What if languages were free?

[ This is cross-posted from the Ocean of Awareness blog. ]

In 1980, George Copeland wrote an article titled "What if Mass Storage were Free?". Costs of mass storage were showing signs that they might fall dramatically. Copeland, as a thought exercise, took this trend to its extreme. Among other things, he predicted that deletion would become unnecessary, and in fact, undesirable.

Copeland's thought experiment has proved prophetic. For many purposes, mass storage is treated as if it were free. For example, you probably retrieved this blog post from a server provided to me at no charge, in the hope that I might write and upload something interesting.

Until now languages were high-cost efforts. Worse, language projects ran a high risk of disappointment, up to and including total failure. I believe those days are coming to an end.

Small languages, shaped to the problem domain

What if whenever you needed a new language, poof, it was there? You would be encouraged to tackle each problem domain with a new language dedicated to dealing with that domain. Since each language is no larger than its problem domain, learning a language would be essentially the same as learning the problem domain. The incremental effort required to learn the language itself would head toward zero.

No more language bloat

Language bloat would end. Currently, the risk and cost of developing languages make it imperative to extend the ones we have. Free languages mean fewer reasons to add features to existing languages.

No more search for THE perfect language

No language is perfect for all tasks. But because the high cost of languages favors large, general-purpose languages, we are compelled to try for perfection anyway. Ironically, we are often making the language worse, and we know it.

A world full of perfect languages

An older sense of the word perfect is "having all the properties or qualities requisite to its nature and kind". The C language might be called perfect in this sense. C lacks a lot of features that are highly desirable in most contexts. But for programming that is portable and close to the hardware, the C language is perfect or close to it. If languages were free, this is the kind of perfection that we would seek -- languages precisely fitted to their domain, so that adding to them cannot make them better.

Moving toward free

My own effort to contribute to a fall in the cost of languages is the Marpa parser. Marpa produces a reasonable parser for every language you can write in BNF. If the BNF is for a grammar in any of the classes currently in practical use, the parser Marpa produces will have linear speed. In one case, using Marpa, a targeted language was written in less than an hour. More typically, Marpa reduce the time needed to create new languages to hours.

As one example of going from "impossible" to "easy", I have written a drop-in solution to an example in the Gang of Four book. The Gang of Four described a language and its interpretation, but they did not include a parser. Creating a parser to fit their example would have been impossibly hard when the Gang of Four wrote. Using Marpa, it is easy. The parser can be found in this earlier blog post.

Marpa's latest version is Marpa::R2, which is available on CPAN. Recently, it has gained immensely in "whipitupitude" with a new interface, which has tutorials here and here. Marpa has a web page, and of course it is the focus of my "Ocean of Awareness" blog.

Comments on this post can be sent to the Marpa's Google Group: marpa-parser@googlegroups.com

About Jeffrey Kegler

user-pic I blog about Marpa, my parsing algorithm, and other things of interest to techies.