On Lisp and Latin
17 May 2020
For those who don’t program, an equivalent to learning Lisp could be learning Latin. This is especially true if you already know a Romance language like French or Spanish.
You’ll find yourself thinking “I didn’t know a language could be structured like this”. That is, when you’re not cursing to yourself, rueing the day you decided to learn a dead language.
Lisp isn’t dead, but it’s rarely used outside of academic settings. If you work as a programmer, you’ll write “real-world” code in Python or Java or C++ rather than Lisp.
Technically, Latin isn’t dead either. It’s the official language of the Vatican City. You can take Latin classes in many schools and universities. However, you’ll never need to know Latin in the “real world”.
Latin shakes your assumptions of how language works. For example, Latin has no articles. There’s no “the” or “a”. How are things referenced, then? In Latin, you change the ending of a word to reflect its function in a sentence. If it’s the subject, it has one ending. If it’s the direct object, it has another. If it’s the indirect object, another. And so on.
The words “the” and “a” are such a fundamental part of English that it’s hard to imagine a way to make yourself understood without them. But, alas, you can.
Even if you never use Latin in everyday life, learning it helps you understand the languages you do use better. You’ll understand the meanings of the words you use more deeply. You’ll see the grammatical trade-offs languages make in a way you didn’t before.