Language, Thought and Reality

June 2000

Benjamin Whorf's famous book Language, Thought and Reality explores the way that the words we use shape the way we think, and even the reality we perceive. Walk through a meadow with a botanist or a farmer, and she will not only be able to name the dozen different types of grasses that make up a typical mix, but she will see them. Most of us go through life without words for many of the phenomena that surround us, and as a result, our ability to perceive them, think about them, and ultimately manipulate them is greatly reduced. In many ways, the history of civilization is the history of language. At bottom, language is a technology that helps us to perceive and manipulate reality.

This may seem a rather far-fetched introduction to a catalog of books about Perl, yet it helps to explain Perl's enduring popularity. There are problems that Perl is uniquely suited to solving; in fact, you can argue that Perl helps us to realize the existence of those problems, and to understand a new range of possibilities in our computers.

One of Perl's unique aspects is that it straddles the world of text and the world of software. Many languages are optimized for working with binary data of various sorts, and text handling is seen as an add-on. Yet in the world of the Web (which with the advent of XML looks to become the dominant model for a host of new applications), the ability to work with both text (the way humans like to communicate), other programs, and binary data (the way computers like to communicate), has been the key to a whole new application development paradigm.

Larry Wall likes to point out that Perl sometimes appears oddly constructed to orthodox computer scientists. It just so happens, though, that its oddities match the real world in just the right way. What's more, Perl has the flexibility to allow its users to extend it, both through participation in its open source development process and through writing add-on modules and libraries. This allows people working with new problems to develop new vocabularies, even if at first those vocabularies seem like "slang" from the outside. Linguists know that colloquial usage is the most vibrant part of any language, because people create new words and use old ones in new ways when they are thinking new thoughts and facing new challenges.

Now is a great time to increase your Perl vocabulary! Who knows, in a couple of years, we may be doing a book on something you were the first to say in Perl.