Programming, language

Programming languages represent two things: programming, and language.

Programming languages were previously designed very much with the former in mind. For Algol-style, imperative languages, design followed one of a few, mathematically-led approaches:

  • Denotational semantics: encourages a designer to identify a mathematical structure that correctly expresses transformations that programs in the desired language should represent, and design the language such that each operation realises a transformation in this structure.
  • Axiomatic semantics: encourages a designer to design operations that transform program state, and again to design the language so that it represents combinations of those operations.

Other semantics are available: for example if you operationalise the lambda calculus you end up with LISP, and if you operationalise the pi calculus you find occam-π. Indeed, when Backus complained about the imperative programming style in Can programming be liberated from the von Neumann style?: a functional style and its algebra of programs he wasn’t asking us to give up on a mathematical basis for programming languages.

Quite the reverse: he thought the denotational or axiomatic bases were too complex for programmers who weren’t also expert mathematicians to grasp, and that languages designed that way, with their word-at-a-time transformations of memory, led to “flabby” programs that don’t compose well. He called for finding a different mathematical basis for programming, using the composition of functions as a (relatively, much simpler) starting point but incorporating the history sensitivity required to permit stateful operations.

So much for programming. On the other hand, programming languages are also languages: constructions for communicating information between people, and between people and computers. Programming languages must be able to carry the information that people want to convey: and if they want to convey it to the computer, that information can’t reside in a comment.

Thus we get approaches to programming language design that ask people what they want to say, and how they want to say it. At one extreme, almost nihilist in its basis, is the Perl-style postmodernist philosophy: it’s not up to the language designer to constrain expression so the language gives you all the tools to say anything, however you want.

More common are varying degrees of participatory process, in which people who use the language collaborate on designing new features for the language. We could identify multiple forms of organisation, of which these are a few examples:

  • Jurocracy: rule of law. People submit requests to a central committee, who then decide what to accept and produce new versions of the language.
  • Tyrrany: rule of the one or the few. Whatever happens within the community, an individual or controlling group direct the language the way they want.
  • Megalofonocracy: rule of the loud voices. People submit requests to a notice board, and whichever ones get noticed, get implemented.

There are other structures within this region.

Both approaches have their merits, and address different needs that should both be reflected in the resultant programming languages. A language with no mathematical basis offers no confirmation that constructs are valid or correct, so may not represent programming. Programming with no agreed-upon vocabulary offers no confirmation that constructs are understood correctly by machine or human audiences, so may not represent language.

Unfortunately it may be the case that we previously went through a fashion for mostly-semantic programming language design, and are currently experiencing a fashion for mostly-linguistic programming language design.

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