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Growing a Language, by Guy Steele (1998) [video] (youtube.com)
166 points by mnmlsm 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 20 comments

Great talk, one of my inspirations.

The "nub" (slightly edited):

"A language design can no longer be thing. It must be a pattern, a pattern for growth".

"My point is that a good programmer does not just write programs. A good programmer builds a working vocabulary. A good programmer does language design, though not from scratch, but building on the frame of a base language"


Oh, the paper if you don't want to watch the whole thing:


> [...] A good programmer builds a working vocabulary. A good programmer does language design, [...]

You see this more and more in "test languages" like cucumber. These languages more explicitly allow programmers to specify domain items and behavior, much more so then general programming languages like Jav, C#, js, etc. I'm currently experimenting with a piece of software that actually does have a specific domain language defined using ANTLR. I'm totally unsure of this will make any sense, but at least it is fun to do. One benefit I can see already is that I now have fully typed & typechecked logging :). Another aspect I'm experimenting with is using it as a replacement for sais "test languages".

You can find my grammar here: https://github.com/generateui/jsettlers-web/blob/master/jset...

"nub" - I think you might mean "point" or "crux"?

Main Entry: bottom line

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: indispensable content

Synonyms: basis, conclusion, core, crux, determination, essence, fiber, final decision, fundamentals, income, key point, last word, loss, main idea, main point, main thing, meat and potatoes, name of the game, net, nitty-gritty, nuts and bolts, point

> "nub" - I think you might mean "point" or "crux"?

"This is the nub of what I want to say" is a direct quote from the paper/talk.

The language in the paper reminds me of Up Goer Five [0]

[0] https://xkcd.com/1133/

A classic that is relevant today as it was 20 years ago. Thank you for the repost, it's a good reminder to (re-)examine what I'm doing these days in a larger context.

"..plan for growth with help from users. This is a win for you because you have help. This is a win for the users because they get to have their say and get to bend the growth to their needs."

"Parts of the language must be designed to help the task of growth. A good set of types, ways for a user to define new types, to add new words and new rules to the language, to define and use all sorts of patterns — all these are needed."

20 years later. What does Guy Steele thing about how Java ended up? We still have no operator overloading, no value types. There are plans, sure, but Java grows very slowly. Good thing? Bad thing?

Does anyone know if there is a follow up on this?

Thank goodness there is no operator overloading. I maintain 15 year old java codebases and am very happy they did not add user defined operators...

Arithmetic expressions on BigInteger and BigDecimal currently look like an OOP parody. I cannot believe there are folks willing to defend this decision. Even Sun couldn't resist overloading '+'.

I always find this an odd reason to be against usable features. I have inherited codebases in extremely confined languages as have I inherited codebases in very permitting high-level languages Python, and never have I though "Thank good this language decided to restrict its reach in order to confine the programmer to a smaller subset which made it harder for him to mess up."

Often have I though "My good, if only the language had better supported what the programmer is trying to implement himself through horrible hacks, then I wouldn't be sitting here trying to wonder exactly what mistakes he made that casuses everything to crash inexplicably."

I guess the culture around a language matters significantly. For instance, there is quite a specific culture around the Rust community/language. The focus on the language ergonomics is also reflected in many packages. Same goes for the mutability/immutability aspect of code.

A second example of this culture is the go language. I read a few repo's, and the same style of programming is seemingly applied throughout.

For the Java case, I can actually see operator overloading going haywaire over many codebases. The same as overengineering is a typical trait associated with Java.

I think it's less relevant today, because we now have multiple languages running on the JVM - and I think that was always the most powerful feature of the Java program, the write once, run anywhere idea. Not so much the language itself, although at the time it was pretty good too.

IIRC Steele talks about languages which are extensible by users not just compiler writers. Although, JVM allows you to have multiple language implementation on top of JVM, it still doesn't make it easy to extend a language the way lets say Lisp can. He speaks of having primitives in language which allow programmers to extend language (macros?).

If macros and LISP on the JVM are what you're looking for, that already exists: https://clojure.org/

Yes I know. I'm not talking about JVM specifically, but extensible languages. I'm a Racket programmer myself, which has much more powerful macro system. I didn't make my point clear. What I was trying to say was these languages are still not mainstream and understood by wider audience, and the argument Steele makes is still relevant. All this lisp and macro goodness existed back then as well.

There is, Ada continues to evolve and grow - it can even directly interface with Java...

This is one of my favorites. They played it for us when I was at https://www.recurse.com. I half appreciated it then, but it's gotten better with repeat viewings.

Thank you for this! I'd forgot the name of the talk, and I spent some days looking for it, with no success...

this was the first video handed to me when I started in Java

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