Expressing Abstraction - Abstracting Expression

Authors:Ola Bini
Time:3:30 pm - 4:20 pm

Part of the group of people who took JRuby from a “toy” to “real application” level. Since then he’s done things from writing a YAML parser to regex engines to re-implementing OpenSSL on Java (“that was sort of complicated”). Since then been thinking about programming languages.

When he started on JRuby he was working with Java during the day, with a background in Lisp, and wanted something different. After JRuby he began working on AIoki (sp?), a language experiment designed to explore expressiveness.

Three questions come to mind when thinking about expressiveness:

  1. Why are new languages still being created?
  2. Is it worth choosing languages strategically?
  3. Does language actually matter?

Expressiveness is defined as effectively conveying thought or feeling. Focusing on efficacy is a good place to start when evaluating expressiveness. An expressive language is a language that makes it easy to put my thoughts down into code without a lot of steps in between.

An alternate definition is “a language construct is expressive if it enables you to write an API that can’t be written without the construct.” where “write” implies “use”, and where there’s some large restructuring needed if the construct doesn’t exist.

But beware the Turing Tar Pit: where everything is possible but nothing is easy [shows quote re: including buggy subset of Lisp].

A lot of thinking on languages cites Paul Graham’s Blub Paradox, which states you have a scale with languages placed on it from least to most powerful. If a programmer is using a language Blub roughly in the middle of the scale, she can’t accurately evaluate the expressiveness and power of a language higher up on the scale. She doesn’t have the context or knowledge to do so.

Aspects of Expressiveness

(these are really dimensions – scales)

Regularity, readability, learnability (not sure if that’s actually interesting for the question of expressiveness, and maybe it’s a derivative of regularity and readability).

But the core is Essence vs. Ceremony. Everything I have to say not related to my problem is Ceremony, and it’s in my way.

Precision vs. Conciseness: if you only want to say the things you need to say, you also need to be OK with leaving out some parts that influence other parts of the program (precision).

For his experiments he chose expressiveness over performance, and unsurprisingly, the language ran quite slowly. And he thinks he made a mistake: performance is a part of expressiveness. If your language is concise and lets you write the essence of something, but runs too slowly to be of practical use, it’s of limited value.

The theoretical side of expressiveness: “More expressive means that the translation of a program with occurrences of one of the constructs C to the smaller language require a global reorganization of the entire program.”

Some people say that if you have “patterns” in your language, then your language is deficient in some aspect of expressiveness. That’s in contrast to the current thinking in the Java community, which states that patterns are to be used to enhance understanding.

Practical Expressiveness

Abstraction is slightly more well defined in programming languages, and in most cases abstractions add to the expressive power of a programming language. There are several types of abstractions we use day to day. Objects are one of the most common. And abstracting classes of objects (esp in prototype based languages) is pretty common, too (the joke about every Scheme programmer writing their own Class system). Macros are an abstraction over the structure of code.

One thing you don’t see a lot of is abstracting the relationships between things. There are some examples – Actors in Erlang, dataflow variables in Mozart [?], and Java FX – but it’s the exception rather than the rule. Spreadsheets are actually an example of this – cells provide an abstraction over the relationships between values.

If your language doesn’t have a Macro facility, then all of the abstractions that add expressiveness by hiding ceremony aren’t available to you.

But not all macros are created equally. C-style macros are pretty limited, and are little more than text replacement. Lisp macros, “AST Macros”, aren’t actually AST macros. They operate on an S expression, which is an abstraction of the AST. C++’s template system is a Turing Complete template/macro system [yikes!].

Static typing actually is a way of expressiveness in a language, but it’s double-edged.

Generics – and Type Classes in Haskell and Scala – are a powerful feature of a language that are an abstraction in and of themselves, but they also enable additional abstractions. This makes them pretty interesting to study.

Abstractions in general are leaky. You see this clearly in object-relational mappers. There are two classes of ORMs: those that try to completely hide the fact that you’re operating against SQL, and those that are closer to the metal. An example of the latter is ActiveRecord in Rails. [My instinct is that Django’s is like this, too.] The difference between these two approaches is that in systems like Hibernate (an example of the former), you know how to solve a problem using SQL, but you can’t get low enough to fix it.

Spolsky’s Law: “All non-trivial abstractions, to some degree, are leaky.”

So Spolsky is probably right, but why are they leaky? Abstractions are relative to what you’re trying to do: they have context. They’re not absolutes. You can imagine different libraries approaching an abstraction differently, depending on how they expect to be used. Abstractions hide things, but only in one direction. You can think of the leakiness as coming from the sides, issues that are orthogonal to the one the abstraction was created against.


Simile is sort of a type class, it’s a way to add a new meaning of something, or add abstractions.

Redundancy is something we see in natural language that we don’t see in programming languages. If you count how many times “I have a dream” appears in that speech, it’s a lot! And we do it with purpose in linguistic language, unlike in programming languages where they usually wind up being ceremony (see pre-Java 7 declaration/instantiation of parameterized types).

You also have a lot of different ways of saying the same thing in natural languages. Sometimes that’s true in programming languages, sometimes it’s not. Ruby and Perl let you say certain things in many ways, while Python tends towards one “right” way. In natural language you use different ways to say the same thing to provide additional context, or expressiveness.

In linguistics we talk about syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Syntax is pretty understandable, and we know that semantics is how identifiers relate to one another. Linguistic pragmatics is less well known, and is how the context of something contributes to meaning, how the context influences our choice of how to say something.

At the end of the day, natural and programming languages are about communication. [We write for the next engineer.] We need to communicate with team members as well as the computers that run our code. We communicate indirectly to people paged in the middle of the night due to a bug [:)].

One of the ways we can change the way we communicate is through syntax. Syntax is actually more important for communicating than it is for computers: you’ll find an entire PLT community that says syntax doesn’t matter. Just as there’s syntactic sugar, there’s syntactic salt (that which makes your code look bad), and syntactic sacharrrine (which feels like overkill – too much sugar).

Design Principles

  • One paradigm
  • Minimal core/concepts
  • Simplicity
  • First Class functions
  • Flexibility
  • Skinnable type system

So how far away is the truly expressive language? It’s not clear, and it’s not clear that expressiveness is always better. Maybe it’s already here, just not evenly distributed. Expressiveness and abstractions are relative, both to the people using it and the subjects they’re being applied to. So maybe what you want is a meta-expressive language. This is one of the reasons DSLs have become so popular.

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