Programming Languages Are Simply Not Powerful Enough

Posted on April 26, 2012

These days I’m reading Thinking Forth. A gem among programming classics now available for free under CC license. It is remarkable in the way it explains the thinking principles behind building elegant programs. The book is based on Forth programming language, which has very small amount of primitives and even for someone who never had experience with Forth before it is not blocker to grasping the essence.

It is known since the early ages of programming, most elegant programs are built as layers of “languages” or “dictionaries”. These are represented by abstractions in a program in order to facilitate expressing the ideas in a way that is more related to the domain. Although this looks very native and obvious, it is extremely hard to reach to the level where this becomes natural in practice. Aforementioned Thinking Forth dedicates parts to explaining this principle.

Over my programming experience I have noticed one undeniable fact. Application development starts becoming significantly harder in the moment when level of abstraction in the application gets insufficient. I called it locking application down to the level of abstraction.

Motivation for this post comes from a quote:
In fact, you shouldn’t write any serious application in Forth; as a language it’s simply not powerful enough. What you should do is write your own language in Forth (lexicons) to model your understanding of the problem, in which you can elegantly describe its solution

One simple example from everyday life: Imagine that you don’t have in your vocabulary notion of a sum. Therefore, if you would like to tell someone to do a sum of some things you would always have to express the process of summation in details instead of just telling and then you sum these numbers. If you would like then to express more complex concepts that are based on summation, you would not be able to because you will be locked down to the level of abstraction which is broken. Your language will not be powerful enough to express complex ideas.

As the quote says, which ever is your favorite programming language, it is just not powerful enough to express complex concepts. It has a ways to enable you to define primitives and means to combine them in order to build higher levels of abstraction, but it is our job to express the abstractions of the domain for the best economy of the expression.

For the further reading there are valuable resources going deeper in this topic like Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs which is probably one of the best resources on principles of reasoning about elegant program design.

One exceptionally good resource is the Guy Steel’s keynote from OOPSLA’98 conference about Growing a Language. It clearly shows how language encapsulates power of expression or lack of it and how it affects our ability to make beautiful and elegant programs. As well it shows how ubiquitous the concept of growing a languages is.

This article got its second life on Hacker News. Quite interesting discussion with lots of great inputs developed and is worth reading it as addition to the article: Article on HN