Why are most major programming languages only in English?

Programming languages provide people with the tools to address a variety of problems. Python, for example, is great for back end development and artificial intelligence. Javascript enables web developers to create dynamic and responsive web sites. R is used for statistical analysis. In spite of the great diversity in their purposes, syntax and supporting communities, these popular languages all share a common characteristic, their keywords are in American English.

This fact is a result of historical and social processes that should not be left unquestioned. English is not, after all, the most spoken natural language in the world, nor has it always been a global language. English speakers are not more creative or better at programming than their Chinese or German counterparts. However, the fact remains. So, why do nearly all major programming languages use English keywords?

An extremely brief inspection seems to point to English’s presence as a lingua franca, the United States’s significant role in the history of computer design, and the centralization of power into big tech and the United States.

English as a Lingua Franca

“lingua franca: any of various languages used as common or commercial tongues among peoples of diverse speech” — Merriam-Webster

English’s rise as the lingua franca in the mid-20th century is perhaps the most apparent reason for its presence in the most popular programming languages. Spoken in over 100 countries, it is one of the 5 official languages of the United Nations and is the de-facto language of business and politics. Before English, French was the global language of diplomacy from the 17th to the mid-20th century. Interestingly, French is still the official language of major sporting institutions, namely FIFA and the International Olympics Committee.

American economic and cultural influence has been key to the establishment of English as the lingua franca. Culturally, this is evident in the worldwide popularity of Hollywood films and American pop music. Of the top 20 grossing movies worldwide, 20 are American-made. Though some argue that its influence is declining, the economic power of the United States is also difficult to dispute. Though less than 5% of the world population, the U.S. generates and earns more than 20% of the world’s income.

Computer Design in English Language Countries

The above is not an explanation in of itself, however, and it is important to explore the history of computer design as well. The United States was at the forefront of computers and programming development. Some landmark moments include:

  • 1953: Grace Hopper develops the first programming language, COBOL.
  • 1954: IBM creates the FORTRAN programming language
  • 1964: Douglas Engelbard unveils the first prototype of a computer with a mouse and graphical user interface
  • 1976: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak start Apple Computers

The next 20 years saw the development of the first word processors, personal computers, HTML and the Google search engine, all in the United States. The influence of the United States in the advancement of computer tech is clear, and it logically follows that programming languages reflect that influence.

The Power of Big Tech

English’s prominence in programming languages is also maintained by the centralizing tendencies of the modern tech industry, a process that is mirrored across various business sectors. The United States and China house the top 20 largest companies in tech, including Apple, Amazon, and Alphabet. Of those 20, the top 7 account for 81% of the value of all 20. The power of these companies and their conglomeration in the United States helps ensure English’s continued influence in tech world.

China has an increasingly larger share of the industry, and how that affects the construction of future computer design and programming languages remains to be seen.

The risk of homogeneity

While a common language is key to communicating ideas across linguistic barriers, the complete dominance of any one language also risks marginalizing significant swaths of the population and thereby also homogenizing creative processes. Programming is a skill with a historically high barrier to entry and notorious lack of diversity. In the United States, this is especially true along racial lines.

Whether the dominance of English in programming languages strengthens or weakens this barrier to entry is unclear. While there have been endeavors to making multilingual versions of Javascript, for example, they don’t seem to be well-used or popular. There is also no evidence to support or refute whether it is significantly easier to learn programming languages that have native natural language keywords.

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