Autocoding project proposal.

Alex Martelli aleax at
Mon Jan 28 13:38:17 CET 2002

"Jonathan Hogg" <jonathan at> wrote in message
news:B87ACAC8.3B6F%jonathan at
> you look at human languages, they do the exact opposite - adding concrete
> terms all the time. The complete Oxford English Dictionary runs to some 20
> volumes. Humans clearly have no problem learning vast numbers of different
> terms.

*Oh yes* we do -- MOST _communication_ takes place using an incredibly
tiny subset of those million words or so, say one or two thousand.

I'm sometimes taken to task for preferring to use a slighly larger
subset, still only a few thousand words -- this, I'm told, gives my
writing (and speaking) an "erudite, recondite" flavor, which a few
readers appreciate but many find unpleasant or hard to follow.  The
whole of Dante's "Divina Commedia", a highly erudite, recondite, and
vast work, uses fewer than 20,000 different words.

So what are the other 900,000+ *FOR*?  WHY are they there?

Because the role of human language, and words in it, is NOT just
communication -- it's much, MUCH more... and sometimes less.  That's
human natural history for you.  Most of our intellect is evolved,
like the peacock's tail and well beyond "survival" needs, for the
purpose of sparring with each other -- and language's like that, too.

Words' purpose is at least as often to prevaricate, obfuscate,
rationalize, demonstrate, and pretend, as it is to communicate
stricto sensu.  A person's use of language often tells me more
about that person's social status, culture, geographical background,
and so on, as it tells me about the theme of discourse.

The delicate ambiguities, underlying connotations, subtext, and
innuendo -- delightful, for primates who spent so much evolutionary
effort over the last few hundred thousands years in that arena.

And most definitely what we do *NOT* want in formal languages,
meant to address conceptual or practical problems in well defined
realms.  Our machines will be able to "understand" natural
language when they reach and surpass us in overall intelligence,
no earlier -- at that time, they'll match or surpass our own
ability to lie, prevaricate, make excuses for not doing what
they don't feel like doing (oh yes they WILL have to "feel", in
order to reach that stage:-), show off, and other endearingly
human qualities.

I'll take Python instead, thank you very much.

> What is it about us that hates verbosity in programming? Why 'len' over
> 'length'? Do the extra three letters really feel that hard to type?

You sound exactly like a French friend of mine who has children of
around 20.  "Why 'apa' rather than 'apartement' [flat]?!", he moans
uncomprehendingly about that generation's prevalent abbreviations.
Must be the SMS they spend all day exchanging on their cellphones,
I guess (let's conveniently ignore that _he_ was saying 'ma' for
'maman', long before cellphones started spreading...:-).


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