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Forced To Write English Syntax Code – Simplicity or Burden?

Filed Under Code, Human Factors, Thought Stuff

This is a guest post by Jurgen Appelo. Jurgen is the CIO of the #1 fastest growing technology company in the Netherlands.

Man Yelling At Laptop

Did you know that only two countries, the United States and Canada, participate in what the Americans call the "World Series"? It’s as stupid as it is hilarious. The average American doesn’t know that the European Union has almost twice as many citizens as the United States. Americans only care about their own 50 states. And that’s fine with me. As a Dutch guy, when filling out (American-made) personalization forms on “international” web sites, I always chuckle when I see that half a million people in the state of Wyoming are apparently more interesting than the 86 million people in the Chinese province of Shandong.

Last year, when some guy in California noticed that I am from The Netherlands, he asked me if I knew a certain Johan Christiansen in Denmark. (For American readers I should explain why I thought this was funny: There is country, called Germany, with 80 million people in it, separating The Netherlands from Denmark. The chance of me knowing someone in Denmark is as small as the chance of Max being able to pronounce "een schip in Scheveningen" in Dutch.) So I said no, and I asked this guy if he knew a certain Carlos Gonzalez in Ecuador. For some reason he didn’t appreciate that reply.

Max asked me what I thought about Americans forcing programming languages, with English syntax, and frameworks with English API’s, upon non-English developers in the rest of the world. Well, here’s what I think:

Americans are stupid, and I love them for it. Because stupidity leads to simplicity, and simplicity is exactly what we need in software development.

We Europeans are different. We know where the United States are. (It’s that place where all that CO2 stuff is coming from.) And we distinguish ourselves from the Americans by making things as complicated as possible, particularly when the French are involved. If the .NET Framework was created by a European organization, it would have a core API in three languages (English, French and German), and there would be many dozens of adapter layers translating these core API’s to secondary API’s in any of the other twenty official languages. Europeans have a horrible tendency to compromize, not wanting to forget or offend anyone, which makes the outcome of our efforts completely incomprehensible, and utterly unworkable. (My partner works for the European Union, so I know first-hand how things are handled here.)

I think most software developers are now glad that the unique combination of American imperialism and stupidity has resulted in all computer languages and frameworks being presented in one simple language: English.

Microsoft has once made the error of trying to please the non-English users of Excel by offering versions of Visual Basic for Appliation (VBA) in non-English variants. I have to tell you, programming in that language, with Dutch syntax and keywords, was horrible. Our language is hard enough to speak, let alone to program in. Even the non-programmers that I was trying to teach Excel thought that this was weird. Since then, Microsoft has decided to ignore their European users. (A strategy that has resulted in a $2.57 billion fine imposed by the European Union.)

I think we should all be happy that Americans have imposed their language on software developers around the world.

Just imagine how awful it would be if everyone in the world had to program against French API’s on French frameworks. Anything written in French costs almost twice as many keystrokes as the English counterparts. And I really wouldn’t care for diacriticals and other typical French baroque embellishments in my programming languages. France, despite being the center of Western Europe (and feeling itself the center of Western civilization) cannot offer us the simplicity that the US can offer us.

And we can be just as glad that all the other old global empires have died long before they were able to impose their difficult character sets upon everybody.

The Arab empire has given us the decimal numeral system. But many of us still blame them for not having selected the octal numeral system, despite the fact that they did give us chess, which is octal by nature. This error has already cost the software development world billions of dollars in inefficiencies, so let’s be glad we’re not programming in the Arab language too. And if it had been the Turks we would now all be struggling with all the variants of the letter I.

Similarly, the Chinese empire has failed long before being able to trouble each one of us with Chinese characters. Of course, China is growing again. But, even though the Chinese can choose to ignore the rest of the world at times, the standard American qwerty keyboard is here to stay.

Good old American culture gave software development simplicity and no compromises. The typical American inability to grasp the nature of special characters has given us programming languages and frameworks with an easy syntax. It’s simply take-it-or-leave-it-English for everyone. And no funny British idiosyncrasies like the extra superfluous u, as in colour. That might have saved us another 0.x percent in size of various API’s. I can hardly think of a better example of the KISS-principle. Because, in this case the phrase "Keep It Simple, Stupid" actually refers to people having made things simple by being stupid.

In this respect it might be interesting to note that (British) NewScientist magazine has recently published an article on the rapid evolution of the English language. It now appears that stupid non-native English speaking people (like me) are making the English language even simpler and more consistent, because we often fail to recognize the last few exceptions that the English language still has. For example, many of us simply use "informations" as the plural form of "information". And why not? Let’s make it simple for everyone. We’re not all French, are we?

So, let’s stop attacking Americans for their simple-mindedness. Americans have saved me a lot of trouble. So I really don’t care if I have to explain to them that Copenhagen is not the capital city of The Netherlands. (It’s Amsterdam.)

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Comments

25 Responses to “Forced To Write English Syntax Code – Simplicity or Burden?”

  1. Chad Myers on April 21st, 2008 2:50 am

    I realize most of this is tongue-in-cheek, but sincerely, just out of curiosity, why don’t other language-speakers write programming languages in their native tongue? Why did Matz make Ruby Latin-based?

    It does get kinda old listening to Europeans complain about America (seriously: can you name the capital of Wyoming off the top of your head? Could you tell the difference between someone from Delaware and someone Maryland?), so I’m curious why not just make a new programming language and stop cursing America?

    Also, and this is sincere and serious: What incentive does the average American coder have to worry about what the 86 million people in Shandong think of his code? Should he have incentive, and if so, what would it be (i.e. what do the people in Shandong need that they’re not currently getting?)

  2. Alex on April 21st, 2008 5:43 am

    Great post Jurgen, subscribing to your blog!

    One minor correction though, chess came from India ;-p

    >een schip in Scheveningen
    niet te moeilijk 😉

  3. Nathan Blevins on April 21st, 2008 6:05 am

    This is a well written post, and you do hit quite a few key points about the nature of current development trends and the methodologies behind them.

    Sadly, the generalizations against America takes alot away from your post. In a sense you are falling vicitm to the same problem that you are claiming that “all” Americas suffer from. Really, it falls down to egocentrism.

    A few other points:

    Stupidity does not equate simplicitly. Actually, it is usually the reverse. The simplicity you are referring to is more due to the American trend not to cater to other languages, keeping the base simple.

    America’s stance is less Imperialistic and more egocentric. There is a small difference but an important one.

    Anyway, interesting perspective and some good points once you get around the prejudice at bit.

  4. Michal on April 21st, 2008 6:28 am

    Wow! Flamebait much?

    I am a citizen of both Canada and a country in the EU, and have spent a significant portion of my life living and working in Canada, the US, and Europe.

    One thing I have discovered, and have had confirmed by many people, is that the all-too-easy and all-too-fun theory that Americans are stupid is stupid. Stupidity is fairly evenly distributed. Sorry to burst your bubble.

    —-

    As far as the content of your post: I agree with some points. The English language probably is the easiest of the popular languages when used to develop software (I’m no linguist, so I can’t claim that it’s _the_ easiest – but comparing to what I know of German, Polish, Russian, and French..). And while English wasn’t actively chosen for its merits, but rather because it just so happens to be spoken in America, I see no correlation between the language simplicity and American stupidity.

    The English language, like any good programming language, gives the wielder the ability to be as simple or as complex as they can and choose to be.

    As for internationalization: You are right, people outside of America matter a lot more than most Americans are willing to admit. Even here in Canada I miss out all the time just because I don’t own a zip code. But this isn’t a new topic – and businesses are learning quick.

    But thanks for taking the time to say whats been said before, and finding a way to be a dick about it.

  5. Max Pool on April 21st, 2008 6:45 am

    I thought Copenhagen was a chewing tobacco…

    Although I do agree that it is much more a case of egotism over stupidity, I think a few of my readers need to quit taking things so literally.

    If you are one to take things literally, then just know that this is just one opinion on the internet. Attempt to learn from it even if you don’t agree…

  6. Sergio Pereira on April 21st, 2008 6:53 am

    >I thought Copenhagen was a chewing tobacco…
    Of course not. It’s a chocolate brand.
    Max, I hope you next guest posts are not as bad as this one. Seriously, is there anything useful in this post? The author could have made his point in one or two sentences and avoid offending so many different people (trying to be funny or not.) I’ll second the flamebait comment.

  7. Robert Porter on April 21st, 2008 7:32 am

    Hi Max,

    Interesting post. Being a stupid American I have a question. Since everyone in Europe is so much more intelligent, and since Microsoft is ignoring all those intelligent people, where is the European competitor to Microsoft?

    The American based software industry, stupidly, spends a sizable amount of money on internationalization of software they develop, in markets where that software will be used outside the US. TurboTax probably would not be of much use to you, however if you would like to pay US income taxes I am sure the government would be happy to translate the software for you!

    Ah well, I guess since I am a stupid American I would not understand the answer to my question.

    Cheers,

    Robert Porter

  8. Max Pool on April 21st, 2008 8:08 am

    @Robert –

    I think you can look at this 2 ways.

    1) American culture influences many things at a global level – not just entertainment.

    2) Companies like MSFT do go through the trouble of translating UI and documentation into other languages; however, I agree that they have gotten very lucky that the barrier to learning English syntax APIs as been much lower making the need for non-English APIs have very low ROI. This low barrier to entry I feel is actually because of (1).

  9. Bob Nystrom on April 21st, 2008 8:13 am

    > I always chuckle when I see that half a million people in the state of Wyoming are apparently more interesting than the 86 million people in the Chinese province of Shandong.

    American businesses are there to make money. If a business is worried about Wyoming more than Shandong, that’s not out of egocentrism, it’s simply because Wyoming provides more paying customers than Shandong. Total population is irrelevant.

    > Americans forcing programming languages, with English syntax, and frameworks with English API’s, upon non-English developers in the rest of the world.

    How would it even be possible for America to “force” you to use a language? Threat of invasion? If you don’t like it, create your own language.

    > We know where the United States are.

    You probably know where the United States *is*, just like we know where Europe is. But I’d be as surprised if you could place all 50 of our states on a map as you would be if I could place 50 European states on a map.

    > The typical American inability to grasp the nature of special characters

    The little squiggly bits on top of letters aren’t exactly rocket science, but back when a kilobyte of storage cost a few thousand dollars, it would have been bad business to allocate bits for unneeded characters used by non-existant overseas customers.

    A lot of what you attribute to “stupidity” is simply the nature of competitive business. You can argue that’s wrong, but since Americans aren’t the ones forced to use industry-dominating Dutch programming languages, the evidence isn’t exactly in your favor.

  10. Chad Myers on April 21st, 2008 8:49 am

    Ok, the word ‘stupid’ was a very poor choice of words and only serves to drag any sort of positive outcome of this into the gutter.

    Likewise, Americans rubbing their early computer successes in the face Europeans is not productive either.

    Let’s try to elevate here. Sincerely: Why don’t you invent a Dutch programming language? It will take a few years to catch on and will require a lot of work, but ultimately it will probably have some success.

    Many of the aforementioned constraints (expensive storage, 7 bits, etc) are no longer really an issue and it’s quite feasible to have a written language variant of a programming language that uses the full character set for that written language.

    I would not be surprised to see that there are some surprising, unintended benefits from this that we haven’t thought of yet.

  11. Matt R. on April 21st, 2008 9:30 am

    > You probably know where the United States *is*

    Actually, his use of “are” is grammatically correct, as he is referring to a collection of 50 states. If you look back to the earlier part of American history, the conglomeration known as the USA is often referred to in plural form. The singular usage is a much newer phenomenon.

    On the whole, I think the MAIN POINT of the column was good – that the English-centric development of programming languages is probably a good thing. The constant belittling of Americans was more than a little uncalled-for. You can drown out your message with your method of delivery.

    I generally feel that most of my compatriots here are a tad provincial, but I don’t think “stupid” is a word to just be constantly thrown at the entire population over and over and over again if you’re trying to make any point other than, “I hate Americans because they’re stupid.”

  12. Robert Porter on April 21st, 2008 9:47 am

    American culture is not unique in its influence around the world. Chinese culture has had a tremendous influence over the centuries long before the US even existed.

    Influence is typically not something that is forced upon someone, it is usually a matter of adoption. And if there is an influence then there must be something perceived as valuable or worthwhile. Else why emulate or accept the influence.

    Any commercial software developer is of course seeking the widest audience possible for their products. Microsoft is no exception. But not every product has a market outside the country or region in which it is made.

    If there is a demand for non English versions of software API’s or languages, then they will be created to satisfy that demand. Capitalism 101.

    But to claim that Americans are stupid yet have somehow coerced the world into accepting English as the lingua franca for software development is rather simplistic at best.

    As a developer, I can say that having tried to market software outside the US I was staggered to learn about the various barriers that were present. Unless I was a company the size of Microsoft I would find it very difficult and expensive to navigate the EU trade regulations and legalities.

    So 40 million Chinese that are not interested in my application are indeed not as important as say 100,000 Wyoming residents that are.

    For fun try marketing your software in South America. Now there is a market that adheres to the “Not Invented Here” mentality.

  13. Jurgen Appelo on April 21st, 2008 10:24 am

    Thank you all for responding to my article. I had lots of fun writing it, and I had even more fun reading all your comments.

    Sergio Pereira is right. I could have written the point of my article in just two sentences: I have never encountered a non-English developer complaining about the English syntax. In fact, I am sure that most of us are glad things turned out this way.

    But Max wanted an article, not just two sentences. So there you go. To keep matters entertaining I offended everyone in equal measure, including myself. Ok, except for the French. But I’m sure Americans will agree with me on that.

    My next article will be serious again, I promise. (Though I might write an article one day about the correlation between stupidity and sense of humor.)

  14. Max Pool on April 21st, 2008 10:29 am

    @Jurgen –

    Thanks for a response. In case it wasn’t clear, I asked Jurgen to write a post specifically on this toipic…I just don’t believe in heavy censorship…

    There have been many guest posts on Codesqueeze, and truth be told, I don’t agree with all of them, but hey, that’s cool because reading something from a different view point should always be a learning experience.

  15. Seth on April 21st, 2008 1:50 pm

    > Last year, when some guy in California noticed that I am from The Netherlands, he asked me if I knew a certain Johan Christiansen in Denmark…so I said no, and I asked this guy if he knew a certain Carlos Gonzalez in Ecuador. For some reason he didn’t appreciate that reply.

    That’s pretty funny. In fact it’s hilarious.

    A point I would like to make — simplicity isn’t necessarily a result of stupidity. The simplest solution to a problem is often not the easiest solution to implement. Stupidity often leads to the quickest or easiest solution (and in many cases, the implementation even being classified as a solution is debatable). I suppose I am over analyzing the phrasing here (software engineers are usually amazingly gifted in that area). I think I grasped what you mean and I do agree with it.

    I’m not exactly shocked when it comes to the world’s perception of Americans. What else can we expect from them when the most popular thing to come out in America in the last 10 years was ‘git er done’? =|

  16. Matt on April 21st, 2008 6:56 pm

    Wow, it was just as much fun reading the comments as it was reading the article. Everyone got very defensive when you offered your point of view. Seems pretty typical these days…just look at the recent film released by a Dutch government guy or the cartoons from last year. I am actually an American living in Amsterdam and completely understand your point. I have lived here for 3 years and haven’t even attempted to learn Dutch (even signed mortgage documents that were completely in Dutch, relying on the translator to tell me it was ok). When I teach different software classes here, I hear the students talking to each other in 4 or 5 different languages. I almost feel guilty that the APIs we use are all in English, but I am relieved to hear you say that using English in programming languages is a good thing.

    Oh, and for Bob Nystrom. I would be as surprised if most AMERICANS could place all 50 states on a map as I would if most Europeans could place all “50???” european countries on a map.

  17. Gregorio Melo on April 23rd, 2008 6:02 am

    I agree with you when you say that using English makes things easier. If every country would develop a programming language with a syntax close to its own spoken language, there would be no future at all for the software development at all.
    Imagine all the discussions we now see on forums, maillists, IRC channel…
    Programmers helping each other
    No outsourcing (some may say it is not good, but it is a fact).
    No specialists lecturing on another country (of course, with a different language than his).

    But I do disagree with one thing… You made me believe that this stupidity belongs only to the citizens of the U.S. And that means only about thinking of the other parts of the world. Well, I have had some working experiences in Germany and met people from many different places… Brazil, my country, is quite famous, but MOST of the Europeans I’ve met think that we speak Spanish and our capital city is Rio de Janeiro (and, sadly, that we fuck in every corner). This is pretty much the same thought of the Americans. And we have this here as well… Ask a Brazilian what is the capital of Australia… he/she will promptly say Sidney.

    But I would like to point out a question… Why do people all over the world think that “America” is exactly the same as the U.S.? Do they forget that Carlos Gonzalez lives in Ecuador (which is in the American continent)? Is this because of Stallone and his Rambo?

    BTW, very interesting post.

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  19. Kris on April 27th, 2008 9:19 pm

    Great post, if by great you mean elitist, bigoted and rife with stereotypes. I guess you forgot about our shared history in WWII and the Nazi occupation of Europe? Stupid Americans indeed.

  20. Jurgen Appelo on April 28th, 2008 12:43 am

    And so once again Godwin’s Law is proven valid. Every discussion ends with a reference to either Nazis or Hitler.

    @Kris: thanks for closing the thread.

  21. Kris on April 28th, 2008 6:34 am

    Jurgen, glad to help.

  22. Thomas Lafferty on April 29th, 2008 11:14 pm

    Great, entertaining, and hopefully tongue-in-cheek. Being one of those rare Americans who have actually ventured to the end of that dirt road and onto the great paved highways and beyond, I’ve actually made it across that big pond separating us. A few minor points though…last time I checked the E.U wasn’t a country (yet). Oh, and I’ve lived there too… the entire time I spent living in the UK I was constantly asked if I new so and so. People found it incomprehensible I hadn’t been to the Grand Canyon, having no concept of the fact it was 2200 miles from where I lived. They also failed to comprehend that the entire continent of Europe at 3.9 million square miles was only a slight tad larger than our country at 3.8, or that many of your countries were smaller in population than many of our large metropolitan areas. As far as American Imperial aspirations go, all I can say is if we were imperial…you wouldn’t have that pesky French-German-English problem now, would you? Our problem is we keep conquering Europe and giving it back. All kidding aside though, I found that older Europeans valued American contributions to western civilization, vis a vis WWII… and had many a pint on their graciousness. Being the straw in mouth hick that we Americans are… Living in Asia I appreciated the fact that most of them could speak English, if you were nice to them, even learned a little Hangul myself. Just give up the act… we know you all speak English and forcing us to order in French in a cafe in Paris is part of some elaborate inside joke at our expense, and as soon as we are gone you all (or should that be Y’all) go back to speaking English. Seriously though, isn’t our common heritage that of Western Civilization? Who do you want as your closest allies, the communist Chinese? (Oh, sorry, I forgot communist wasn’t a bad word over there).

    And if the rest of your posts are this entertaining, I’ll link it.

    Cheers!

    Finntann

  23. foutsc on April 30th, 2008 9:47 pm

    Save the world and then give it all back like the US has done and maybe we’d try coding in your little language.

  24. Gregorio Melo on May 1st, 2008 7:04 am

    hehehe

    Like the U.S. has done with the Afgans and the Iraqi?

  25. foutsc on May 6th, 2008 6:55 am

    hehehe… We’re trying to give them back but the locals aren’t cooperating!

    Anyway, I was referring more to a quaint little place called Old Europe.

    — Nietzsche is Dead

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