mindtangle

The State of Scripting Languages

Larry Wall offers some sage words on the nature of scripting languages, including what they are, the history of various languages, and how they’re likely to evolve in the future. Here’s a nugget:

The Present

When I look at the present situation, what I see is the various scripting communities behaving a lot like neighboring tribes in the jungle, sometimes trading, sometimes warring, but by and large just keeping out of each other’s way in complacent isolation.

I tend to take an anthropological view of these things. Many of you here are Perl programmers, but some of you come from other programming tribes. And depending on your tribal history, you might think of a string as a pointer to a byte array if you’re a C programmer, or as a list if you’re a functional programmer, or as an object if you’re a Java programmer. I view a string as a Text, with a capital T.

Text

I read that word from a postmodern perspective. Of course, the term Postmodern is itself context-sensitive. Some folks think Postmodernism means little more than the Empowerment of the Vulgar. Some folks think the same about Perl.

But I take Postmodernism to mean that a Text, whether spoken or written, is an act of communication requiring intelligence on both ends, and sometimes in the middle too. I don’t want to talk to a stupid computer language. I want my computer language to understand the strings I type.

Perl is a postmodern language, and a lot of conservative folks feel like Postmodernism is a rather liberal notion. So it’s rather ironic that my views on Postmodernism were primarily informed by studying linguistics and translation as taught by missionaries, specifically, the Wycliffe Bible Translators. One of the things they hammered home is that there’s really no such thing as a primitive human language. By which they mean essentially that all human languages are Turing complete.

When you go out to so-called primitive tribes and analyze their languages, you find that structurally they’re just about as complex as any other human language. Basically, you can say pretty much anything in any human language, if you work at it long enough. Human languages are Turing complete, as it were.

Human languages therefore differ not so much in what you can say but in what you must say. In English, you are forced to differentiate singular from plural. In Japanese, you don’t have to distinguish singular from plural, but you do have to pick a specific level of politeness, taking into account not only your degree of respect for the person you’re talking to, but also your degree of respect for the person or thing you’re talking about.

So languages differ in what you’re forced to say. Obviously, if your language forces you to say something, you can’t be concise in that particular dimension using your language. Which brings us back to scripting.

How many ways are there for different scripting languages to be concise?

How many recipes for borscht are there in Russia?

Wall goes on to describe a dozen or so “dimensions” in which scripting languages can vary in their expressiveness/conciseness. I found this to be the most interesting part.

I came across this piece on the Daring Fireball blog.

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