My colleagues Adeline Koh of Richard Stockton College, Amit Ray of Rochester Institute of Technology, and I were thrilled by the invitation to host a week of the Critical Code Studies Working Group 2014 in March. We chose to focus on what a postcolonial critical code studies might look like. Thanks to Mark Marino, Jeremy Douglass, and Viola Lasmana for helping us get started!
Coding in Global Englishes
by Roopika Risam, Adeline Koh, and Amit Ray
Our team would like to note Roopika Risam’s important role in composing the bulk of the post and in facilitating this line of inquiry (see MLA14 Decolonizing DH). Thanks go out to Jeremy Douglass for his insightful comments on our selected code snippet, and for his and Mark Marino’s continued enthusiasm and encouragement.
The term “global Englishes” is an important umbrella rubric within postcolonial studies and linguistics. While it broadly means the linguistic variations of English that arose with the British Empire, the term has also been fruitfully used to examine the intersections of language, knowledge-production, power, and representation.
Among postcolonial approaches to these global Englishes, Edgar Schneider has identified five stages to linguistic variation in the dissemination of English as the language of colonization in his book, Postcolonial English. In the foundation phase, English is introduced through contact between English speakers of the empire and an indigenous language, while competing English dialects merge into a single one. During exonormative stabilization, English becomes more prominent, in response to consolidation of British colonial power. The English dialect of the first phase becomes the preferred language, and speakers of indigenous languages begin adopting English because of its cultural capital. During the third phase of nativisation, speakers of the indigenous language demonstrate increasing command of English as a second (or third, or fourth) language, but a hybrid form of English based on linguistic contact. During endonormative stabilization, embrace of local forms of English continues, often in relation to independence movements. Further, in the differentiation phase, the English dialect demonstrates greater linguistic variation, tied to postcolonial identity.
While Schneider’s theory is one approach to language transmission and linguistic change, rooted in the history of British colonialism, his model links the political and the linguistic, suggesting the intimate link between language, culture, and history. Indeed, these links have been articulated elsewhere in postcolonial thought, such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s insights in Decolonising the Mind:
[A] specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality, but in its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific history. Written literature and orature are the main means by which a particular language transmits the images of the world contained in the culture it carries.
Tensions within and across languages are critical to our understanding of culture and history. Postcolonial studies has refined and extended the comparatist frameworks through which universalist tropes of the human can be unpacked. Language itself – the ones used, accepted, promoted – is fraught with dynamics of power, of assumptions about structures of thought, logic, rationality and value.
Early postcolonial scholarship responded to these questions of language by identifying strategies that resist the hegemony of English as the language of power. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin begin to address these in The Empire Writes Back, articulating a process through which writers disrupt the dominance of colonial English through forms of lexical resistance. Such writers, they suggest, take up the act of abrogation, refusing the dominant aesthetics and categories of imperial cultures, using English words in non-normative ways, and rejecting fixed ideas of meaning. Along with abrogation often appears appropriation, in which English is used in subversive ways for expression. These are just some of the ways that English has been pushed and pulled across the planet, by humans and, increasingly, their machines.
Issues of power, language, and expression are ones we may not necessarily associate with code. However, Critical Code Studies has undertaken and reasserted precisely these types of questions in relationship to software. In furthering these lines of inquiry, it’s worth considering the role of English and its presumptions of power, logic, and rationality in programming languages.
In 2013, Ramsey Nasser, a computer scientist and fellow at Eyebeam developed a programming language which allowed one to code “entirely in Arabic.”
قلب is a programming language coded in Arabic, Scheme-like in structure. The language itself appears to be an experiment in coding language: “an exploration of the impact of human culture on computer science, the role of tradition in software engineering, and the connection between natural and computer languages.” Pronounced ‘alb’, it means “heart” in Arabic.
From the website:
“Hello world” looks like this (قول “مرحبا يا عالم!”)
Here is a snippet to consider:
(قول “قـلـب: لغة برمجة – مترجم ٠،١،٣”)
(قول “رمــــــزي نـــــاصـــــر ٢٠١٢”)
(قول “<a class=’execute’ href=’#أمثلة’>أمثلة</a> – <a class=’execute’ href=’#النجدة’>الــنجــدة</a> – <a class=’execute’ href=’#ما-هذا؟’>مـا هـذا؟</a>”)
(حدد أمثلة (لامدا () (
(قول “سـهـل: <a class=’load’ href=’#amthila/mrhba’>مرحبا يا عالم</a>”)
(قول “متوسط: <a class=’load’ href=’#amthila/fybunatshi’>عدد فيبوناتشي</a>”)
(قول “متقدم: <a class=’load’ href=’#amthila/konway’>لعبة الحياة لكونواي</a>”)
(حدد النجدة (لامدا () (قول “هذا قلب!”)))
(حدد ما-هذا؟ (لامدا ()
(قول “قلب هـي لغة برمجة هدفها إستكشاف”)
(قول “العلاقة بـيـن الـثقـافة البشـرية”)
(قول “والعلوم الحاســوبية، خصوصاً علاقة”)
(قول “الأبجدية الـلاتينية بلغات البرمجة”)
(قول “المختلفة. للمزيد مــن المعلومات”)
(قول “زوروا الموقـع <a target=’_blank’ href=’http://قلب-لغة-برمجة.com’>قلب-لغة-برمجة.com</a>”)
(قول “تم تصميم وتنفيذ قلب بدعم <a target=’_blank’ href=’http://eyebeam.org’>المركز</a>”)
(قول “<a target=’_blank’ href=’http://eyebeam.org’>الـفـنـي التكنولوجي ‘ايـبــيـم'</a>”)
(قول “في نيو يورك، حين كـان رمزي ناصر”)
(قول “فــنــان مــقــيــم سـنـة ٢٠١٢.”)
We invite you to join us in exploring the programming language, considering the following questions:
1. In what ways is قلب an Arabic programming language and how is it a global English language?
2. What is the relationship between the languages of code and linguistically tethered coding practices?
3. What is the hegemonic role of English, and the somewhat counterhegemonic role of “Globish” in the digital humanities, and how does قلب add to the debate?
4. Jeremy Douglass has observed that “Arabic is localized in the code and, further, is sometimes deployed using a logic of substitution in the context of global English programming.” By use of these two strategies (localization of non-English languages and substitutions using Globish), does this indicate that قلب is a successful counterhegemonic programming language?