Publish at May 03 2020 Updated March 04 2022

When language is modeled

Past, present and future modelling

"The production of ideas, representations, and consciousness is first directly and intimately interwoven with the material activity and material commerce of men: it is the language of real life."

So said Karl Marx (1818-1883), German politician and emblematic figure of 19th century communism, about modeling and its impact on languages.

Today, however, we will not be talking about philosophy, but rather about thinking around modeling languages. Really? Because languages can also be modeled? Well, yes! But what exactly do we mean by that? In which domains do they apply? What is their purpose? Past, present, future, let's find out how languages are modeled!

A modern concept?

We've all heard of international languages, or even slightly rarer languages, like Tibetan, or special languages, like whistled languages, but modeled language is a big first!

Far from being a scientist myself, Wikipedia once again comes to our rescue with this definition:

"A modeling language is an artificial language that can be used to express information or knowledge or systems in a structure that is defined by a consistent set of rules; these are used for interpreting the meaning of components in the structure. "

These modeling languages, strictly speaking are relatively recent, since they appeared at the same time as computer science, that is, in the middle of the twentieth century. They can be graphical (diagramming techniques with symbols associated with names) or textual (standardized keywords parameterized to be recognized by computers).

While computer science is the domain par excellence of modeling languages, they can also be encountered in other disciplines, such as information management, software engineering, systems engineering, but also business process.

The main modeling languages are called EXPRESS and EXPRESS-G, which are standards in data modeling of ISO application protocols (network communication standards), very popular with programmers in particular.

Then come SysML (Systems Modeling Language), an essential element in systems engineering; or UML (Unified Modeling Language), indispensable as to the visualization of a system's design.

Overall, what we need to remember about these modeling languages is that they are used to better interpret and understand the components of a structure, whether it is computer science, engineering or architecture.

... or an almost antediluvian concept?

Talking about these "new" modeling languages, in the age of computer science, is all well and good, but are they really that modern? After all, wasn't modeling already illustrated a very long time ago, in distant lands, at the very sources of the creation of writing? Yes, it was! Let's go back in time and find ourselves in Mesopotamia, in the 4th millennium, when the first written tablets were written.

Certainly, at the time, the objective was not to write to express speech or to communicate, but rather for an exclusively accounting purpose! Indeed, it was in Babylon that the first clay tablets were found, with pictograms (signs that represent objects) that simply symbolized the livestock (cows, fish, donkeys ...), resources (wheat ...) and equipment (vases ...) of the city!

Everything was recorded in such a way that it could be found; a real accounting book. At first, these drawings were modeled in curved forms and very explicit, but over time, for practical reasons (faster) and aesthetic (more readable), Mesopotamian scribes evolved these pictograms into cuneiform writing. In the first millennium, after so much stylization, in the form of nails and wedges, impossible to guess what the original model corresponded to!

Other than Mesopotamia, it is impossible not to speak of two other great civilizations that were also beginning to model, in writing, their daily life. This is the case of Egypt and the famous hieroglyphs, but also of China and what will become today the ideograms.

The same is true of Native American cave paintings or even pre-Columbian writings, which also play in the same court!

In either of these linguistic systems, it is a matter of representing by a very understandable symbol what one wants to express: an eye, a mountain, wheat, boats... The message goes straight through. No need for a rosetta stone to understand!

And tomorrow?

We have seen that this concept of modeling by more or less direct representation with a vocation of interpretation and analysis is not new and appears from the first glimmers of writing, in the heart of the great ancient civilizations.We live in a world full of modelled linguistic culture, starting with all these pictograms that we all know, whatever our culture, like the one of the toilets, the one representing a ban on smoking, the one of recycling (the green triangle), the one of the handicapped (with the wheelchair...).)... Whether it is on road signs, danger labels, textile care labels, on car dashboards, in public places... we are perpetually in contact with this linguistic modeling, which keeps evolving and developing, but what about the meaning?

Would an ancient Egyptian, used to reading his hieroglyphics, find his way around our computer screen where a battery (for the remaining battery), a small speaker (for sound), waves (for wifi) and that oh-so-weird sign called Bluetooth are modeled?!

Sources and illustrations 

- Modeling languages, Wikipedia,élisation  

- Pictogram, Wikipedia,

- ISO Model, 

- SysML,

- UML,

- Manual of Akkadian Epigraphy, 

- What is a pictograph, 

- Babylonian tablet

- computer coding

- modeled communication, 

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