programming languages

For those who think the world begins and end with C++, or with Java, here is a very incomplete list of programming languages: just the ones I've heard of, or been told about (not including assembly languages, or special purpose 'little languages' like yacc or nroff).

19. A language that doesn't affect the way you think about programming, is not worth knowing.

-- Alan J. Perlis. Epigrams onProgramming.
SIGPLAN Notices 17 (9):7-13, September 1982

Ada -- after Ada, Countess Lovelace, a friend of Charles Babbage, and claimed by some to be the first computer programmer.

Ada the language was commissioned by the US Department of Defense in the 1980s as the language to be used for all its software. Descended from Pascal, with support for structuring via the package.

The PL/Iof the 1980s.

-- unknown

-- an Ada code fragment

package Stack is
  procedure Pop return INTEGER;
  procedure Push(x:INTEGER);
  procedure IsEmpty return BOOLEAN;
end Stack;
The mistakes which have been made in the last twenty years [of designing large overly-complex languages like Ada] are being repeated today on an even grander scale.
Gadgets and glitter prevail over fundamental concerns of safety and economy.

-- C. A. R. Hoare, "The Emperor's Old Clothes", CACM24(2), 1981

Algol -- "Algorithmic Language"

Algol-60. Algol-68W. Algol-68. A family of procedural languages.

The more I ponder the principles of language design, and the techniques that put them into practice, the more is my amazement at and admiration of ALGOL 60. Here is a language so far ahead of its time that it was not only an improvement on its predecessors but also on nearly all its successors.

-- C. A. R. Hoare, "Hints on Programming Language Design", 1974

I conclude that there are two ways of constructing a software design: One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiences.

-- C. A. R. Hoare, "The Emperor's Old Clothes", CACM 24 (2), 1981
(on the design of ALGOL 68 v. Ada)

APL -- "A Programming Language"

Designer: Ken Iverson, in the late 1950s/early 1960s.

There are three things a man must do
Before his life is done;
Write two lines in APL,
And make the buggers run.

-- Stan Kelly-Bootle, The Devil's DP Dictionary, 1981

Famous for its enormous character set, and for being able to write whole accounting packages or air traffic control systems with a few incomprehensible key strokes.

[APL example]

APL, in which you can write a program to simulate shuffling a deck of cards and then dealing them out to several players in four characters, none of which appear on a standard keyboard.

-- David Given

Michael Gertelman has coded Conway's Game of Life in one line of APL:

[Game of Life example]

Dyalog has done even better (the web page includes a link to a YouTube video explaining how it works):

[Game of Life example]

APL is a mistake, carried through to perfection. It is the language of the future for the programming techniques of the past: it creates a new generation of coding bums.

-- Edsger W. Dijkstra, How do we tell truths that might hurt? EWD498, 1975

awk -- after the initials of its inventors: Aho, Weinberger, Kernighan

An interpreted language with pattern matching, associative arrays, no declarations, implicit type casting, and C-like syntax. Wonderful for quickly hacking small special-purpose Unix filters; a nightmare when grown into large programs

# an awk code fragment

BEGIN { FS = "\t" }
    { total[$4] += $3 }
END   { for (name in total)
         print name, total[name]

B -- a revised version of BCPL

Babbage -- after Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first (mechanical) computer
On two occasions I have been asked [by members of Parliament], 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

-- Charles Babbage, 1792-1871

BASIC -- "Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code"

An interpreted procedural language, originally invented in the 1960s for teaching, which has spread out of control.

It is practically impossible to teach good programming style to students that have had prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration.

-- Edsger W. Dijkstra, How do we tell truths that might hurt? EWD498, 1975

 80  INPUT N%
90 IF (N% > M%) THEN 80
100 FOR I% + 1 TO N%
110 X(I%) = RND
120 NEXT I%
130 GOSUB 6000
BASIC is to computer languages what Roman numerals are to arithmetic

-- unknown
[that is, great for simple addition, a nightmare for more sophisticated long division]

BBC BASIC -- designed for Acorn's BBC micro -- added control structures and procedures, and is a greatly improved language, but is still suitable only for small programs.

BCPL -- "Basic CPL", a modified version of CPL

Designer: Martin Richards.

// a BCPL code fragment

    LET TEMP = !X
    !X := !Y
    !Y := TEMP


C -- a revised version of B

Designer: Dennis Ritchie, Bell Labs in the early 1970s. A procedural language originally designed as a system programming language for the PDP, now out of control.

A language that combines all the elegance and power of assembly language with all the readability and maintainability of assembly language.

-- New Hacker's Dictionary

Variants: K&R C (Kernighan and Richie C). Ansi-C.

... one of the main causes of the fall of the Roman Empire was that, lacking zero, they had no way to indicate successful termination of their C programs.

-- Robert Firth

/* swap tabs for spaces */

for( i=0; (c=getchar())!=EOF && c != '\n'; i++ )
    s[i] = c!='\t' ? c : ' ';

The above is everyday C code. (And some people who quite happily write this sort of stuff all day complain that Z is difficult "because of all those strange symbols"!) Obfuscated C , on the other hand, looks more like:

 * by Jack Applin and Robert Heckendorn, 1985
main(v,c)char**c;{for(v[c++]="Hello, world!\n)";

Eric Raymond, ed. The New Hacker's Dictionary

The last good thing written in C was Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 9

-- Erwin Dieterich

C++ -- C incremented

Designer: Bjarne Stroustrup. C with object oriented extensions; even more out of control than C

C++ : where friends have access to your private members

-- Gavin Russell Baker

// a C++ code fragment

void f() {
    olist ll;
    name nn;
    name* pn = (name*)ll.get();
When your hammer is C++, everything begins to look like a thumb.

-- Steve Haflich, comp.lang.lisp, December 1994

> C++ has its place in the history of programming languages.
Just as Caligula has his place in the history of the Roman Empire?

-- Robert Firth (firth @ 94/03/18
as quoted by Dirk Craeynest at

Actually I made up the term "object-oriented", and I can tell you I did not have C++ in mind.

-- Alan Kay
The Computer Revolution hasn't happend yet : Keynote, OOPSLA, 1997

C++: "an octopus made by nailing extra legs onto a dog"

-- Steve Taylor, 1998

There are only two things wrong with C++: The initial concept and the implementation.

-- Bertrand Meyer

Chill -- CCITT High Level Language

(where CCITT = Comité Consultatif International Télégraphique et Téléphonique)


A lazy, purely functional language, with "almost-as-good-as-C" efficiency.

/* sieve of Eratosthenes */

primes :: [Int]
primes = sieve [2..]

sieve :: [Int] -> [Int]
sieve [prime:rest] =
    [prime:  sieve [i \\ i <- rest | i mod prime <> 0]]

CLU -- Clusters

A modular procedural language, with a rich set of types and particular support for user-defined abstract data types, called clusters.

COBOL -- " Common Business Oriented Language"

Designer: Grace Murray Hopper. A verbose procedural language designed for business applications.

It aimed at readability but unfortunately achieved only prolixity

-- C. A. R. Hoare, "Hints on Programming Language Design", 1974

There is an amazing amount of COBOL "legacy code" or "dusty decks", which made COBOL programmers sought-after and rich tackling the Year 2000 problem.

The use of COBOL cripples the mind; its teaching should, therefore, be regarded as a criminal offense.

-- Edsger W. Dijkstra, How do we tell truths that might hurt? EWD498, 1975

COMAL -- "Common Algorithmic Language"

Developers: Benedict Løfstedt and Børge R. Christensen, in 1973. An introductory programming language, used for teaching.

FOR r#:=1 TO rows#-1 DO
  PRINT AT y#+r#,x#: CHR$(179),
  PRINT CHR$(179)

-- program fragment taken from a COMAL supplier site

CORAL -- "Common Real-time Application Language"

CPL -- "Combined Programming Language"

Dynamo -- "Dynamic Models"

A descendant of Simple, used for the Limits to Growth models.


Designer: Bertrand Meyer. An elegant object oriented language, designed to support reuse, and including support for logical assertions.

-- an Eiffel code fragment

putIth(v: like first; i:INTEGER) is
indexLargeEnough: i >= 1; indexSmallEnough: i <= count; deferred
ensure not empty end


Forth -- "Fourth Generation Language"

Originally designed to control scientific instruments, in particular, telescopes.

If you learn the "Forth way" "correctly", you will grok in fullness procedural programming, without getting hung up in the irrelevant incidentals of syntax.

-- Mark Atwood, rec.arts.sf.written, Jan 2002

\ a Forth code fragment

    DOES>  SWAP 2*
           + @

FORTRAN -- "Formula Translation"

If a variable is not declared, it is implicitly given a type based on its first letter ( I to N being integers, the rest floats), which led to the famous story of losing a spacecraft.

Consistently separating words by spaces became a general custom about the tenth century A.D., and lasted until about 1957, when FORTRAN abandoned the practice.

-- Sun FORTRAN Reference Manual

C  a FORTRAN IV code fragment

       DO 70 I = 1,3
       N = KEY(1,I)
       DO 50 J = 1,N
       IF (KARD(J) .NE. KEY(J+1,I)) GOTO 70
       GOTO 200
200    END
The primary purpose of the DATA statement is to give names to constants; instead of referring to PI as 3.141592653589793 at every appearance, the variable PI can be given that value with a DATA statement and used instead of the longer form of the constant. This also simplifies modifying the program, should the value of PI change.

-- FORTRAN manual for Xerox computers
[Some net-copies of this quote have the last digit as a 7. But pi=3.14159 26535 89793 23846 ... Is it a transcription error, or an error in the original manual? Is the whole quotation just a UL, or is it real?]

Variants: Fortran-II. Fortran-IV, roughly equal to Fortran-66. Fortran-77. Fortran-90 (previously Fortran-8X). Watfor = Waterloo Fortran. Ratfor = Rational Fortran (a preprocessor to add control structures to Fortran-66)



Designer: Ian Page. A language hiding an occam-like semantics underneath a C-like syntax, designed for compiling down to hardware, especially FPGAs.

/* an occam code fragment */

prialt {
    case louder ? any :
        volume = volume + 1 ;
        break ;
    case softer ? any :
        volume = volume - 1 ;
        break ;
amplifier ! volume ;

Haskell -- after Haskell Curry, a logician

A functional language.


Designers: Ralph Griswold, Dave Hanson, Tim Korb. A string processing language, a descendent of Snobol, with structuring.

# an Icon code fragment

while line := read() do
   if line := line[upto(wchar,line):0]
   then return line[1:many(wchar,line)]

Java -- slang for coffee, the programmer's staple diet

Developers: James Gosling, Sun Microsystems, 1990's

Syntax like C++ "with all the nasty bits taken out". Compiles down to bytecode for a virtual machine, greatly increasing portability (if not performance).

/* Hello, World in Java */

public class Example
    public static void main(String[] args) {
        System.out.println("Hello, World!");

JavaScript -- not related to Java

Developer: Brendan Eich, Netscape, 1990's.

A dynamic language mostly used in web browsers.

/* Hello, World in JavaScript */

console.log("Hello, World!");

Lisp -- "List Processing language"

(or... Lots of Irritating Superfluous Parentheses)

Designer: John McCarthy, MIT, late 1950s. A functional language, used mainly for AI applications.

55. A LISP programmer knows the value of everything, but the cost of nothing.

-- Alan J. Perlis. Epigrams on Programming.
SIGPLAN Notices 17 (9):7-13, September 1982

;;; a Lisp code fragment

    (COND ((NULL S) NIL)
        ((EQUAL ITEM (CAR S)) S)
        (T (MEMBER ITEM (CDR S)))))
If you learn Lisp correctly, you can grok all programming styles with it: procedural, OO, predicate, functional, pure or full of side-effects. Recursion will be your friend, function references your allies, you will truly know what a closure is, and that an argument stack is actually a performance hack. You will see that the most elegant way to solve a problem is to create a custom language, solve the generic problem, and have your specific one fall out as a special case. You will learn to truly separate intent from the bare metal, and you will finally understand the two deepest secrets, which are really the same secret, which we tell all, but so few understand, that code and data are the same thing, but organize your data and your code will follow.

-- Mark Atwood, rec.arts.sf.written, Jan 2002

Variants include: Scheme

Logo -- from the Greek logos, meaning 'word' or 'thought'

Designer: Seymour Papert. Turtle graphics

; draw a square in Logo

    FORWARD 100
    RIGHT 90


Designers: Ed Ashcroft and Bill Wadge, 1974. Lucid programs are intrinsically parallel and provable.


A matrix-based language that lets you write maths how it wants to be written, with hardly a loop in sight.

Example: take a 2D matrix M, perform a singular value decomposition, normalise the resulting vector of singular values si to treat them as a vector of probabilities pi, and calculate the Shannon entropy H:

% a Matlab code fragment

S = svd(M);
P = S/sum(S);
H = - dot(P,log2(P));


A functional language.


A functional language with modules, developed at the University of Edinburgh.

(* an ML code fragment *)

fun reverse ([], ys) = ys
  | reverse (x::xs, ys) = reverse(xs, x::ys);

Modula -- "Modular Language"

Designer: Niklaus Wirth. A descendent of Pascal that added modules for large-scale structuring.

Variants: Modula, Modula-2, Modula-3.

(* a Modula code fragment *)

    EOL, Done, termCH;
  CONST EOL = 36C;
    termCH: CHAR;
  PROCEDURE OpenInput(defext: ARRAY OF CHAR);
  PROCEDURE OpenOutput(defext: ARRAY OF CHAR);
END InOut.

Oberon -- after Oberon, a moon of Uranus (which was being passed by Voyager at the time)

Designers: Niklaus Wirth and Jurg Gutknecht. An object oriented language descended from Pascal and Modula-2

(* an Oberon code fragment *)

IMPORT Display, Files, Fonts;
  replace = 0; insert = 1; delete = 2;
  Buffer = POINTER TO BufDesc;
  BufDesc = RECORD
    len: LONGINT
PROCEDURE Append(T:Text; B:Buffer);
END Texts.

Objective C -- an object oriented C

Designer: Brad Cox. A hybrid object oriented language containing all of C and some Smalltalk-like method syntax.

// an Objective-C code fragment

float total = emptyWeight;
int i, n = [self size];
for (i=0; i<n; i++) {
    id member = [self at:i];
    total = total+[member weight];
return total;

occam -- after William of Ockham, and his Razor

A parallel programming language, based on Hoare's formal language CSP (Communicating Sequential Processes), supported by the inmos Transputer.

-- an occam code fragment

    louder ? any
      volume := volume + 1
    softer ? any
      volume := volume - 1
  amplifier ! volume

OPS5 -- "Official Production System version 5"

A rule based AI programming language

Pascal -- after Blaise Pascal

Designer: Niklaus Wirth in the late 1970s. A descendent of Algol, originally invented for teaching, which has spread out of control. (Uses semicolons to separate statements, rather than to terminate them, a cause of much grief.)

{* a Pascal code fragment *}

while not eof(fn) do
    sum := sum + next;

Perl -- "Practical Extraction and Report Language"

(or... " Pathologically Eclectic Rubbish Lister", sometimes known as "the Swiss-Army chainsaw")

Python is executable pseudocode. Perl is executable line noise.

-- unknown

Designer: Larry Wall. A descendent of awk, and lots of other things.

Perl: The only language that looks the same before and after RSA encryption.

-- Keith Bostic

# a Perl code fragment

while ( <> ) {
    next unless s/^(.*?):\s*//;
    $HoL{$1} = [ split ];
Perl is the only language where you can bang your head on the keyboard and it compiles.

-- unknown

If you put a million monkeys at a million keyboards, one of them will eventually write a Java program. The rest of them will write Perl programs.

-- anon

Pilot -- "Programmed Inquiry Learning or Teaching"

PL/I -- "Programming Language 1"

Criticised for being large and complex.

/* a PL/I code fragment */

    LINECOUNT = 1;
PL/I —"the fatal disease"— belongs more to the problem set than to the solution set.

-- Edsger W. Dijkstra, How do we tell truths that might hurt? EWD498, 1975

Pop-2, Pop-11 -- "Pop-2 for the PDP -11"

An AI programming language, originally developed at the University of Edinburgh, then the University of Sussex

-- a Pop-11 code fragment

define doubleList(lst);
vars temp;
[] -> temp;
until lst = []
  do temp <> [^(hd(lst)*2)] -> temp;
  tl(lst) -> lst


Designed by Adobe. A stack-based procedural language, designed for driving laser printers and graphics.

% a PostScript code fragment

4 2 roll exch 4 -1 roll exch
sub 3 1 roll sub
exch atan rotate dup scale
-1 2 rlineto
7 -2 rlineto
-7-2 rlineto
closepath fill

Prolog -- "Programming in Logic"

A logic language, used mainly for AI applications.

% a Prolog code fragment

descendant(X,Y) :- offspring(X,Y).
descendant(X,Y) :- offspring(X,Z), descendant(Z,Y).
"How many Prolog programmers does it take to change a lightbulb?"

Python -- after Monty Python's Flying Circus

Developer: Guido van Rossum, 1990's

A general-purpose scripting language with libraries for almost everything.

Python is executable pseudocode. Perl is executable line noise.

-- unknown

# list of x's where x^3-x is not divisible by 3

[ x for x in range(-4,10) if (x * x * x - x)%3 != 0 ] 


Developer: Yukihiro "Matz" Matsumoto, 1990's

A general-purpose reflective language.

I always thought Smalltalk would beat Java, I just didn't know it would be called 'Ruby' when it did.

-- Kent Beck
Rick DeNatale -- Old Smalltalker’s perceptions of Ruby

# sum an array

myarray = [ 1, 2, 4, 8, 17, 3 ]
tot = 0
myarray.each { |i| tot += i }
print "total is #{tot}\n"


Simple -- "Simulation of Industrial Management Problems with Lots of Equations"

Simula-67 -- "Simulation language"

Designers: Ole-Johan Dahl, Bjorn Myhrhaug, Kristen Nygaard. The first object oriented language, an extension of Algol 60.

comment  a Simula-67 code fragment ;

        IF L=/=NONE THEN
            BEGIN NEXT:-L.FIRST;
                L.FIRST:-THIS MEMBER;


Designed by Xerox-Parc. A pure object oriented, untyped language.

"a Smalltalk code fragment"

^(self includes: aSymbol)
    ifTrue: [self controlKeys at: aSymbol]
    ifFalse: [aBlock value]

Snobol -- "String Oriented Symbolic Language"

A string processing language, much used in the Humanities for textual analyses.

*     a Snobol code fragment

      LINE PAT          :F(MORE)
      OUTPUT = LINE     :(MORE)


TeX -- tau, epsilon, chi

Donald Knuth's macro-based text formatting language, started in the late 1970s. Included here because of its incredible complexity, and because someone has written Towers of Hanoi, and 8-queens, in it (presumably just because they could).

% a TeX code fragment

\def\listoftables{\section*{List of Tables\@markboth
  {LIST OF TABLES}{LIST OF TABLES}}\@starttoc{lot}}

Variants: LaTeX, AMS TeX

Turing -- after Alan Turing

Turing (and OOT) is a general purpose programming language designed specifically for teaching the concepts of computer science.

% Roll a die until you get 6

var die : int
    rand int (die, 1, 6)
        exit when die = 6
        put "This roll is ", die
    end loop
    put "Stopping with roll of 6"