A New Programming Language Is Created Every Week

A catalog maintained by Bill Kinnersley of the University of Kansas lists about 2,500 programming languages. Another survey, compiled by Diarmuid Piggott, puts the total even higher, at more than 8,500. And keep in mind that whereas human languages have had millennia to evolve and diversify, all the computer languages have sprung up in just 50 years. Even by the more-conservative standards of the Kinnersley count, that means we’ve been inventing one language a week, on average, ever since Fortran.

For ethnologists, linguistic diversity is a cultural resource to be nurtured and preserved, much like biodiversity. All human languages are valuable; the more the better. That attitude of detached reverence is harder to sustain when it comes to computer languages, which are products of design or engineering rather than evolution. The creators of a new programming language are not just adding variety for its own sake; they are trying to make something demonstrably better. But the very fact that the proliferation of languages goes on and on argues that we still haven’t gotten it right. We still don’t know the best notation—or even a good-enough notation—for expressing an algorithm or defining a data structure.

The Semicolon Wars (americanscientist.org)

Written on December 21, 2010