Language Flavors

Sep 27, 2016

It might be having a child in Spanish this year, or maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been switching from Java to Ruby to Go to Python over the past couple months, but I’ve been giving some thought to how different languages are “flavored”. One of my favorite things about the Go programming language is that the second thing you read while learning it is a whole book on “writing clear, idiomatic Go code”.

I really like the term “idiomatic” in this context. It means both “natural to a native speaker” and “appropriate to the style”. But most importantly, it comes from the root “idiom”. One way to describe an idiom is that it means something different from what it appears to mean.

So for example, in English we say, “I follow you” to mean that I understand what you are trying to say, even though no physical movement is happening. Owen Barfield pointed out that this is not an accident; all speech about ideas must use some kind of metaphor. We could say, “I see your point,” or “I grasp it”, and it is still a metaphor. Even “understand” was a metaphor when it was a new word.

This same idea of metaphor applies everywhere in programming; as Fred Brooks has said, programming is building “castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination.” We talk about “objects”, “classes”, “transactions”, “calls”, and “methods”. We live so often in the world of metaphor it’s impossible to even remember most of the time that they are metaphors.

And that brings us back to programming languages (finally). Most languages have some metaphors in common, like loops, arrays, or dictionaries. But each language also has its own unique style that comes from which metaphors are chosen and which are left out.

For example, summing an array in Go, according to Effective Go, looks like this:

sum := 0
for _, value := range arr {
  sum += value

While Ruby looks like this:

sum = arr.reduce(0, :+)

And Java looks like this:

int sum = 0;
for (int i: arr) {
  sum += i;

There’s a clear difference in flavor that’s related to the metaphors each language uses. Go has a strong concept of “generators” like range that produce each value of a collection for use in the code block. Ruby has first-class functions, so even the “+” operator can be passed to a method on an object. Java, meanwhile, has the idea of iterators, but some syntactic sugar to make the iteration implicit.

Of course, the last example doesn’t take advantage of Java 8, where a different approach would be possible:

int sum =;

Just like in human languages, programming languages borrow from each other, which is clearly what has happened with lambdas and streams in Java 8. Java is in some sense like the English language, which exists as a (not totally well blended) amalgamation of words and structures from two different language families, the Germanic and the Romance languages.

And similar to English, that means that learning Java is made more challenging. Depending on the era in which the code was written, there might be explicit use of iterator(), hasNext(), and next(). Or, there might be a C-style for (int i = 0...) style loop. Or there might be one of the approaches above.

So what conclusions can we draw from this? Despite its uncertain parentage, English has been a very successful language, not just because of the prominence of the British Empire and then the United States of America, but also because of certain flexibilities in its structure that make it easy to use for many different kinds of topics. At the same time, at least in the modern era, there are many competent speakers of English but very few real masters. That seems to correlate with the history of Java, at least so far. It would also seem to suggest that even people who don’t speak Java as a “first language” will still retain familiarity with it as a “lingua franca”. It will be interesting to see if the analogy holds.