February 18, 2004

Endangered Languages and Programming Languages

A recent article on Slashdot makes a connection between endangered languages and programming languages:

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.

As a student of endangered languages and a proponent of linguistic diversity, I can't help but be sympathetic, but I'm afraid that this misses the point. The interest of Pāṇini's grammar of Sanskrit, the अष्टाध्यायी (aṣṭādhyāyī), for computer science lies in the devices it uses for grammatical description, not in the details of the Sanskrit language that it describes. Pāṇini's approach to grammatical description was intended to be applicable in principle to any language, and indeed it was used to give elegant descriptions to a number of other languages. One of these was the தொல்காப்பியம் (tolkaappiyam), a grammar of Tamil, a Dravidian language unrelated to Sanskrit. The connection between the Indian grammatical tradition and formal language theory reflects the deep similarities among human languages, not their differences. There are many reasons to cherish the diversity of natural languages, but their potential contribution to programming languages probably isn't one of them.

Posted by Bill Poser at February 18, 2004 12:59 AM