When Technology Became Language: The Origins of the Linguistic Conception of Computer Programming, 1950–1960


Language is one of the central metaphors around which the discipline of computer science has been built. The language metaphor entered modern computing as part of a cybernetic discourse, but during the second half of the 1950s acquired a more abstract meaning, closely related to the formal languages of logic and linguistics. The article argues that this transformation was related to the appearance of the commercial computer in the mid-1950s. Managers of computing installations and specialists on computer programming in academic computer centers, confronted with an increasing variety of machines, called for the creation of “common” or “universal languages” to enable the migration of computer code from machine to machine. Finally, the article shows how the idea of a universal language was a decisive step in the emergence of programming languages, in the recognition of computer programming as a proper field of knowledge, and eventually in the way we think of the computer.