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There's this guy I vaguely know, a friend of a friend of a friend. Let's call him "Rick". I used to live in Silly Valley, and still frequently go visit for professional reasons. Rick has long hair and a beard, which he really should wash once in a while (not to mention the rest of his body). He is one of these people who calls himself a hacker yet seems to believe he has not confessed to a felony in so doing.
Anyway, at some random party thrown by some random PARC or SRI researcher, I run into Rick, and have the displeasure for the first time of having a conversation with him. He asks me: "So, what do you do? I'm a computer hacker."
"I'm a linguist," I reply.
"Oh, so you must know about Larry Wall!"
"Larry Wall. He's a very famous linguist! He invented my favorite programming language, Pearl. It's a programming language which he designed to be just like natural languages, because he's a linguist!", Rick insisted.
"No, never heard of him or the langauge. Hey, my girlfriend is calling me over, talk to you later," and I escaped. Stinky bastard, that Rick.
However, I was intrigued. A programming language designed to be like a natural language? Hey, that sounds interesting! So, the next day, I consult the pasty blundergrad intern that all the easy stuff in my project is delegated to (i.e. all the programing tasks), and he lends me his copy of Programming Pearl, 3rd edition.
Really bad first impressions
The book turns out to be a jumbled, incomprehensible, sprawling mess of word wank. Over 1000 pages, and each seems to presuppose knowledge of the other 999 or so.
At first, it left me thinking that the worst of all was the "humorous" and condescending style in which the book is written. But then I ran into the authors' explanation of the one thing that led me to the book in the first place, the supposed "natural language" influence on the design:
So in our natural languages, we have many ways of sweeping complexity under the carpet. Many of these fall under the category of topicalization, which is just a fancy linguistics term for agreeing with someone about what you're going to talk about. (p. 14)Nope. Topicalization is a grammatical construction for marking "old" referents in the discourse; e.g. by preposing constituents, as in "That book, I think I don't want", or the well-known wa marker in Japanese. Whatever these Pearl guys are talking about is at best marginally related to topicalization. And in the following sentences, they make it even worse:
This happens in many levels in language. On a high level, we divide ourselves up into various subcultures that are interested in various subtopics and establish sublanguages that talk primarily about those topics. The lingo of the doctor's office [...] (p. 14)These guys are just faking it. What they are describing is a commonplace stuff from sociolinguistics. Social dialect is a good term for what they describe. Topicalization certainly isn't. The only evident purpose the word "topicalization" serves in this passage is as a fancy linguistics term to project a false appearance of authority by impressing those who don't know. Given how rarified even basic knowledge of linguistics is in the world, the authors, in their drive to impress, feel like they don't even have to bother to get it right.
I can almost hear some infuriated Rick-like hacker crying out: "Hey, but they're just using an analogy! Who cares about such useless things such as the real meaning of topicalization? They trying to teach a programming language, not linguistics!" To which the obvious answer is that an analogy based on a concept your audience doesn't understand has no pedagogical use. You're supposed to explain stuff to people in terms of stuff they understand.
Anyway the book is 1000+ pages of this-- self-aggrandisement by (mis)use of linguistic terminology, bad jokes, condescencion, presupposition of unexplained concepts, and nowhere anything useful for somebody trying to learn the language. Please don't buy this book.
The famous linguist
The other thing I wondered about was about the work of this Larry Wall fellow. How come Rick had insisted that he was a famous linguist, yet I'd never heard the name? Perhaps he worked on something I'm not up to date on, like Type-Logical Grammar in one version or another. Thus, I decided to acquaint myself with the linguistic work of Larry Wall.
I searched the MLA database, the LLBA database, the SIL bibliography, and a couple other minor indices of articles on Linguistics. Nothing turned up. Larry Wall does indeed hold an M.A. in Linguistics; but as far as I can ascertain, he has never published any work on this discipline in over 20 years since. There is no evidence we can find that he has ever done any work in linguistics since the late 70s whatsoever.
The scant information available suggests that Mr. Wall was preparing to become a field linguist, possibly in association with the Christian missionary-tied Summer Institute of Linguistics; these people quite literally get dropped in the middle of nowhere somewhere, where the natives speak some previously undescribed language, learn the language, write a grammar for it, and perform all sorts of projects for helping the survival of the local language and culture (and, most controversially, translate the Bible into the language to assist in the destruction of their native religion). Mr. Wall's plans were apparently derailed by health reasons. As such, the world of linguistics more likely than not suffered a great loss.
However, calling Mr. Wall a "linguist" is somewhat problematic. Certainly he does have a master's degree in Linguisitics, so it is not fraudulent. Still, one should call him by a title that actually reflects what he does do in real life. Mr. Larry Wall is a computer programmer, or more specifically, some sort of computer language "designer" and implementor (the quotes due to the natural misgivings at calling something like Pearl "designed").
Again, I say this not out of spite, not out of a desire to put down Mr. Wall, but rather out of a sense of loss at Mr. Wall's sad fate. Certainly the world would have benefited greatly if that fateful disease hadn't struck him and he'd managed to gift us with a grammar for one of Papua New Guinea's 800+ languages. Misfortune has it, however, that all we've gotten from him is bad prose, bad use of linguistics terms, and masses of unmaintainable line noise-looking spaghetti code written by incompetent programmers empowered by Mr. Wall to cause industry millions of dollars in losses from write-only code.
Next installment: debunking the Natural Language Principles in Pearl