949.

Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/),
Professor emeritus, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
(www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20) and Humanist (www.dhhumanist.org)

Unsubscribe at: http://dhhumanist.org/Restricted
List posts to: humanist@dhhumanist.org
List info and archives at at: http://dhhumanist.org
Listmember interface at: http://dhhumanist.org/Restricted/
Subscribe at: http://dhhumanist.org/membership_form.php

Editor: Willard McCarty (King's College London, U.K.; Western Sydney University, Australia)
Software designer: Malgosia Askanas (Mind-Crafts)

This site is maintained under a service level agreement by King's Digital Lab.