I studied Computer Science in college, but opted to for a degree through the College of Letters & Science, which meant that my core CS classes were augmented with coursework in the humanities: linguistics, rhetoric, music, and the like. I maintain that it was this focus on letters that prompted me, at a tech career fair, to respond to a Microsoft recruiter about my favorite language—”Uh, I guess, English?”

Language—for both the linguistic and computing variety—is first and foremost a tool for communication. But every language has a ton of culture, history, and context embedded in its vocabulary and grammar; how certain phrases came to be, which words are borrowed or inspired by other languages, how aspects of the language itself evolved through history. Studies have shown that being able to speak in multiple languages can actually affect your way of thinking, and foreign language classes—if not outright school immersion—have become a staple in childhood education1. In pop culture, understanding and speaking multitudes of languages is synonymous with intelligence, so much so that Hollywood has made the phenomenon into its own trope2.

Languages are also political. Having spent much of my formative years in Hong Kong in the 80s, the city had this unique combination of Cantonese, British English, and Mandarin that represented the crossroads it faced prior to the eventual handover in 1997. I remember bits and pieces of English would make its way, often farsically and breaking all known rules of grammar, into default Cantonese speech: the combination that would eventually be defined as Chinglish—or even the more Hong Kong-specific Kongish. At the same time, Mandarin was a popular language elective class, given its usage just an hour north in China proper, and the relative ease of picking up the dialect with similar writing and grammar. As Hong Kong was the city established as the gateway between the East and West, its citizens positioned themselves to integrate the primary languages of each world.

A more recent example would be the lead-up to the Russian-Ukranian war, where some of the early news leading up to the conflict noted the linguistic implications of “the Ukraine” and calling the capital city Kyiv vs. Kiev, or reporting how the president of Ukraine had tried to appeal to the Russian people in their language. The emphasis or the absence of a single preposition has become important historical context is reverberating into a war in 2022.

Ultimately, all of this is to facilitate communication, which boils down to finding ways to understand each other3. Compared to computer languages, I find natural languages to be wonderfully complex and multifaceted, able to encode layers of meaning and culture and style. Perhaps in another timeline I might have become a linguist instead of a software engineer; I guess I’ll have to settle for blogging in this one.

  1. Though my own immigrant journey, I’ve taken beginner classes in French, Spanish, and Japanese through high school and college.

  2. Though when it’s done well—like the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds—it’s adds dimensions.

  3. Or sometimes, our past and future selves.

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