Growing a Language

I’ve just read a wonderful paper by Guy L Steele, “Growing a Language“. He argues strongly that programming languages must be “small”, but able to grow. Such a language will have a relatively simple structure, syntactic rules, and a small core vocabulary. However it must also be able to “grow”, integrating new data types and functions, in the form of user code accessed in exactly the same way as core functions.

Steele’s argument is highlighted by the paper’s unique style – he uses a small but growing language himself. He writes using only words of one syllable, gradually adding other words he has defined in these terms.

The paper works at many levels. As well as the fascinating intellectual exercise in style, it makes a strong case for:

  • simple but extensible programming languages,
  • improving the extensibility of Java, rather than its core vocabulary,
  • an agile community process for developing languages, rather than up-front design of great monoliths,
  • the communication power of simple language and words.

Steele exhorts us to think about extensibility mechanisms – if we get these right then the core functionality can always grow. And by example, he encourages us to use simple, direct language and benefit from its discipline. On both accounts I agree wholeheartedly.

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