In medieval times, educated Europeans conversed in Latin.
But this simple summary disguises the constant innovations in natural language. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, written classical Latin stayed stable – but spoken Latin developed rapidly, leading to increasing differences between the East and the West of the former Roman Empire. After a few hundred years, spoken Latin across even Western Europe diverged enough to make mutual understanding difficult. Western European Latin has since diverged into numerous Romance languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian.
This natural development is most extreme in Papua New Guinea (PNG). There, some tribes make a point of using different words to differentiate themselves from neighbouring tribes. There are over 800 distinct languages spoken in PNG.
English now fills the role of global language for business, travel and international relations. Spanish, and Arabic also have widespread international usage, a billion of the Chinese speak Mandarin and half a billion Indians speak Hindi.
The six part “trilogy” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had many innovations. One of these was a gadget called the Babel Fish (which, envisaged in pre-smartphone times, was an actual fish). This acted as an interpreter, converting in real time any language spoken into the language of the listener. This idea has inspired many technical advances, and now services such as Google Translate and Apple’s Siri are readily available.
With a couple of generations of developers immersed in programming languages for most of their lives, computer languages are starting to show some natural languages traits. Most computer languages are still basically the same: some are better for prototyping quick ideas, some for multi-developer projects, some for fast executables. New languages spring up regularly, and older languages, such as C++, are progressing through multiple dialects.
While natural language dialects can be difficult for a person to understand, computers tend to give up completely if the syntax is even slightly incompatible: The Computer Says No. For someone trying to enjoy content, incompatibility is a show stopper.
Operating Systems such as Windows, MacOS, Android, iOS and those on numerous game consoles are incompatible. Consumers only have access on their devices if suppliers make the effort to reversion their software.
Like the tribesmen of PNG, incompatibility can even be a deliberate policy, with companies buying exclusive rights to content to freeze out competitors.
But as in any free market, consumer pressure is pushing back. So what, on media viewing devices, is the global medium for communication – the equivalent to English?
Its speed of evolution and inherent flexibility means the Browser is now the global standard for disseminating information – the English of the Information Age.
Stephen B Streater
Founder and Director of R&D