What Culture Fanatics Should Learn From Computer Scientists

Computer and Human LanguagesI learnt C programming from the book by Yashwant Kanetkar. Hence, I have a sort of emotional attachment with that writer. While explaining how a particular computer language works, he often compares it with human languages, utilizes the concepts of thoughts, words, sentences, and draws parallels with syntax, compilers and so on.

Sometimes I wonder how come we do not make the comparison in the opposite way? That means, why not to consider a human language too as a computer language? You could do it, of course, but what benefit or insight would it bring? May be we could understand the phonetics, syntax and grammar of a human language in a more logical and systematic way. I have a friend Harmeet Singh, who completed his M.Tech. from IIT Kanpur. As part of his M.Tech. dissertation, he worked on modeling of human languages. In his model, the grammar rules were like syntax of a computer language e.g., a C programmer puts a semi colon after every line and includes header files at the beginning of every programme. Further, in his model, various words were treated as constants, and thoughts or ideas as variables, and so on. Judging a particular language as difficult was based on the number of grammar rules as well the number of exceptions to those rules. This helped him in doing a comparative study of two languages. It was a very interesting work.

On these lines, when I draw the parallel further, new questions turn up. Suppose that there is a problem where you have to solve a set of non-linear equations. You write a computer program in FORTRAN and I write in C. Would my choice of C upset you, would you humiliate me, or may be beat me up, assault my family, destroy the lab and of course, my computer? No, you wouldn’t. The idea itself is ridiculous. If I happen to choose Newton Raphson method, you could argue that utilizing Broyden’s method would be more appropriate, and we could discuss. Or may be you could argue that writing the program in MATLAB (say) would be more efficient. But in any case, you would never assault or harass me for preferring any particular language.

Why then is it so with human languages? Why do foreigners to a country are ill-treated only because they could not speak the local language? Worse still, why do people within a country fight with each other over which particular language any individual might prefer to communicate in? Inability to speak the local language of any region is already a big obstacle to visitors or non-native residents, and the constant harassment does exacerbate the problem.

Of course, you might argue that computer languages do not represent human culture the way human languages do; hence the emotional attachment is not there. I completely agree; the language we speak, read and write is the foremost carrier of the signatures of our culture and civilization. However, in my opinion, people could instead have polished and highlighted their own culture to such a high degree that outsiders feel like learning their language to understand their culture. This is a deep question and all self-declared patriots and vanguards of culture should do a serious soul searching to resolve this issue. Burning buses, destroying shops, beating people, shutting schools and colleges, or making laws and legislation cannot raise the self-respect or identity of any people; for that purpose honest introspection is required.

Time and again scientists start working in a new computer language when they find it more efficient and suitable for their work. Hence we saw increasing popularity of MATLAB, IDL, Mathematica and Python. The older languages still continue as they have specific applications that cannot be dealt with in other languages. In the same way, if people start exploring or even using other languages because they consider them to be more suitable for their purpose, then what is wrong there? People would not become Australian, American or British just because they read English novels! And if cultural pride is the issue, then as already said, one should polish up one’s own culture instead of stopping natives from exploring other languages and cultures.

Although we tend to describe people who are devoid of any feelings or emotions as machine-like, somehow that is not the case. Computers in particular have been associated with mental powers. However, we see that computer scientists are more accommodating, and have good understanding towards each other. We routinely give speeches, and speak and write about high ideals; however, the meaning of democracy could be learned from computer scientists.

photo credit: Students on computer via photopin(license)

10 thoughts on “What Culture Fanatics Should Learn From Computer Scientists

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      Sorry Alok, I do not speak or write anything, which I myself do not follow. Further, if one person could surmount the language barrier, there is no reason why others can’t do the same. As for the loss of humanity, of course, it is on judgement of the individual. A person can choose not to fall.

  1. rationalraj2000

    What started with discussing computer languages, turned out to be an interesting post even for laymen like me in respect of computers… Thanks for sharing Amit.

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      Thank you Sir! In his Jnanpith award speech, poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar noted that a gap exists between people working in different fields due to which scientists don’t understand artists, the latter don’t understand literature and vice versa. Not only that, even scientists don’t understand each others’ works, and the same holds for writers and artists as well. I was wondering if this gap can be bridged. Hence this experiment. You make like to have a look at my composition
      Woh which was also written as this experiment. Your remarks have given me a lot of encouragement.

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      Thank you so much! I was conscious that I had to introduce the main subject as soon as possible so as not to turn off readers who are not too familiar with technical subjects. At the same time, some introduction and background had to be given. I was a bit anxious whether I was successful. Hence your feedback carries a lot of value.

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      What a coincidence! Right now I had been reading your recent article on cricket!

      Yes, C is very beautiful 🙂 It has applications which are not apparent while one starts learning it. Presently I work more on IDL, still C is like my mother tongue!


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