VSJ – May 2008 – Sounding Board

Mike James has set Robin Jones thinking about programming languages…

In February’s VSJ editorial, Mike James asked  – I paraphrase –, “If we (programmers) really know what we’re doing, why have we got so many ways of doing it?”

This question rang a particular bell with me because I’d just been asked, as IAP Education Officer, to write an article on working in IT for a Careers magazine. One of the questions that comes up regularly when I’m approached by teenagers researching that career path is, “What language should I learn?” (They never say “languages”.) They’re not often satisfied with, “It doesn’t matter much. It’ll probably be obsolete by the time you graduate.”

So, wanting to give readers an idea of the rate of change in the business, I totted up the number of languages I had learnt in the thirty years during which I was writing code in anger. I was quite startled when I reached twenty three. Admittedly that included assemblers, but I didn’t count dialects.

Maybe there was some excuse for this in my case. For a start, my career ran parallel to the development of what we might loosely call high level languages, so it wasn’t surprising that I was involved in some false starts. How many of you have heard of Telcomp II or WATFIV, for example?

But why are we still spawning new languages with breathtaking regularity? I could suggest several reasons but perhaps a more fruitful avenue is to consider the historical development of another set of symbolic languages – mathematics. It’s had its own ‘language wars’, such as that between Newton and Leibniz over the notation for calculus, only resolved by the sieve of time. But it’s progressed largely by evolution rather than revolution. The development of co-ordinate geometry didn’t make Euclid obsolete, for instance. It merely added to the mathematician’s tool kit. That’s a judgement we can make from the luxury of a perspective of more than 2000 years, not the measly half-century or so we can apply to our own trade. Perhaps it is simply too soon to see what’s really going on. If so, we should be very careful not to throw out functional babies with unproductive bathwater.

[Something you’d like to get off your chest? Email me (Robin Jones) at eo@iap.org.uk.]

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