Growing a Language

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”.

4 thoughts on “Growing a Language

  1. Wow. That was impressive and surprisingly not all that dated. His analogy of language philosophy in relationship to programming language architecture is very well thought out. And as someone whose job is improving a javascript-based API previously written by a minimalist programmer, I can appreciate a lot of his points.

    On the topic of gender definition, it is a tricky thing in today’s society. It would be nice to say that it is getting better – in a lot of ways it is. But having a daughter who will be 5 in a month who already understands the term “hot” to mean really, really cute (not learned in this house), it is clear that there are still challenges to overcome. My wife and I are trying our best.

    I’d like to also address the HP Magic contest you are currently running:

    If I were to win, I would likely keep nothing for myself. I would give my wife first dibs on one item to help her build her home-based business. But the rest would go to one or more family’s in need through a gift drive that my place of work is participating in via Greater Philadelphia Cares ( My company has adopted 3 families each with 6 or more children and it would be great to be able to give something to them of value.

  2. “i think you know what a man is” seems like a really shaky foundation to build any sort of argument upon. i don’t know what a man is without reference to other categories of identity, and i doubt Mr. Steele does either. I’m sure he knows that as well, but i’m curious why he picked “man” as the one given category that didn’t require explaining.

    Even so, the talk did open me up to a more artful, humanistic side to computer languages than i might have otherwise recognized.

  3. I started reading this article without really paying much attention to the subject. What started out as seemingly random, dry discussion about the foundations of certain words in language turned out to be a rather clever twist on the structure of programming languages. It was still pretty dull overall for those of us who don’t program, but I have to admit that I ‘got it’ better than I would have if he hadn’t started out so dry.

    I know enough programmers to know that they’re not all best suited for lecturing to patients at the local sleep clinic, though this one had me going for a while.

    I noticed that you and I seem to approach gender from different directions. Although my foreign language study was in French rather than your Spanish, I tend to think of my usage in an entirely English context. I would far rather someone say “he” meaning “he or she” than to pluralize it and say “they” to mean “he or she.” Yes, my mother was an English teacher… but she taught Spanish as well. (And I majored in French… I guess I may be part rebel afterall.)

    Regarding your contest, I’d like to keep one of the laptops for my college-bound son; after looking at his PSAT scores, I’m not counting on any big scholarships to come his way next year.

    As far as the other computers go, I’d love to be able to donate to two local families who had recent house fires: one lost everything and has 6 kids, the other was already in financial straights and has MS.
    We usually donate items to Angel Tree and the Boy Scouts every Christmas and we’d be happy to donate other items to them or to our school or community center.

  4. A) I once read an internet joke about how a computer should be of each gender… It was a cute little joke, based on the arguement that in Spanish, one would have to pick a gender to make the word.

    I liked your response because it’s true that normally people don’t think about gender when they speak. I work in a male-dominated field (electrical engineering) and I can’t tell you how many times consideration for my gender has been clearly forgotten.

    B) I would love to help my sister-in-law start her new business (a multi-generational daycare for children and grandparents alike) because she is an inspiration with her committed attitude. I would also like to give my husband (an United States Army officer) most of the additional equipment to give out to his soldiers that are being deployed to some of the more undesirable locales that are being occupied of late. I have to say I’d like to keep one of the notebooks for myself so I can communicate with my husband anywhere as he’s usually called away from home for some duty or another away from cell phone reception and I miss him dearly during that time.

    C) (A link to a copy of the joke I mentioned above)

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