Written in response to PHP: A Fractal of Bad Design. English speakers: please try not to take this personally. You're in awful company.


I'm cranky. I complain about a lot of things. There's a lot in the world of natural language that I don't like. Most natural languages were invented by complete amateurs who didn't have half a clue what they were doing when they started joining noun with verb. Combine that with the Sapir-Worf hypothesis, and you've got a whole gang of self-congratulating numbskulls who can't even think past the foolish paradigms they've constructed to truly subject their puny minds to logical thinking.

This is not the same. English is an aberration. It's not merely awkward to speak or ill-suited for what I want, or sub-optimal, or against my religion. I could tell you something I like about most languages I don't speak, even though I have good reasons not to speak them. But English is the lone exception. Every time I try to compile a list of gripes about the English language, I get stuck in this depth-first search of discovering more and more appalling trivia. (Hence, fractal.)

English is an embarrassment, a blight upon my Broca's area. It's so broken, but so lauded by every empowered amateur who's yet to learn anything else, as to be maddening. It has paltry few redeeming qualities that I would prefer to forget it exists at all.

But I've got to get this out of my system. So here's one last try.

An Analogy (not really)

Say you were learning English for the first time, and someone told you that the rule for forming the past tense of a verb would be to add -ed to the end of a word. That's a productive rule that applies to all persons and numbers. I walked; John slipped; they skipped; we flipped. Now try to apply that to be, do, buy, eat, etc. You think to yourself, "Hey, this is ridiculous! There are all these rules I have to learn that don't work for all of verbs I want to use the most. What a stupid language. How on Earth did the people speaking this make such a mess out of their most common verbs?"

Now in order to use English proficiently, you have to memorize all of these exceptions. Most of the time, you're dealing in these exceptions, and not the rules. However, since you took the time to memorize the productive rules, you find that ultimately, you're able to generalize for a large set of vocabulary you never even memorized. The more you practice, the better you get. Eventually, you're able to explain the subtleties of some of these stranger subsets of rules. Some non-native experts can even explain to you why there are subsets of verbs that exhibit ablauting, and why certain subsets of Latin-inherited words exhibit prosody and tonality that violates iambic pentameter. And the fact that some native speakers can't shouldn't be too much of a surprise, either. Sometimes, it's hard to articulate the hard stuff, but it doesn't make them any worse at speaking English. It just confirms their status as an empowered amateur.

But in the end, it's still English. And I would never speak English, because I'm better than that. I have a degree in communication sciences and am very active on ChatHub.


English is a mess. It's a mess because long ago, a population of Celtic people were overrun by a few populations of Germanic people. Sometime thereafter, a portion of the island they were living on became occupied by the Roman empire. Later still, in 1066 A.D., William the Conquerer effectively made England a French colony. For much of its history, English was a language of subservience, or a language in flux due to one or more events of occupation or contact.

English became a language of historical significance, and a tool with critical mass, when a perfect storm of events, beginning in the 15th Century, culminated into today. The discovery of coal reserves, the establishment of British Empire, the Protestant Reformation, the colonization of the New World and India, and ultimately a scientific history that reaches from Newton through to Turing poised English as a major international language for trade, science, and engineering.

This is terrible. The concept of linguistic relativity suggests that using a language subjects you to the subconscious paradigms expressed in it. The fact that English misses a number of aspects, tenses, person and number distinctions screams for a solution created by people who are too smart to use a natural language as their lingua franca.

What it really all boils down to is the fact that English is a great language for complete amateurs to learn. The overwhelming majority of people who speak English as their only langauge learned it as their first language and stopped there. Most of them are terrible at it and make egregious mistakes in its grammar and usage every day. Do we really want to continue to allow these groundlings of such low acumen to continue to pollute linguistic landscape?

My position is thus:

  • English is full of surprises: ox -> oxen; be / was / am; the pronunciation of the word "subtle"
  • English is inconsistent: food vs. good; read (present) vs. read (past); one sheep two sheep...
  • English is flaky: English in Canada is like a completely different language from the English spoken in India or South Africa. And I'm still trying to figure out what the lady in the beginning of "Let Me Ride" from Dr. Dre is saying, but it's allegedly also English.
  • English is opaque: I before E except after C doesn't even freaking work most of the time

Don't comment with these things

I've been in arguments about the English language a lot. I hear very generic counter-arguments for why we shouldn't scrap English all together:

  • Don't tell me you were born speaking it. Learn something else. Yeesh.
  • Don't tell me everybody's using it. If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you? Yeah, I didn't think so.
  • Don't tell me it's an international lingua franca for science, engineering, and trade. If it was so great, then why did they have to borrow the word lingua franca from Latin? And why would lingua franca mean "French language"? See, you peel back the onion, and you're just left with more and more layers of absurdity. And tears.
  • Don't tell me a subset of its rules were inherited from Latin and French. Really, what's the point of speaking some weird wrapper around Latin when we can just speak Latin? Then we wouldn't have to worry about appropriately converting noun declensions to their place in English (type safety). How else will anyone understand a Latin loan word, if we're not properly declining the term into its ablative case? And the Germanic part is like Perl. And Perl is hard.
  • Don't tell me that Shakespeare, Milton, Twain, or Meyer (yes, I went there) wrote in English. I'm aware! They could write in pictograms, for all I care. You'll always find smart people who can overcome the shortcomings of their platform.
  • Ideally, don't tell me anything. Hearing or reading too much English on any given day is literally enough to send me into a flying rage. So I wrote a simple script in Erlang that filters out all email messages not written in Esperanto, so odds are that I won't even see any emails you send me.

Side observation: I loooooove Esperanto. It's got a great spec; it's completely logical; there's this very smart committee of fantastically wealthy, extremely popular people who spend all of their waking hours monitoring its usage to prevent it from getting too illogical. I mean, look at George Soros. That guy was raised speaking Esperanto and he gets by just fine.


Have I made my point? Almost any sufficiently utilized system develops irregularities, particularly around areas of high frequency of interaction. It's one of the reasons that we have irregular verbs and irregular plurals. PHP's development, without any kind of an academically or professionally defined specification, is as organic as the growth of natural language. It's only recently stopped being a pidgin of C and Perl over the last decade and entered a status as a well-used but poorly regarded creole. That's exactly the status of English before the Globe Theatre or the first translation of the Bible into what we refer to as Modern English.

Specifications, or the lack thereof, do not define the utility of a language. Prestige does not define the value of a language. If you don't like a language -- either natural or programming -- don't use it, and leave it at that.

Could you imagine if I wrote this about the fundamental shortcomings of a language from a developing nation, or a low-prestige dialect of any language? Everyone would rightly call me a bigot. I'm suggesting that squelching about the shortcomings of a language without trying to offer solutions does roughly amount to technological bigotry. It's not productive, and it's not welcome. Participation and dialogue is always welcome. But you're not opening a productive dialogue by denigrating the subject of discussion.