[SIGCIS-Members] English commands and keywords in programming

Paul McJones paul at mcjones.org
Sat Aug 3 17:03:40 PDT 2019

I can’t fully answer your question, but I can point to the source materials I’ve gathered relating to the Algol standardization track (International Algorithmic Language/Algol 58, Algol 60, and Algol 68): http://www.softwarepreservation.org/projects/ALGOL/standards/ . While the earliest European documents were in German, starting with the 1958 Zurich meeting that produced the Preliminary Report onward English seems to have been adopted as the basis for Algol. Algol was supposed to be "as close as possible to standard mathematical notation” so in some sense they seem to have been focussed on the operators, brackets, and so on, although there were of course a set of reserved words.

Another data point is Fortran, designed by Americans and using English keywords. There was a French edition of the original language reference manual, and the keywords were in French: https://archive.computerhistory.org/resources/text/Fortran/102663111.05.01.acc.pdf  — I don’t know if IBM continued to maintain a French version.

Other early, influential languages designed in English-speaking countries included COBOL and LISP.

I can only speculate that software producers and consumers in non English-speaking countries decided the benefits of using a native language were outweighed by disadvantages such as the difficulty of “internationalizing” the software itself and the difficulty of sharing source code from elsewhere.

Paul McJones

> On Aug 2, 2019, at 8:19 PM, Eji Layo <ejilayomi at gmail.com> wrote:
> I've been curious about a particular question for sometime. After reading the works of various authours in the history of computing field, I directed my questions to the authours. I was then made aware of the SIGCIS. To the question...
> How did the English language become the "default" language for computer programming. Why do Python, C, C++, ALGOL, Java, COBOL etc. borrow their natural language commands from English? I am especially curious about the way this came about after the Second World War. The era of the cold-war seems to have presented an opportunity for states like the USSR, East/West Germany and the Scandinavian countries to benefit from pushing an international (or national) language for programming.I am curious to know what members of this group think of this question? 
> Some further questions include - Why did ALGOL's implementation (despite its 3 levels of description) not accommodate the diversity of linguistic representation of those who subsequently participated in developing it? I am curious to know if IBM's SHARE user group's hesitation to ALGOL may have resulted in how it was received globally. I imagine that standards (or idiosyncratic practices) also played a part in this process and I wonder how that may have occurred? Finally Grace Hopper's speech in Wexelblat's ACM's History of Programming Languages, implied that COBOL's success came from work she did showing that an interpreter could help in compiling the multi-lingual expressions of the same commands. Again why did this not become the reality of contemporary "mainstream" programming? Any clues would be helpful. Thank you.
> Sincerely,
> Eji Mimiko.
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