Towards the creation of Sysadminspeak

Recently I got an idea to design Sysadminspeak — a controlled language for system administrators whose native tongues differ. This would be analogous to Airspeak (a controlled language for pilots), or Seaspeak, or Policespeak.

A controlled language is a subset of a natural language that specifies constraints on lexicon, grammar, and style to simplify communications between people of a certain profession.

For example, pilots don’t usually communicate in English. It would be too much effort for each pilot from each and every country to learn English. Besides, natural languages are ambiguous but pilots or ship captains need to understand each other exactly to avoid accidents.

Another issue with natural languages is they are too wordy while communication lines are often hampered by noise.

Thus, when one pilot didn’t hear what another pilot said, he doesn’t say in English: “I am having difficulty hearing what you are saying! Please repeat what you were trying to say.” Instead, he says a phrase in Airspeak: “Say again”. And when he wants to ask something, he doesn’t start with “I would like to know …”. In Airspeak, he is supposed to start with the word “Request”.

I thought it would be cool to design a similar language for sysadmins. For that I decided to use the biggest brainstorming power that I currently have — my students.

So, when they came to their exam on my course “Software Localisation” (which was a two-hour, closed books exam) they found that one of the four exam questions was: Design Sysadminspeak. What a cruel teacher I am!

A controlled language is defined by rules that specify what kind of words and sentences are allowed in the language and what are forbidden. The students had to design rules and give example phrases in Sysadminspeak.

In the beginning, several students asked me, what the responsibilities of a sysadmin are, which almost made me burst into tears. How else would you feel if fourth year IT undergraduates asked you what a sysadmin is supposed to do?

Anyway, many of them managed to answer this question. Below I write those rules from their answers that I found interesting. Some of them are clever, other are funny (or silly 🙂 but I put them here anyway to continue brainstorming, and to make Sysadminspeak sound less boring). I don’t write here the rules that are common for all controlled languages (like, one word — one meaning).

Students, don’t worry, I won’t disclose your names. For those who did a good job, if you notice that some of the phrases are taken from YOUR work, and if I ever finish designing Sysadminspeak and publish it, I will add you to the list of my co-authors.

If you have more suggestions, please comment.


One sentence must contain not more than one instruction or request.

One sentence must contain not more than one error or failure report.

Those words that are allowed must either belong to the Sysadminspeak vocabulary or be any English names of software or hardware products. (My comment: I would add names of network protocols, and other common networking terms because English names are used for them in most languages, at least colloquially: IT people around the world learn them anyway. I mean, “IP address” will be “IP address” even in Turkish or Persian. I am not sure about Chinese, though.)

Use only terminology that is industry standard.

An error or failure must be reported with the word “Error” or “Failure” in the beginning of the sentence.

The status of the system or a hardware item should be described starting with the word “Status”.

If you need more information about the system or a service, start with the word “Information”.

Don’t use ‘and’ and ‘or’ logical connectors.

Try to use polite sentences as much as possible. (My comment: yeah, there’s one computer language which even requires the programmer to type “please”).

To give a command, start your sentence with a verb.

Use only SI units of measurements.

Do not use “…” in messages (My comment: This is for female IT specialists. Girls … always … use … these … symbols … even … when they text on the phone …..! I still don’t really know what “…” means.)

Don’t use idioms. (My comment: Like, unused data that just sit in your databases collecting virtual dust.)

The word “mouse” should be used for the input device, not for the animal. (My comment: Which word would you suggest for the animal? For some strange reason, there aren’t many cats in Sri Lanka, and therefore rodents abound here. Another question: What should sysadmins say if they see a real living bug?)

The word “kernel” should be used to refer to the kernel in the operating system, not to the military rank.

No bad words for teasing others!

Only those words should be used that are easy to pronounce.

Example phrases:

Status: OK.

Failure: Main backup server is down.

Status: Printer out of paper.

Information: Hostname of

Status: All hosts are up.

Good morning.

I am going to have dinner. (My comment: This was the favourite phrase of the sysadmin in one of my previous jobs. Every time I told him about a problem and asked him to fix it he replied: “I’m going to grab a sandwich now, I’ll get back to you in a few minutes.” And he never got back to me. I had to fix everything myself. That’s how I learned hacking.)

Retry (My comment: maybe — Try again?)

Proxy server not available.

Sure want to shut down?

Delete (= Delete permanently)
Move to trash (= Delete but not permanently, keep in trash)

Send again.

Need help.

Use back door to exit. (My comment: I still wonder what it is about).

Immediate landing. (My comment: This student either studied Airspeak the whole night before the exam or designed a controlled language for a sysadmin of a spaceship.)

Enemy attack. (My comment: No matter how much they try to prove otherwise, now we know that sysadmins also play games at work).

Published in: on 06/04/2012 at 17:58  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. i can’t remember all i have written. but i found that you have selected two rules similar to mine 😀

    But in this year exam we all are really scared if we failed a single subject we have to stay one more year at university without being graduated 😦

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