Latin and coding

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A 10th-century manuscript containing the Latin work Psychomachia (Battle for the spirit) by the 5th-century poet Prudentius (British Library Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII)

Coding is new Latin. Forget what they say, Latin is not a dead language. The Latin we know today, that we study and whose relics pepper our conversations, populate our speeches and give flavour our arguments has never been a spoken language. Even if some people obstinately tried and still try to speak it.

The Latin we inherited is learned Latin – a language of acquisition which doesn’t belong to anyone, and which belongs to everyone. Everyone who is part of its textual communities. A language for the reader and writer, not for the speaker and performer. This Latin is not dead because it was never alive on anyone’s lips.

Learned Latin is not the Latin spoken by Romans from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD. It is a highly formalized language with well-established and closely-guarded rules. In the West, learned Latin was the force behind the drive to establish strict grammar rules for all the languages we speak today.

Learned Latin is a codified language, the most advanced tool Western Europe developed over centuries, whose mastery helped create other tools. Among these, modern science, linguistics and, yes, coding.

A programming language is not unlike learned Latin. It is a rule-based language (tautology alert) which communicates, creates, connects, without the need to be spoken. It is formal and useful. And like learned Latin, it is the basis for a host of modern developments, seeking to become the dominant idiom in a technologically advanced society. Learned Latin was Western Europe’s first successful experiment in international communication and cooperation. It was the first construction site for building the global village. Learned Latin connected the scientific, diplomatic, political and economic cultures of multilingual Europe into a network of intelligibility, creating the world we know today.

Learned Latin was a formalized project, but it wasn’t the last one. Coding merely takes that project to the next level.

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