No, not for bloggers — for developers! Either way I must be kidding, eh? I planned to write about this for several days, but always got caught up with something else. Then last night and today I was perusing the hu_HU.po file for WordPress (simply put: the Hungarian translation file) and I found myself right in the middle of what might be called the application of theory. Here was the l10n process in its full grandeur…
(If you are not familiar with this term, please read the about page.)
Once I’ve asked the developer of a script: “In which language was the program written?”
“PHP” he said.
“No, no… I am referring to the real language in which you think and write” I said.
“It doesn’t matter” he answered. “You just have to translate all the messages and stuff and you are ready to go in any language.”
I wish it would be that simple!
Of course, being a linguist (of a kind) when I say language I am thinking about what the programmers call natural language. Not only that, but when I am working on localization files I’m always getting close to admit that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is damn right! You can check out on Wikipedia a very clever academic entry about this theory (SWH), however if you find it too intense, here is a lighter version of it. Actually Sapir and Whorf never postulated the “hypothesis” which is linked to their names, especially not in the so-called strong or extreme version, also known as linguistic determinism. As you can guess, it states that our thinking is determined by language. (If you google the term, you can find a lot of pro and con articles.) In its milder form, the weak or moderate theory says that our thinking or the way we see the world may be influenced by the language we speak. More exactly, the emphasis is on “the way we see the world”. For many years the SWH used to be an outcast in academic circles, but yesterday I just came across this article in New Scientist: Language may shape human thought.
I for one would quote only one sentence by Whorf, and it is taken exactly from the same paragraph that is so widely cited all over the web. It says: “We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages…” [emphasis mine!] In other words we could say we categorize the surrounding world according to the categories that exist in the language we speak. (Which is — as the cultural anthropologists would call it — the taxonomy of any given culture.)
What the heck has this to do with software development – one may ask. Well, do you still remember my conversation with that developer? Which language…? Because I remember it all the time. If I have to translate your code, I can tell you exactly what limitations your “categories” have. (Make no mistake: the way I see the world is also influenced — should I say limited? — by the language I speak.) So, here is exactly the link between Sapir-Whorf and writing code. Because, as I stated elsewhere, the internationalization of a software starts at the developers’ end. In plain English it means that the code is prepared properly to be translated into any other language or, to use the dev lingo, it is prepared for localization.
Now based on my experience the majority of developers would be a living proof for the extreme version of the SWH – and according to that they are in the prison of their own languages. Others use the word “strait-jacket”…