Crystallized Archetypes

Manuel Simoni writes a very interesting (and brilliantly named) blog on programming languages entitled The Axis of Eval. For almost two years now he’s been delving deep and wide across the field of programming languages. He was interviewed by the State of Code blog a few months ago. I read something in that interview that has been lurking on and off in the back of my mind:

I think Lisp is the archetype, the crystallized form of all dynamically-typed scripting languages, and for that reason I like it. I also like C and Haskell, because they’re similarly crystallized languages in their respective areas.

As I study more about languages, and use a growing number of them on a regular basis, I can’t help but think: what are some of the other crystallized archetypes of languages out there?

Let’s start with Manuel’s list. Lisp stands out as the archetype for dynamically typed scripting languages. Other similar languages (Perl, Python, Ruby and the like) all emulate bits and pieces of Lisp (with varying success). Each new scripting language that becomes popular seems to be just a little more Lisp-y. Haskell is then the archetype for statically typed, functional programming languages. One could argue that this title belongs to OCaml or the various other MLs. From my experience working with them both occupy very strong points in the space of statically-typed functional languages. Which one you choose depends very much on what your particular needs are.

On another level entirely resides C. While both Lisp and Haskell strive to help you create elegant towers of abstraction, C will happily lay open the bare hardware for you. C is your archetype for a low-level systems programming language for a von Neumann machine. There’s certainly a new generation of systems programming languages waiting in the wings: D, Go and Rust to name a few. Though I have limited experience with any of them, from what I can tell they are all a few layers above the machine. While that’s certainly great for programmers (and I hope it picks up speed) if you want to get down into the guts of your computer you’d better reach for your C compiler. If you have more experience on this front, feel free to enlighten me.

While Java and C++ might have introduced much of the world to object-oriented programming, the title of archetype almost certainly goes to Smalltalk. While Lisp can play host to a powerful object system and OCaml goes far towards combining OO and functional programming, Smalltalk stands out as being object-oriented from the bottom up, so to speak. Of the modern popular languages, Ruby is probably closest to the Smalltalk way while still being a scripting language for Unix-like systems. I’ve only done a tiny bit of Smalltalk programming myself (and certainly haven’t made a large system) but it’s definitely a very interesting experience. I don’t know if there’s an ‘aha moment’ like there is with Lisp, but I highly recommend it if you write OO code regularly.

While those four cover most of the ground for popular programming paradigms, there are a handful of other interesting archetypes out there. For concatenative programming I’d recommend Factor. Similarly, Prolog stand for declarative, logic programming. I’m hesitant to name archetypes for web or distributed programming. Personally I think of JavaScript as more of a prototype-based OO language that happens to be in the browser than as the archetype for a web programming language. Somehow I feel like we can do better than the HTML, CSS and JS trifecta we have now.

As I keep learning about languages, I’m looking forward to exploring these archetypes in greater depth (and their particular instantiations). I might even try implementing a few of them. So much to learn, so much code to write, so little time.

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