Expressive Power in Computer Programming Languages & Literature

| | TrackBacks (0)

One of the concepts that keeps popping up in my study of Programming languages is » expressiveness. Loosely defined, expressiveness is » the ability to say a lot with a little (my own definition).

ShakespeareWhere Programming languages are concerned, expressiveness might be the ability to DO a lot with a little.

Related terms » Meaningful. Concise. Simplicity (as it applies to the elimination of unnecessary complexity). Elegance. Efficiency.

No doubt, you know an 'expressive' person or two. But sheer volume of words does not an expressive person make.

Some people can talk for hours without really saying anything (.. at least not anything meaningful). While others can speak volumes with a simple glance.

In programming, the notion of expressiveness is often touted as a plus, associated with "higher level" languages. I could be wrong, but the idea I get is » the more expressive (a language is) the better. Notice the statement that begins the second paragraph here:

"My contention is that expressive power is the absolutely most important property to focus on right now."

This from a developer with an admitted "unhealthy interest in programming languages," who's currently developing his own. Since the learning process often involves relating new information to things we already know, that's what I've been doing.

As chance would have it, I was watching Hamlet last night (the Kenneth Branagh version). Didn't take long to realize much of what was being said wasn't getting thru. ( "Say what?" )

So I enabled English subtitles and started vigorously working the pause button .. in order to read & digest the Elizabethan chatter. Much better.

Saying Much with Little

Note how the phrase » 'To be or not to be' is exceedingly simple. Yet it carries much meaning beneath the surface (.. especially that 'not-to-be' part).

The ability to "say much with few words" is a primary reason cited when discussing Shakespeare's literary prowess. In other words, it's not just what he says, but the way in which he says it .. that makes his writing so .. descriptive, enchanting.

••• today's entry continues here below •••

I've long admired writers who are able to express sophisticated ideas with simple phrasing. Hemingway comes to mind. In writings posted here, and even those for the guides (which often address complex, technical concepts), I endeavor to 'keep it simple' (.. a knack for which I've received many kudos).

Expressing sophisticated concepts in a simple way is more difficult than it might seem. Hawthorne said » "Easy reading is damn hard writing." I'm sure the same could be said of Programming. I've always heard, for example, that Drupal is written with elegant code, and that Ruby is an elegant programming language.

In 10 years of blogging, what I've come to realize is this » before you can express a sophisticated or complex concept simply & elegantly, you must first understand it yourself .. on a level that transcends the intellect. (Emotionally?) This is why I try to limit my comments to things for which I have first-hand experience.

Sometimes I'll wait days, or even weeks, before writing about a certain topic .. to give my thoughts time to gel. (There are even a few things I've been kicking around for a year.)

In reading Shakespeare's famous soliloquy, and the great detail he goes into there, it's difficult to imagine he wasn't somehow 'familiar' with the subject matter .. on a level beyond mere intellect. Tis it not?

People who use big words and convoluted phraseology often do so (IMHO) in an attempt to obscure the fact that they don't really understand what they're talking about .. at least not on a gut-level. While those who do (discern) seem ready-n-able to 'compile' their insights (so to speak) into 'assembly language' .. so the average Joe (you & me) may share their understanding.

Lawyers in particular are famous for spouting legalese .. obscuring things that pertain to common folk in such a way that even the most brilliant among us heretofore have trouble deciphering. (Or maybe they just want to be retained as translator.)

Einstein's tongueEinstein on the other hand, was famous for conveying profound cosmic truths in a way even ordinary folk could comprehend.

Then again, expressing yourself can help crystallize your thoughts on a particular topic .. which is the concept behind keeping a journal. (How do I really feel about this? Hmmm, lemme see.) Because you have to know what you think about something before you can write it down.

Expressive Power Aside

As a side note, I found it interesting, while reading a book on Zen recently, that the author kept mentioning (repeatedly), "This word/idea has no equivalent in English."

You might think that a language which contains more than half-a-million words would have all our verbal bases covered .. no? Apparently not. (Some say 'not even close'.)

Even more interesting is the notion that language has the ability to limit (or restrict) our thoughts. Can you think a thought for which there exists no words (to describe it)? Here my mind kicks into an Orwellian mode, recalling ideas from 1984 and Animal Farm and Big Brother.

Politicians have long recognized the power certain words carry .. the power to elicit an emotional response. And they seek to wield this power. Which do you prefer? The Death Tax, or the Estate Tax? Shouldn't matter, since they're the same thing. Yet voters readily accept one while rejecting the other. So the effort to control the language and dialogue on a particular topic can be viewed as an attempt to manipulate the uninformed.

This dovetails nicely into a discussion on the power of » ideas (one of my favorite topics). Certain ideas (such as freedom and free speech) can be dangerous. Expressing them, in certain places, can be hazardous to your health. Here you have the right to remain silent (a freedom .. to not express yourself). Not so in other places. Either way, anything you say can and will...

Seems I've diverted from my original theme .. probably because I know more about expressiveness as it pertains to the English language than I do regarding Programming languages. How do they relate to one another? Well, that's both the question and the rub.

The concept of expressiveness can be applied thematically as a zeitgeist .. since our economy is forcing both businesses and citizens to do "more with less." Meanwhile, here I am doing more than ever on this battered old laptop .. with no i-key, a cracked case, and sketchy power jack.

For more along these lines, here's a Google search preconfigured for the query » expressive power computer programming language

« Previous Rad entry ||| NEXT Rad entry »

0 TrackBacks

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Expressive Power in Computer Programming Languages & Literature.

TrackBack URL for this entry:

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Rad published on August 17, 2009 1:02 PM.

Back-n-Forth on the Trampoline was the previous entry in this blog.

First Father/Son Bike Ride is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.