Alan Kay on Basic English
Last updated at 7:22 am UTC on 23 March 2003
At the risk of starting a distracting thread, I will admit to thinking about this very idea at the predawn of Smalltalk. Esperanto was one of the candidates, but I didn't think that it's inflectional nature matched up well to the isolating (a special linguistic term for non-inflectional languages like Mandarin) characteristics of mathematical and programming languages.
In the sixties I was very enamored of Basic English (of Ogden and Richards) and thought it would make a terrific computer language, especially for rules, descriptions, and searching. Some of BE's influence is in Smalltalk: BE is a noun heavy language with "no" real verbs or verb inflections for tense. The equivalent of verbs are sythesized in BE from the nouns and by making various prepositional phrases, all of this without violating standard English conventions: Ogden was a philologist and very clever. BE is highly polymorphic in several ways, including metaphorically. About 25,000 major books have been translated into BE. Generally speaking, BE's style can be quite astonishingly clean and graceful. There is still a lot to be said for BE's approach.
Another language that I followed for quite some time was Loglan, of James Cook Brown at the U of Florida. Its structure was that of predicate calculus sugared via a grammar like Mandarin Chinese, a morphology derived from the main languages of the world, and a phonology organized to produce very pleasing sentences; that would also be very easy to recognize via computer.
One of the counter arguments to this approach is that one good thing about a language like Smalltalk, is that it doesn't lead one astray via false analogies to natural languages; like, say, hypertalk does. Along these lines, what we should do is to simply "humanize" how Smalltalk deals with world concepts. As a tiny example, it would help in many ways if Smalltalk had "units": meters, ergs, liters, etc. There are many other aspects of human languages that could be installed in a redisigned language, and that might be as easy a way to make it universal as to adapt an 80 year old pastiche. I think we know more about language than Ogden and Zamenhof did, partly thanks to them, and could likely come up with something better.