[SIGCIS-Members] English commands and keywords in programming

James Sumner james.sumner at manchester.ac.uk
Sun Aug 4 08:32:39 PDT 2019

I don't have any answers to this question, but here's a minor but 
hopefully interesting point on a related topic...

Developers catering for mainly British and Commonwealth audiences were 
occasionally faced with the decision as to whether to implement 
particular terms in British English, or in the US English that was 
usually the basis of any existing precedent. This was notably the case 
for the keyword COLOR/COLOUR in some implementations of the Basic 
language for 8-bit microcomputers in the 1980s, colour graphics being at 
that time largely a matter of platform-specific hardware capabilities 
and thus entirely unstandardised.

Of the major British-originated platforms, both the Sinclair Spectrum 
and Amstrad CPC series had platform-specific Basic dialects which 
managed to avoid the issue entirely using alternative terms such as INK 
– I don't know whether by coincidence or design. The Dragon series 
simply used COLOR: its Basic was apparently an almost unmodified 
implementation of the Microsoft-originated Extended Color Basic.

The spelling COLOUR was, however, used for the BBC Microcomputer series, 
developed by Acorn for the national public broadcaster's Computer 
Literacy Project and widely used in British schools. Originally, COLOR 
was not recognised and would result in an error message. In 1983, with 
Acorn making an (ultimately abortive) effort to break into the American 
market, one of the very few changes between versions 2 and 3 of BBC 
Basic was to accept COLOR interchangeably with COLOUR.

Since keywords were stored internally as tokens rather than in full 
text, this resulted in a trivial but practical example of automated 
international translation. Whichever spelling the programmer used, the 
command to LIST the program would show COLOUR consistently on the 
default installation and COLOR on the US export model.

All best

On 03/08/2019 04:19, Eji Layo 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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