found drama

get oblique

3ngrish.

by Rob Friesel

“…regions with the greatest linguistic diversity (e.g. Africa) lag significantly in Internet host and user growth, suggesting a widening of the digital divide at least for minority language groups.”

Extremely hesitant to agree. And just as hesitant to disagree. While it’s true that regions of comparably high linguistic diversity frequently and consistently lag in technological arenas, it is hardly symptomatic of a global techno-elitist conspiracy to keep them down or eradicate the cultural richness of “minority language groups.” The parsimonious conclusion would be that ethnically and linguistically diverse regions are disadvantaged because of the historical and cultural weight of competing with the neighboring cultures. E.g., Africa. 21st century tribal warfare in Africa is a marked extension of millennia long competition for resources. Language produces an audible, even tangible, almost tactile barrier between peoples. When the next town over is speaking something palpably different from what’s rolling off your tongue, it’s easy to point the spear at them as foreign or alien. It should come as no surprise that intense xenophobias based on language are common even in “1st World” countries. Anyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language knows that you have to sometimes completely re-organize your thinking just to get simple statements out like: “Where is the john?”

That *nix/etc systems are based on “English words or abbreviations thereof” seems obvious (maybe even fair) given the above. A culture with a functionally homogenous linguistic base spends less resources on combatting the xenophobia brought on by the encroachment of Other-speakers and thus has the opportunity to put its heads together to build something like ‘finger’. While true that these early, linguistically-homogenous programmers are accountable for what they did (or did not) build, parsimony again enters our equation w/r/t/ technological advancement. English-speaking programmers build *nix, create the Bourne shell to manipulate it, and fill the shell with commands (e.g., ls -Alfnr) so that it’s useful. Now these English-speakers don’t speak Farsi and don’t plan to in the near future (“…perhaps while I’m stroking my then-white Vandyke might I perfect the Persian tongue…”) but since Bourne sucks, they whip up bash and then X11-based apps. Not because they’re anti-Azerbaijani or dismissive of Dagaare but because their focus is on an English-based shell for their *nix flavor. And maybe some Assembly…

Thus does the responsibility for alt-lang ports fall on those Other-speakers. This is the parsimonious (there’s that word again!) solution since they’re already speakers of both Other and English. Except that they might not necessarily be… (hence the above “just as hesitant”) Take a stable European country and a random computer scientist contained therein and will English be his first or second language? (You tell me.) Indeed, said individual is still in a position of privilege and advantage (even w/ the English-as-language-#2 handicap) when you compare that person to someone who speaks Urdu as a first language and whose only exposure to English has been through a handful of blossom-colored logos.

The suggestion that the UN might fund projects to pump out vernacular *nixes isn’t a bad one. And would open up computing to realms of individuals who might otherwise be generations away from writing their own compiler. However, this is hardly a panacea. What good is setting up a software development house or an ISP/hosting company if it’s only going to get destroyed? The rumor is that a nation’s stability is mediated by its economic success. The paradox unfortunately is that a depressed economy almost always gaurantees political upheaval. Throw in that violent xenophobia that comes along w/ linguistic diversity and you’re almost assured more than a handful of problems.

Let’s not assume (however?) that the value of linguistic (or any other type of) diversity is thusly diminished by the associated. Linguistic diversity is not threatened by the relative homogeneity of the technical though. Linguistic diversity is threatened by the same age-old pressures and forces that have stabbed at it since Babel crumbled down and tickled the tongues of its builders. (But strictly in the metaphorical sense, I assure you.)

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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