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Arabic code language won't make waves: creator

Ramsey Nasser hopes to ‘trigger a dialogue around the cultural baggage of computer science’

Arabic code language won't make waves: creator
The code base of Nasser’s language bears little resemblance to commercial languages such as C.

The New York-based computer scientist who developed the first programming language based on Arabic script source code told ITP.net he doubted it would make any difference to the software industry.

"Trying to bridge the cultural gap in computer science by translating languages and tools is a futile effort because it addresses the symptoms, not the cause of problem: the fact that coding is entirely dependent on a single human language," Ramsey Nasser told ITP.net in an email.

"As long as that is the case, these issues will persist in one way or another."

The syntax of قلب (pronounced "Alb", Arabic for "heart") is LISP-based and similar to a variant called Scheme. Because it uses parenthetical declarations, unlike the instruction lines typical in procedural languages such as C, its application in everyday software architectures is limited. For example, looping, which is a basic tenet of procedural, or algorithmic, programming, is achieved in قلب through recursion (a technique where a function calls itself over and over until some condition stops it), which is notoriously memory-hungry.

Nasser said previous attempts to mimic a C-style structure with Arabic text had failed and looked "awkward".

"The feedback I received on the LISP syntax was that it ‘looked right' in Arabic," he said.

Nasser is a fellow at the Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in New York City, a non-profit venture that aims to fuse technology with the aesthetic. Nasser's past projects, described by Eyebeam's website as "looking at code as a vehicle for thought", include a language called Zajal, which is designed to "reduce the friction between an artist's creative vision and functioning software".

"The language is not intended for commercial use. قلب is a conceptual art piece exploring the difficulty of using any language other than English for practical software development. It is primarily meant to draw attention to a serious problem in modern coding. Other Arabic languages have been written with the intention of commercial use and failed because, the truth of the matter is that, beyond the language you code in, the entire culture of computer science has become an English one. The languages that are used, the interfaces and APIs that are in place, the documentation, discussion, and education are English all the way down. This is a serious problem, and it is not being talked about at all."

Any changes to the status quo are likely to be gradual if they occur at all, as the requirements of their adoption are impractical.

"To create a completely Arabic coding experience, you would have to recreate the last 60 years of software engineering from scratch in Arabic," said Nasser.

"This is not only impossible, but not even a sustainable solution. All software tools will continue to be developed in English, and there will have to be a constant effort in place to translate everything as it comes out. And that would cover only a single language! What about Chinese? Hindi? Japanese?"

Nasser said he created قلب as a way of highlighting these issues. "I certainly don't pretend to know what the answers are," he said. He is currently writing his own Web-based editor for the language.

When asked what his own personal aspirations were for قلب, he replied: "I have a few.

"Primarily, I want قلب to trigger a dialogue around the cultural baggage of computer science. This is already happening on forums around the Internet and in interviews I've held. If we're going to try and make coding more accessible, we have to start talking about the linguistic assumptions that modern programming brings with it."

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