Lukas Püttmann    About    Blog

Do the programming languages we use influence how we think?

This article says that which programming languages people or organizations use might influence their thinking and culture.

I’m reminded of the discussion in linguistics on the idea that language structure might shape how we think. This idea is controversial and Steven Pinker, who’s skeptical of it, writes:

And supposedly there is a scientific basis for these assumptions: the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism, stating that people’s thoughts are determined by the categories made available by their language, and its weaker version, linguistic relativity, stating that differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakers. […]

But it is wrong, all wrong. The idea that thought is the same thing as language is an example of what can be called a conventional absurdity: a statement that goes against all common sense but that everyone believes because they dimly recall having heard it somewhere and because it is so pregnant with implications. (p57, “The Language Instinct”)

This idea has made inroads into economic research. Keith Chen argues, for example, that how languages encode references to the future has implications on how people think about the future. So a German speaker who says “Ich gehe morgen in die Kirche” (“I go tomorrow to church”) without having to add any explicit grammatical marker for the future tense, is thus more patient and saves more for the future.

No matter if the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis makes sense for natural languages or not, might there be something in it for programming languages? In the article we read:

If you want to know why Facebook looks and works the way it does and what kinds of things it can do for and to us next, you need to know something about PHP, the programming language Mark Zuckerberg built it with.

Among programmers, PHP is perhaps the least respected of all programming languages.

                                    […]

You wouldn’t have built Google in PHP, because Google, to become Google, needed to do exactly one thing very well – it needed search to be spare and fast and meticulously well engineered. It was made with more refined and powerful languages, such as Java and C++. Facebook, by contrast, is a bazaar of small experiments, a smorgasbord of buttons, feeds, and gizmos trying to capture your attention. PHP is made for cooking up features quickly.

However, people and organizations get to choose which language to use, unlike natural languages that you have little say over.

But people don’t switch immediately when there’s a better language available. There’s a lot of sluggishness in how organizations change their systems. And if everybody else in your area of work uses some language, then you probably stick to it as well. And the structure and capabilities of that language might then shape how people think about problems.

This idea is actually mentioned in the good Wikipedia article on this topic which also refers to this Paul Graham essay in which he describes Lisp as his secret weapon.

But there’s also another viewpoint on this. The original article goes on to introduce OCaml, an exotic functional programming language used by the Hedge Fund Jane Street. Such a programming language demands more of the people who use it, but it’s easier to ensure correctness of the programs.

The culture of competitive intelligence and the use of a fancy programming language seem to go hand in hand.

So what if it’s mostly about signaling? Like those tough interview questions in consulting interviews or intelligence tests during applications for investment banks that might hold little predictive value of how good somebody will be at their job, but instead serve as a marketing tool to convince new hires that one must be really clever to work at this firm.

Maybe the reason some people are so make more productive is not the programming languages they use and they’d be similarly productive in other environments.