I watched Guy Steele’s 1998 talk Growing a Language last night. At the opening description and definition of “man” and “woman” I bristled up and wondered for quite some time if there would be a point to opening with gender or if it was just a throwaway joke about women and personhood. I tried to have faith something interesting was going on; luckily this faith was justified. Keep watching! (Or read the transcript if you’re impatient.)
I think you know what a man is. A woman is more or less like a man, but not of the same sex. (This may seem like a strange thing for me to start with, but soon you will see why.)
Next, I shall say that a person is a woman or a man (young or old).
To keep things short, when I say “he” I mean “he or she,” and when I say “his” I mean “his or her.”
A machine is a thing that can do a task with no help, or not much help, from a person.
As I listened to Steele’s use of language I became more and more hyperaware of words and their grammatical elements. This awareness built up slowly and had a great effect. I especially admired some of the poetic & beautiful bits in the middle:
But users will not now with glad cries glom on to a language that gives them no more than what Scheme or Pascal gave them. They need to paint bits, lines, and boxes on the screen in hues bright and wild; they need to talk to printers and servers through the net; they need to load code on the fly; they need their programs to work with other code they don’t trust; they need to run code in many threads and on many machines; they need to deal with text and sayings in all the world’s languages. A small programming language just won’t cut it.
How interesting that he could not begin to talk about anything, without defining gender! It’s partly chance and the fact that he’s using English; in Spanish for example he would have to take another approach to arrive at “person”.