Coding & Language

Gabriella Coleman’s Coding Freedom is a layered discussion on Free and Open Source Software – My favorite part, is that it connects software to language production. Coding has parallels to language production beyond free speech and free software. Certainly, I’ve found value in the free software that has allowed me to complete my software projects (yes, to free beer), but what fascinates me is a deeper connection between code as free speech and language. Coleman intentionally referred to Roland Barthes (known for his role in reader response theory) to examine the “reality of collaboration” (p. 117) between the coder and those who use or review code. In Barthes’ theory creating meaning can be viewed in terms of a conversation between the reader and the text.

Another parallel to language production is given when Coleman examines the creativity and humor within lines of code. This emphasizes a series of patterns and connections driven by meaning and context. Isn’t this language? A fairly recent article in IT World expands on Coleman’s concept of language production. “Your Coding Style Can Give you Away” by Phil Johnson examines code as a fingerprint. As Coleman explains, code is valued for its capability and artistry (p. 121). According to Johnson, the higher level the coder the more well-defined the fingerprint. Like all accomplished writers, coders have a recognizable style. We may even be able to “read” the next Ernest Hemingway (short, terse lines of code) or Cormac McCarthy (long eloquent lines of code) of FOSS.

To further connect code to language, I draw upon a resource that I used previously in a graduate linguistics course: Max Planck’s Institute of Psycholinguistics. The Institute examines a connection between “natural and programming languages.”   Ultimately, there are similarities between syntax and semantics even though natural language is an open system and programming language is a closed system (I find it interesting that the word parsing is used equally by linguists and computer scientists to analyze each system of language). What this means is that programming language is not “computer speak” as some suppose, but an altered form of closed commands based on our language. For this reason, code is speech. I understand that Coleman’s assessment of code as speech is based on a discussion and application of principles in the first amendment. However, I feel that examining the connections between code and language only strengthens the position of sourcing code as a form of open communication. This impacts my casual and professional use of OS programs by helping me to understand that by using FOSS, I become a part of its community. I enter the conversation. To be an active participant, I need to create value. This is one reason that creating tutorials within this course has been valuable. It has caused us to do more than talk about OS, we are becoming part of it.

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