John Backus passed away a few short months ago, March 27, 2007. He was the leader of the team that created the first high level programming language, Fortran. In a day when we have classes of languages, domain specific languages, scripting languages, and more, that is something of great significance to me. In addition to this, the BNF form, used for describing computer languages, was created by him as well, borrowing ideas from Noam Chomsky’s works in liguistics.
The class of computer languages which grew directly from Fortran, can be called Von Neumann Languages, or procedural or imperitive languages. In his 1977 keynote, accepting the Turing award, he referred to this class of languages as "Word At a Time" languages, lamenting the excrutiating detail in which every operation must be described, offering little linguistic subtlety of meaning. His keynote basically classed these languages as purpose limited, architectural constrained by the nature of their foundation. The Tower of Babel of programming languages in the development world are an expression of that struggle against inherent architectural constraints, and the tremendous opportunities for development and evolution of new ways to communicate with the computer.
The gift that John Backus left us was immense: a symbolic language which helped to bridge the semantic gap between humankind and the computer. The impact of his work is felt every day, by every one who writes a single line of code.