I often get asked by people, both those starting out as well as those well into
their career, “What languages should I know?”, or “What language should I learn
next?”. I’ll try to give an answer, or at least some guidance.
The purpose of this is not to start a language holy war or the like. These are
my opinions based on writing software of all sorts in a wide variety of
languages for over 30 years.
There are many, many programming languages. Some of them are or have been in
common use. The dynamics of he programming language ecosystem is interesting.
Why do some become defacto standards? And why do other fade into relative
obscurity, even though they may be vastly superior.
Very few programming languages are created in a vacuum, devoid of influences
from others. Several attempts have been made to chart these influences. Here are
Before we jump into looking at some languages I think every programmer should be
somewhat fluent in, I’ll relate a couple of quotes pertaining to Smalltalk, one
of my favorite lanaguages, that are relevant to the above questions:
“Smalltalk is an improvement over most of it’s successors.”
At an OOPLSA 2003 keynote
Dave Ungar (a
co-inventor of Self) was asked “So if languages like Smalltalk and
Self are much better, why are most programmers using languages like
C++ and Java?” To which Mr. Ungar answered “Why do people smoke?”
And now, the languages:
The Mother Languages
In French cooking there are the Mother Sauces: a small group from which all
others derive (béchamel, espagnole, velouté, hollandaise and sauce tomate as
stated by Escoffier). The five sauces form the basis of a French chef’s
repertoire. Likewise, I maintain that there are a similarly fundamental set of
languages that you really need to know in order to call yourself a well rounded
programmer. While they are old languages, they are still arguable best of breed.
Despite losing some popularity they retain loyal followings and have been kept
up to date and are still relevant.
These languages were probably the most influential on my career and the way I
think about programming and software. They weren’t the first: BASIC, Z80 & 6502
Assembly, and Pascal came first (and in that order), followed by C, Lisp, and
If I could go back and restructure my early days based on what I know now (which
is what I’m trying to do here for new programmers) in what order would I learn
them? Barring practical concerns (like having a job in a rails shop), probably
- Lisp using SICP. If you could make it through all of SICP and understand most
of what you’ve learned, I would probably hire you on the spot, as you would
know and understand more about programming and computation than most
programmers I’ve met with many years of experience.
- Smalltalk. Mastering Smalltalk indicates to me a deep understanding of object
- C. Understanding C well enough to write some non-trivial, low level code
(like a virtual machine or device driver) means to me that you’ve achieved a
fundamental understanding of how computers work.
Once you’ve mastered these, no programming language in common use today will present much of
a challenge to you.
Yes, Lisp. There are various dialects to choose from: Common Lisp, Scheme, and
Clojure are some of the more popular choices. For someone setting out to learn
Lisp, I encourage the use of MIT Scheme. It’s free and available for most
platforms (distributed by the Free Software Foundation). Part of the reason I
endorse MIT Scheme is that then you can use the book Structure and
Interpretation of Computer Programs as your guide. This approach will teach you
computing fundamentals in a largely syntax-free environment. In the process,
you’ll pick up a significant amount of Lisp knowledge and skill. SICP was the
textbook for the intro to computing course for all Computer Science and
Electrical Engineering majors for many years at MIT. You can get a PDF of the
SICP book at the site below, as well as videos of every lecture.
Lisp is one of the quinessential functional languages. It’s is very easy to
write purely functional code in it. Even though SICP covers data mutation, it
warns heavily against doing so without a damn good reason. If you move on to
learn Clojure, writing functional code is a core part of that language’s
No, it’s not dead. It’s very much alive, and still one of the best development
environments and OO languages you’ll find. These days there are two primary
- VisualWorks Smalltalk, available from Cincom, is the original which can trace
it’s direct lineage back to the Software Concepts Group at Xerox Palo Alto
Research Center in the seventies. It’s grown up and evolved a lot since it was
known as Smalltalk-80, and is actively developed by a talented group of people.
VisualWorks is free for non commercial use but costs if you want to sell your
- Squeak (and it’s offshoot, Pharo) is a reimagining of Smalltalk-80, started
and initially led by the same man who is responsible for the Smalltalk work back
at PARC: Alan Kay (not coincidentally, the guy who coined the term “Object
Oriented”). Squeak/Pharo is open source.
For learning Smalltalk, I suggest using Pharo: It’s clean and modern, and
completely free to use. It also has the advantage of being hugely cross platform.
There are many freely available Smalltalkbooks in PDF.
This is, in many ways, the underlying language. C is a fundamental language
upon which all else is built (literally or metaphorically). Go deep enough in
almost any other language and you will find a kernel written in C (or one of
Speaking of offshoots, I use “C” to mean “C and it’s child languages”:
specifically C++ and Objective-C. These are both thin OO veneers over a syntactic
core of C. But even if you know and work in one of these, it’s still a good idea
to be able to code in raw C.
Objective-C is by far a cleaner and more elegant grafting of OO concepts onto a
core of C, than is C++. Alas, the only place you’ll find much Objective-C in use is on iOS and
OSX. C++ (and I might get in trouble for saying this) is like Objective-C’s
ghetto counterpart. It’s messy, ambiguous, and full of unexpected surprises and
snares for the uninitiated. That said, it’s closer to raw C than Objective-C is,
which can be good or bad, depending on the situation.
C is available on pretty much every computer and OS ever made. You can probably
find a binary distribution of
gcc (The GNU C compiler) for whatever you are
It’s hard to emphasize how important a thorough grounding in basic C is. C is
the quintessential imperative programming language, and probably the most
heavily used example of the Algol-style syntax.
Java being released to the software development ecosystem had a similar effect
as the introduction of rabbits to Austrialia: it proliferated and pretty much
took over, driving out other languages that were far superior.
Java grew out of the Oak project, which had the purpose of providing a portable,
embedded programming language and environment. Java was/is a great solution for
that. The trouble came when it started being used for the then new world wide
web browsers, and eventually as almost the defacto standard language for web
server app development. For a while Java was probably the most popular OO
language in general use. C++ continued in performance critical applications
(operating systems, games, etc) and low level apps. Java pushed aside ObjectiveC
and Smalltalk, even though both were far superior languages.
Oddly, the most interesting Java applications/frameworks never achieved much
momentum: Jini and it’s associated technologies.
Should you learn Java? Of course. Should you choose to use it? Probably not.
There are better languages, both for learning from and for writing production code.
The most important legacy that Java will leave is the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) which has become a popular platform for implementing other languages such
as JRuby, Scala, and Clojure.
According to Matz (the designer of Ruby) “Ruby is designed for programmer
productivity and fun”. And it is a very fun language to work with. If you don’t
know it, you definitely should. Ruby is heavily influenced by Smalltalk and
Lisp, with a largely C-ish syntax, anyone who knows those languages should have
no trouble picking up Ruby.
Ruby, due largely to the Rails framework, as become a standard for web
development. With the advent of RubyMotion, it can also be used to build native
iOS, OSX, and Android applications.
That’s another thing. You can’t be a “Rails Programmer” any more than you can be
an “EJB Programmer”; Rails is merely a framework/library written in Ruby. If
you’re using Rails, you’re programming in Ruby, albiet possibly without knowing
much about what you’re doing. If you are working with Rails, do everyone a favor
(especially yourself and people who will work on your code later) and learn the
language you are using. David Black wrote a book just for you a while back. It’s
a bit dated now, but the basics of Ruby haven’t changed much. There’s also
Programming Ruby which is the canonical book on Ruby.
If you never learn C++ you won’t be missing much, other than how to avoid the
Unfortunately, C++ is still a very heavily used language and if you
program for long enough you will undoubtedly run in to a situation
where you need to use it. For that reason alone it’s worth learning.
At Steelseries we decided against using C++. The team at Sun
Mircosystems made the same decision in the early 90s, for many of the
“The team originally considered using C++, but it was rejected for several
reasons. Because they were developing an embedded system with limited
resources, they decided that C++ needed too much memory and that its
complexity led to developer errors. The language’s lack of garbage collection
meant that programmers had to manually manage system memory, a challenging and
error-prone task. The team was also troubled by the language’s lack of
portable facilities for security, distributed programming, and threading.
Finally, they wanted a platform that could be easily ported to all types of
And so, work on what would come to be the Java language began.
If you work on web apps, or want to hack on making sites a bit more interactive,
but has more than it’s share of ugly bits and dark corners.
The Mind Stretchers
Erlang was developed at Erricson in the early 1980s to program
telephony applications. It was built on top of Lisp, Prolog and Parlog
“Erlang is a programming language used to build massively scalable
soft real-time systems with requirements on high availability. Some
of its uses are in telecoms, banking, e-commerce, computer telephony
and instant messaging. Erlang’s runtime system has built-in support
for concurrency, distribution and fault tolerance.”
If I were to pick a fourth Mother Language, it would be Haskel. Haskel is
representative of a pure functional language.
Haskell is an advanced purely-functional programming language. An
open-source product of more than twenty years of cutting-edge
research, it allows rapid development of robust, concise, correct
software. With strong support for integration with other languages,
built-in concurrency and parallelism, debuggers, profilers, rich
libraries and an active community, Haskell makes it easier to
produce flexible, maintainable, high-quality software.
As I am writing this, I am actively and enthusiasticly learning it. if you use OSX, Haskel for Mac is a great way to learn and explore the language.
Self is a prototype-based dynamic object-oriented programming language,
environment, and virtual machine centered around the principles of simplicity,
uniformity, concreteness, and liveness. Self includes a programming language,
a collection of objects defined in the Self language, and a programming
environment built in Self for writing Self programs. The language and
environment attempt to present objects to the programmer and user in as direct
and physical a way as possible. The system uses the prototype-based style of
That’s from the Self website. Self is really pretty cool. It is a pure OO
language like Smalltalk, with prototype based inheritence, an idea picked up by
One very intriquing aspect of Self is that you directly manipulate objects,
adding/deleting instance variables and methods (which are the same: one holds
data, the other code), dragging them to other objects, chaging prototypes. So
while the paradigm is a spin on OO, the environment and quite different, making
it worth having a look at.
Self is still being actively developed with 4.5.0 having been released shortly
before I wrote this (Jan 2014).
Self is available for OSX and Linux, with the source available on github.
These are more context dependent. They tend to be special purpose, or the main
language for a specific environment (e.g. objective-C for OSX or iOS).
Objective-C is an OO extension of C. In my opinion, Objective-C
is far better designed than C++. It’s approach to OO is very similar to
Smalltalk’s, by which it is heavily influenced.
The only significant use of Objective-C these days is for OSX and iOS,
and now Apple is replacing it with their new language Swift.
Go is like C redesigned using modern programming language ideas for modern
computing environments. Examples include a clean generic function approach to
OO, garbage colelction, concurrancy as part of the language syntax, and type
Go was developed at Google for Google sized problems, by a team lead by the
guys who made Unix:
Rob Pike, and
Ken Thompson. They stated in 2007
and opensourced the whole thing in late 2009. A rich and engaged community has
grown up around Go.
To quote a talk given by Rob Pike at the SPLASH 2012 conference:
“Go is a compiled, concurrent, garbage-collected, statically typed language developed at
Google. Go is efficient, scalable, and productive. Go was designed to address the
problems faced in software development at Google, which led to a language that is not
a breakthrough research language but is nonetheless an excellent tool for engineering
large software projects. Go is a programming language designed by Google to help
solve Google’s problems, and Google has big problems.”
Personally, I dislike Python. If you can use Ruby, there’s no real reason to use
Python. It is widely used, however, so having at least a reading knowledge
can be useful.
Of Historical Interest
These are languages you will probably never run into unless you go looking.
Some were ground breaking at the time, and some are conceptually interesting. At
the very least you sould read a bit about them so you know how we got to where
we are now. Can knowing them make you a better programmer? If course. The more
languages you know, the bigger your toolbox of ideas and concepts is.
Cobol was developed in 1959 by a committee from industry, achademia, and
government. One of COBOL’s claims to fame is it’s being heavily influenced by
Grace Hopper. By the end of 1960 the first compilers were available for a
computer made by RCA and the Remington-Rand Univac.
“Cobol programs are in use globally in governmental and military agencies, in
commercial enterprises, and on operating systems such as IBM’s z/OS,
Microsoft’s Windows, and the POSIX families (Unix/Linux etc.). In 1997, the
Gartner Group reported that 80 % of the world’s business ran on Cobol with
over 200 billion lines of code in existence and with an estimated 5 billion
lines of new code annually.”
This is by most accounts the mother tongue. Started in 1954, it predates all
other programming languages of note, and directly or indirectly influences
pretty much all the programming languages currently in use.
Fortran was designed by IBM as a programming language for scientific computing.
It has evolved over time, accreeting features as they came into vogue. For
example Fortram 2003 added OO support.
“Since Fortran has been in use for more than fifty years, there is a vast body
of Fortran in daily use throughout the scientific and engineering communities.
It is the primary language for some of the most intensive supercomputing
tasks, such as weather and climate modeling, computational fluid dynamics,
computational chemistry, computational economics, plant breeding and
Here’s something else to think about if you enjoy numeric and scientific work:
“We (Fortran programmers) should really stop making an emphasis on that
paragraph regarding fortran+legacy code. To the young newbies starting those
languages, it gives the feeling that the only reason why someone would learn
it is to maintain that legacy. While the truth is something completely
different … there is a large number of projects today written from scratch
in Fortran (have no idea how things stand in Cobol world) simply because it is
still the best tool for the job. The problem is that there isn’t that many
Fortran programmers in % to the total number of programmers, and that’s why it
gives the impression of a lanuage not used.”
Algol is a family of imperative languages originally developed in the
mid-1950s which greatly influenced many other languages. Many, if not
most, of today’s popular languages are often described as having “an
Algol syntax”. But Algol’s influence goes far beyond syntax. A couple
- BNF (Backus–Naur
Form) was developed to describe the syntax of Algol 58/60
- Scheme adopted the block structure and lexical scope of ALGOL
Algol is generally considered to be the first high order language and
many of the language features we take for granted today first saw use
Simula is the granddaddy of OO, and was a superset of Algol60 designed for writing simulations. It introduced objects, classes, inheritance and subclasses, virtual procedures, coroutines, discrete event simulation, and features garbage collection.
- Introduction to OOP in Simula
- The Cim Compiler
- IBM System 360/370 Compiler and Historical Documentation
- An Introduction to Programming in Simula
- Compiling Simula: A historical study of technological genesis
Designed in the mid 1960s as the single programming language for the (then new)
IBM System/360 mainframe, as a response to FORTRAN’s limitations. As such it was
designed to be all things to all programmers. The goal was to have a single
language for both scientific programmers (who used Fortran) and business
programmers (who used Cobol).
As you can see by the quotes above, PL/I didn’t quite succeed in usurping
Fortran and Cobol.
Niklaus Wirth designed Pascal (named in honor of the French mathematician and
philosopher Blaise Pascal) largely to teach students structured
programming. Linguistically it is a derivative of Algol 68.
Pascal was the pirmary language used in the Apple Lisa, and much or the early
Macintosh codebase. Knuth based his WEB language (in which TeX was written) on
Turbo Pascal from Borland was a significant programming environment for MS-DOS,
and UCSD Pascal was a significant environment for the Apple II and
III. Both Apple and Borland created Object Oriented versions of Pascal. Borland
eventually spun that into the Delphi language/environment.
Pascal has a special place in my heart: it was the first high level structured
language I discovered (I had previously worked exclusively in Basic and
Assembly), as well as the first OO language I wrote code in (Turbo Pascal 5.5).