You don’t have to read too far into Guy Steele’s “Growing a Language” to figure out what he’s up to. In this 1998 talk on the nature of programming-language design, Steele writes under a set of constraints: he may use any word of one syllable, but if he wishes to use longer words, he must define them first — using only words of one syllable.
Steele aimed to illustrate how awkward and confining it can be to try to express yourself when you don’t have access to an extensive vocabulary: “I wanted to show you want it is like to use a language that is much too small.” (By this point in the talk, he has already defined “language.”) His larger purpose is to advocate a philosophy of programming-language development that aims for neither a small nor a large language, but rather for one that is “designed to grow.”
Such growth is to be propelled not by a closed cadre of gurus but by the language’s users, who have been given an appropriate set of tools to extend the language. The shape of the language is such that these user-generated additions do not look or behave any differently from the “original” elements of the language provided by its initial creators. Nearly a decade later, this argument — which parallels similar ideas that have become popular in the open-source software community as well as in the “user-generated” enthusiasms of Web 2.0 — sounds neither arcane nor controversial.
Steele is a storied figure in the programming-language world: a Lisp luminary, co-creator of the Scheme language, and a key figure in the development of Java at Sun, where he is now working on a new programming language called Fortress (he talks about it in this interview). So he has a long perspective on the rise and fall of languages.
At the time of “Growing a Language,” he’d written the specification for Java, and wanted to see Java evolve in ways that would allow its users to extend it more easily. I don’t know enough about the subsequent history of Java to know whether Steele won that argument; Java has certainly achieved great success and wide adoption (though I’ve heard as many programmers curse it as praise it over the years).
But “Growing a Language” is worth reading regardless of the specific controversies that inspired it. With a playful spirit, the paper recursively embodies its themes and arguments. It’s a grand stunt that I, at least, found great fun to read.
Plainly, Steele started out intending to show just how painful the words-of-one-syllable limit is — and, by extension, how desperately programmers need the ability to expand the vocabularies of languages that feel impoverished (“a thought that seems like a primitive in our minds turns out not to be a primitive in a programming language, and in each new program we must define it once more”). Yet what’s fascinating about “Growing a Language” is that the limits Steele imposed on his expression make the paper far more accessible, precise and clear than most computer-science writing.
Watching a writer play inside a set of rules, the way a poet might explore a particularly strict form, is part of the pleasure. (Here’s one funny sentence: “I have to say the full phrase ‘Java programming language,’ for there is a guy who works where I do who deals with the laws of marks of trade, and he tolf me I have to say it that way.”) But the rules also force a kind of elegant simplicity on the prose. Here, for instance, is as good a definition of “meta” as you’ll find anywhere: “Meta means that you step back from your own place. What you used to do is now what you see. What you were is now what you act on.”
Obviously, the virtue of simple language is hardly literary news; near the end of his paper, Steele acknowledges the familiar Strunk-and-White admonition to use short words. He notes that, when writing under his self-imposed limit, “I have found that this mode of speech makes it hard to hedge…you seem to have no choice but to talk straight.” Here he has landed on Orwell’s insight into the dangers of fuzzy writing composed of big, general words: either the speaker has nothing to say and is wasting our time, or, worse, he is trying to hide an atrocity or cover up a crime.
We may know these principles, but it’s still delightful to see them embodied in a text. When Steele writes the phrase “numbers whose points float,” on the one hand, he’s just finding a deft way to avoid having to define a more common polysyllabic term; on the other, he’s also causing us to stop and think about what the phrase actually means.
One of the functions of art is to make the familiar strange so that we can see the world with fresh eyes. “Growing a Language” accomplishes just such a transformation, in its own methodically monosyllabic way.
[tags]code reads, guy steele, growing a language, programming languages, java[/tags]
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