Language and Dialect are Flappable

No one can, with certainty, tell you whether the English in which computers are programmed is the same English you speak, or a dialect of it. You may not even believe that it is English. (If so, I agree to agree to disagree with you). We should recognize that this is subjective, and because a person is not one clear measurable set of beliefs, or consistent in the dimension of time, the way you perceive this matter can fluctuate, potentially very quickly.

Ben & Jerry’s, Boston’s Prudential Center, circa 2004, some 8:00 PM or another:

I was at least three things:

  1. an on-duty Ice Cream Scooper
  2. a basically unilingual native US English-speaker
  3. unintentionally frustrating a customer who was obviously not a native US  English-speaker

I don’t remember much about the ordering process, but I remember what happened after the customer checked out: she said something very similar to, “You didn’t have to ask me what I was saying so many times. It’s not like I’m speaking another language,” leaving me stunned.

I had failed to provide her a congenial icecreamulent experience, and that still weighs upon me like an rBGH-dirigiblized cow, but as much as I feel bad about that, I’ve never been convinced that what she said was accurate. How could it be true, if those were the first words that I fully believed I had understood in our entire three-and-a-half-minute conversation?

Cow Programming

Cow is not English.

Given that during the conversation, I specifically remember trying to figure out if she was speaking English with a heavy Scottish accent, or not speaking English at all, and that her quotation was delivered with what I perceived to be a Scottish accent, here is the cruel phenomenon I suspect was at play:

… speakers of Scottish English have frequent exposure to standard American English through movies and TV programs, whereas speakers of American English have little exposure to Scottish English; hence, American English speakers often find it difficult understanding Scottish English or, especially, Scots (not formal Scottish Standard English), whereas Scots tend to have few problems understanding standard American English.

I didn’t know that until just now, researching for this post. Apparently neither of us knew about it then.

The mercurial nature of mutual and asymmetric intelligibility

“Dialect” here means “regional dialect”, which is “a language variety spoken in a particular region”.

In the customer’s belief system, I believe that our communication was represented by one of two descriptions:

😎   We are speaking the same language.

🙂   We are speaking dialects of the same language that each of us can understand. This is known as “mutual intelligibility”.

My perception of the end of our conversation was somewhere in between these ideas. I parsed the words slowly, but I did eventually understand them.

My perception of the earlier part of the conversation, however, could be described as:

🙁   You are not speaking a language I can understand.

😥   We are speaking dialects of the same language, but only one of us can understand the other. This is known as “asymmetric intelligibility”.


Speaking with the Responder

While writing code, a programmer, “I”, will find itself getting emotionless feedback from a responsive entity, known as “you” in the following scenarios.

I am not speaking a language that you can understand.

  • You tell me why you cannot compile my code.
  • When you’re in a helpful mood, you even suggest to me what I might mean, because you know that we have the potential to communicate. You assume that I am trying to speak your language, and just not doing a great job.

I am speaking a dialect of a language that you can understand.

  •  I made no errors in my code, so you compile it.

I am speaking a language that you speak.

  • Not only do you compile my program, but you don’t warn me about my coding shortcomings. (Shortcodings?)

Developing “programming skill” is, at least in large part, altering your perception of the responder. The less the responder resembles an entity that speaks a language that you do not understand, the more symbiotic you are with it.

This image represents your goal as a programmer, or GTFO.

This image represents your goal as a programmer, or GTFO.

Why only a Responder?

Note that in order to have “you” communicate with the programmer, the programmer must first make an effort to communicate. This lopsided aspect of the creation process is a limitation of technology that we take for granted, but that will be considered extremely primitive in the future. A tool that you use often enough for it to become your friend ought to know you well enough to be able to make suggestions about what you haven’t thought to program, already.

This concept is outside the scope of Computers are Programmed in English, but I think it’s important to realize, so I mention it while we’re on a related subject.

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