Syntaxology (Re: C++ vs Smalltalk?) 
Author Message
 Syntaxology (Re: C++ vs Smalltalk?)

: > [...]
: >Occam's razor, not Occam's needle or Occam's trowel.  While surely
: >a really complex syntax (and arguably C++ has that problem because
: >it attempts to serve two masters -- C and OO) is bad, also a syntax
: >that is too simple is just as bad.

: This is a *very* strong statement.  Are you able to back it?
: Namely, what do you mean by "too simple" and why exactly it is bad?

: --Vassili

Perhaps he's thinking about Lisp or Scheme or maybe even Smalltalk.

Here's my opinion:

Crufty syntaxes are icky for the obvious reasons.

Very minimalist syntaxes can be undesirable for subtle reasons.  

As there is so little syntax, there is little meaning attached to any
of it.  This offloads all the semantics into the meanings of the symbols.

Lispoid control structures are very uniform and flexible, but you
have to remember exactly what "the first list argument" means and what "the
second list argument means" and what will happen with the given symbol.

It is *too* superficially homogeneous.  

Keep in mind that humans aren't Turing machines.

I feel a 'middle ground' syntax can do "some of your thinking for you" in a
nearly automatic way that a very minimal syntax does not.  

A minimal syntax offloads the problem to memorizing libraries and idioms
(the X window system's central conceptual flaw--'mechanism not policy').

A crufty syntax makes you have to look up the exceptions and particular
forms all the time. (Does anybody really know perl4??)

Consider the retina, which does NOT present a 'bit-mapped-image' to the
brain, but does a fair amount of interesting but still low-level
transformation that, even at the initial stages, is tuned to the specific
needs and requirements of higher level brain systems and makes certain
specific assumptions about the types of natural images that people see
'in real life'.

It is established physiological fact that there are particular neuronal
circuits in humans to process grammar and syntax.

It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that some general kinds of syntax
can be "better supported" by brain circuitry than others.

I know, natural language is very diverse, but there must be some overall
commonalities.  For instance, there is no natural language whose 'sentences'
are very long integers whose prime factorizations are the 'words' and
concepts.  Ridiculous of course.   But why?  Think about it.

Certainly humans are very smart and adaptable, but I feel it's unreasonable
to ignore the possibility that the wired-in-hardware for our
"language instinct" has some bearing on the issue of computer languages.

Consider why uniform Lisp-type or functional syntax (for example)
hasn't taken over the world.

The theoretical advantages are apparent and potent, yet why does it yet
feel 'unnatural' compared to conventional algorithmic languages?

Try reading programs, out loud, in natural language.  Which kind of
language makes you sit and read the screen and think longer before you talk?
{By reading I mean in a way to convey the information to somebody else, not
 transcription like a court reporter}

For me, and I suspect the majority, it would be Lisp compared to Algol
derivatives.   For no really obvious reason.  I suspect it may have to
do with our brains.

In case anybody is wondering, I consider langauges like Sather and Eiffel
to have decent 'middle ground' syntax, but I'm certainly biased because
I especially like their model of programming.

cheers
Matt



Fri, 10 Apr 1998 03:00:00 GMT  
 Syntaxology (Re: C++ vs Smalltalk?)

: It is established physiological fact that there are particular neuronal
: circuits in humans to process grammar and syntax.

No it isn't; it's a currently-popular theory that has benefitted greatly from
Steven Pinker's wonderful book, "The Language Instinct."

: It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that some general kinds of syntax
: can be "better supported" by brain circuitry than others.

According to Pinker, mostly echoing Chomsky at this point, there really is a
"Universal Grammar," human languages are a lot more _alike_ than they are
different, and a Martian visitor examining the situation would likely
conclude that all humans speak minor variations of one language.

As shocking as this may sound, it is all explained in painstaking (but very
approachable) detail in "The Language Instinct."

: I know, natural language is very diverse, but there must be some overall
: commonalities.  For instance, there is no natural language whose 'sentences'
: are very long integers whose prime factorizations are the 'words' and
: concepts.  Ridiculous of course.   But why?  Think about it.

Actually, the commonalities are MUCH more common-sensical than this contrived
"counter-example" makes it sound possible.

: Certainly humans are very smart and adaptable, but I feel it's unreasonable
: to ignore the possibility that the wired-in-hardware for our
: "language instinct" has some bearing on the issue of computer languages.

Sadly, I must concur with this.  Those of us who vastly prefer to eschew syntax
in favor of concentrating on semantics, as I do, seem to be in a rather
peculiar minority.

: Consider why uniform Lisp-type or functional syntax (for example)
: hasn't taken over the world.

: The theoretical advantages are apparent and potent, yet why does it yet
: feel 'unnatural' compared to conventional algorithmic languages?

I feel that this question inherently leads to a circular answer: "Because our
natural languages aren't structured in the manner of Lisp.  QED."

: Try reading programs, out loud, in natural language.  Which kind of
: language makes you sit and read the screen and think longer before you talk?
: {By reading I mean in a way to convey the information to somebody else, not
:  transcription like a court reporter}

Is this someone a fluent Lisper or not?  I remember my CS days at Indiana
University, a BIG Scheme school, babbling stuff like "Open-paren car gerunds
Close-paren" to my fellow students, and being understood perfectly.

: For me, and I suspect the majority, it would be Lisp compared to Algol
: derivatives.   For no really obvious reason.  I suspect it may have to
: do with our brains.

Or exposure, but of course we're merely back to the ancient "nature vs.
nurture" question.

FWIW, I'm forced to agree that a) there is, in fact, a "language instinct," and
that the instinct leads human languages to adhere to a surprisingly uniform
"Universal Grammar."  I'm further forced to agree that b) the Universal Grammar
has, rightly, led most programming languages to resemble natural languages
insofar as they conform to the Universal Grammar, and that those programming
languages that stray from it, in a laudable effort not to ensare the unwary in
grammatical complexity that does nothing whatsoever to solve the software
engineering problem at hand, often end up hurting the cognitive process more
than helping it.

Follow-ups to alt.instinct.language, alt.religion.lisp.heresy, and
alt.bucket.bit.  1/2 ;-)

: cheers
: Matt

Paul Snively



Sat, 11 Apr 1998 03:00:00 GMT  
 Syntaxology (Re: C++ vs Smalltalk?)

] FWIW, I'm forced to agree that a) there is, in fact, a "language instinct,"
] and that the instinct leads human languages to adhere to a surprisingly
] uniform "Universal Grammar."  I'm further forced to agree that b) the
] Universal Grammar has, rightly, led most programming languages to resemble
] natural languages insofar as they conform to the Universal Grammar, and that

I agree until here, but:

] those programming languages that stray from it, in a laudable effort not to
] ensare the unwary in grammatical complexity that does nothing whatsoever to
] solve the software engineering problem at hand, often end up hurting the
] cognitive process more than helping it.

Can you give me a single example of a computer langage that strays from UG ?
Lisp's syntax is extremely close to algol-style syntax. You just have (more or
less) to mave parentheses around, drop some and replace others by keywords or
punctuation. Even 'sed' is actually not that far from other languages.

        Stefan



Sun, 12 Apr 1998 03:00:00 GMT  
 Syntaxology (Re: C++ vs Smalltalk?)

Previous posters have discussed the relative merits of a "simple" syntax
like Lisp's and a "complicated" syntax like C++'s.  But C++ and Common
Lisp are both very complicated languages, and little of this complexity
has anything to do with their syntax.  While C++ may have a lot of
constructs, anybody who knows it would have little trouble picking out the
grammatical elements in a program;  syntactical complexity is not a
problem.  (It is a problem in "natural" languages like Visual Basic and
Hypercard; I've never been able to figure these out.)

So is Lisp's syntactical simplicity a problem?  I don't think so.  The
only difficulty I have with Lisp's syntax is trying to match parentheses,
and this problem could be overcome with an advanced editor.  Another
language with simple syntax that is very good at what it does is Tcl (and
the Tk toolkit).  When I do GUI programming in C, I have to look up
practically every function to find out exactly how the arguments are
formatted.  Tcl/Tk does an incredible job of making things consistent and
intuitive.  For example, all widgets are configured with their "widget
commands" (the name of the widget instance) and flags to it like
"-geometry" (argument order doesn't matter).  So is there such a thing as
a syntax that's too simple?  Well, one feature almost all languages should
have (and it's only sort of a syntactical issue) is decent scoping.  The
biggest problem with Tcl is its limited local variables.  But even a
language like postscript, in which procedures don't have real arguments
but directly manipulate the stack, isn't too bad.

It's always surprised me that Lisp hasn't caught on more.  C is a wonderful
language, but compared to Lisp, it's boring and ugly.

Grant



Sun, 12 Apr 1998 03:00:00 GMT  
 Syntaxology (Re: C++ vs Smalltalk?)

Quote:

> Previous posters have discussed the relative merits of a "simple" syntax
> like Lisp's and a "complicated" syntax like C++'s.  But C++ and Common
> Lisp are both very complicated languages, and little of this complexity
> has anything to do with their syntax.  While C++ may have a lot of
> constructs, anybody who knows it would have little trouble picking out the
> grammatical elements in a program;  syntactical complexity is not a
> problem.  (It is a problem in "natural" languages like Visual Basic and
> Hypercard; I've never been able to figure these out.)

I will make a case for "syntax" based on personal experience.

Before learning Smalltalk, I learnt Actor. Actor is a programming language
with the same conceptual model as Smalltalk but with a C like syntax. In fact
its designer chose the C like syntax to counter the "unnatural" Smalltalk
syntax which he considered awkward for newcomers to OO. Actor's class
library is also very much like Smalltalk's.

After Pascal, Lisp and Prolog I was quite impressed with Actor. However
when I learnt
Smalltalk I found that Smalltalk was much easier to program and understand.
After only
a brief moment of reflection on why Smalltalk seemed easier I realised that it
was because of its keyword based syntax. Consider the following example of
a message send for the two languages:

Actor     -      draw (self, style, graphicsContext)

Smalltalk -      self drawWith: aStyle on: aGraphicsContext

To me at least, the Smalltalk code is easier to read and understand because
it carries more information via keywords than the simple parameter list of
Actor. Also, it is easier to write Smalltalk code that reads like natural
language.

The ease does not come directly because of syntax but because the syntax
allows us to write more expressive statements. It is up to the coder to make
use of this facility.

Salaam

Faisal Waris


(205) 977-7985



Sun, 12 Apr 1998 03:00:00 GMT  
 Syntaxology (Re: C++ vs Smalltalk?)

Quote:

>Try reading programs, out loud, in natural language. Which kind of
>language makes you sit and read the screen and think longer before you
>talk?

If read-aloud-ability is important, then we should be programming in
COBOL.  (Of course, most of the code in the world *is* COBOL, even in
non-English speaking countries, but let's not sully the discussion with
facts).

--



Sun, 12 Apr 1998 03:00:00 GMT  
 Syntaxology (Re: C++ vs Smalltalk?)
: It's always surprised me that Lisp hasn't caught on more.  C is a wonderful
: language, but compared to Lisp, it's boring and ugly.

: Grant

Perhaps a lack of a library or excessive number of parenthesis?

Bob

-----------------



Sun, 12 Apr 1998 03:00:00 GMT  
 Syntaxology (Re: C++ vs Smalltalk?)

: It does not, IMO, nor is it so different from natural language.  Consider
: forms of query in natural language, which start with the verb followed by
: subject and object, very similar to lisp predicates.  "Have you any Grey
: Poupon?"  or  "Are you cold?"  for example.  Permuting the order of words
: is not at all unusual in natural language, and even misordering them is
: often not very disruptive to the interpretation.

Actually I don't consider the change of ordering between nouns and verbs
to be a problem with Lisp.  That happens in human langauges alot and
people can deal with it.

: >I feel that this question inherently leads to a circular answer: "Because our
: >natural languages aren't structured in the manner of Lisp.  QED."

: >: Try reading programs, out loud, in natural language.  Which kind of
: >: language makes you sit and read the screen and think longer before you talk?

: The answer to this has much more to do with the coder and his/her
: style than with the particular language used.  However, languages
: such as lisp which readily support self-modification and the use of
: continuations do complicate the matter, by allowing constructs which
: are, in natural language, simply impossible.  This has little or nothing
: to do with syntax, however; it is a matter of functionality ("semantics"
: I guess you could call it, but I don't much like the term.  I agree with
: Marvin Minsky on that score.)

I'm thinking at a lower level:

        (if (cond) (pred1) (pred2))

if you read this out naturally it would sound more like "if condition then
predicate1 otherwise predicate2."

Reading Lisp is more like

        "if condition predicate1 predicate2".  

The '()' show up on the screen and on paper, but it's not the way natural
language generally works.  

You have to remember that the third thing after the if is the 'else' part
of the condition.  

Now look there---I couldn't even describe it without saying
"the 'else' part".

That example expression is not so difficult, but the problem quickly gets
worse.

I just don't feel that natural language has a good substitute for the
stacking notion of '(' and ')' compared to ordinary connective words
and phrases.  {And yes, real humans do{*filter*}up when the "nesting level"
gets too hard where theoretical grammar would work just fine, and
this 'nesting limitation' has been observed in neural network cognitive models
of grammar processing.}

With Forth, which I think is worse, you have to figure out "what would be on
the stack" instead of naming things.  I think naming things is fundamental
to our way of doing language.  {and strangely enough I find 'stack' behavior
*more natural* when actually manually doing arithmetic calculations, like on
an HP style calculator.  Another brain weirdness distinguishing linguistic
performance from physical performance?  Like how a musician can
memorize tens of thousands of bits worth of music without error, but only
played back in sequence in physical activity. }

:  
: >: {By reading I mean in a way to convey the information to somebody else, not
: >:  transcription like a court reporter}

: >Is this someone a fluent Lisper or not?  I remember my CS days at Indiana
: >University, a BIG Scheme school, babbling stuff like "Open-paren car gerunds
: >Close-paren" to my fellow students, and being understood perfectly.

: >: For me, and I suspect the majority, it would be Lisp compared to Algol
: >: derivatives.   For no really obvious reason.  I suspect it may have to
: >: do with our brains.

: Not for me.  APL is the worst of high-level languages, because its
: idioms are so unusual.  Of course, I've never written more than a
: smattering of APL code.  Overall, IBM assembler is by far the worst,
: though I suspect you were talking about high-level languages.  Well
: written lisp code is generally far easier to read and explain than
: anything written in C, or even most Smalltalk.

I agree with you there, because Lisp can do lots of things very
cleanly and very well.    I think lisp is better than APL or IBM assembler
no question.

It's not necessarily because of the syntax though.

: >Or exposure, but of course we're merely back to the ancient "nature vs.
: >nurture" question.

: Good point.

: >FWIW, I'm forced to agree that a) there is, in fact, a "language instinct," and
: >that the instinct leads human languages to adhere to a surprisingly uniform
: >"Universal Grammar."  I'm further forced to agree that b) the Universal Grammar
: >has, rightly, led most programming languages to resemble natural languages
: >insofar as they conform to the Universal Grammar, and that those programming
: >languages that stray from it, in a laudable effort not to ensare the unwary in
: >grammatical complexity that does nothing whatsoever to solve the software
: >engineering problem at hand, often end up hurting the cognitive process more
: >than helping it.

I agree with this.

: Ever since I first heard of it, I've thought that the theory of a "Universal
: Grammar" is silly, ill-founded and counterproductive.  

Why?  I think it's a decent hypotheis to entertain.

I think of it as 'the result of the universal neural circuits in 2 year
olds'.  The *ability to learn* is built in.  To have a good ability to learn
some general features of the brain must be pre-wired.  And general features of
natural langauge must thus be constrained by what 2 year olds can learn.

(think -- the basis functions and representation have been pre-chosen.)

It may be that the 'Universal Grammar' is so Universally Ingrained into
our patterns of thinking that it is very difficult to get outside of it,
so thus we see all the widespread variation inside of this grammar but
not the commonalities.

(Why can't we understand dolphin 'speech'?  Why can't we even figure out
 whether dolphins have speech?  Why don't people have an intuitive
 understanding of number theory?  Why don't we talk like Binars?  Why is
 speech not maximally Shannon compressed?  Why does nearly every
 culture/language have sarcasm?)

to be extra geeky: we might happen to have a syntax-co-processor that
is non-orthogonal.

to be not so geeky: when thinking about programming, consider humans
as well as computers.  That's where the interesting part of "computer
science" may turn out to be.  

cheers
Matt

re "nature vs nurture".  The really right answer to these kinds of questions
often works out the same way as "Does the Earth go around the Sun or
does the Sun go around the Earth?"   The truth is: 'they both
orbit their common center of mass, which happens to be much closer to
the Sun than the earth'.  The real truth is often a third, more
interesting, alternative.



Mon, 13 Apr 1998 03:00:00 GMT  
 Syntaxology (Re: C++ vs Smalltalk?)
For all you minimalist syntax fans, here is the second most minimal
programming language syntax I could think of:

  1) there are two symbols: '0' and '1'
  2) interpretation is defined by the standard library
  3) execution begins at the left and procedes to the right, with
     exceptions as defined by the standard library.

There are a number of vendors of standard libraries for this language.
Intel and Motorola come to mind.

But this is still too many symbols.  Version 2 has only one symbol: 'S',
plus end of file.

For example:

    SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS

is equivalent to the version 1 program:

    1001

Hey guys, you can keep your minimalist syntax.  Espesially LISP - which
bears a striking resemblence to version 1, but uses '(' and ')' instead
of '0' and '1'.
--

                        <..!uunet!bms88!stuart>
                        Business Management Systems Inc.
                        Phone: 703 591-0911 Fax: 703 591-6154



Mon, 13 Apr 1998 03:00:00 GMT  
 Syntaxology (Re: C++ vs Smalltalk?)

Quote:


>> I think our time and energy
>> is much better spent on developing new forms of cumputer language
>> which don't rely so heavily on text or verbal forms of expression.
>I'll diverge here.  I think we would find it very difficult to do so,
>because linguistic expression is so intimately connected with our
>thinking.

Rational thinking, yes.  One of the worst limitations of current
programming paradigms is their tight connection with rational
thought, or to put it another way, the lack of a solid connection
to intuitive capabilities (which in some ways can be much more
powerful than reason).  The problem most people (especially us
technical types, myself certainly included) have with this is that
they can't put their intuitive capabilities into a nice, clean, well-
defined litte niche along with everything else.

Quote:
>Maybe dolphins, who apparently have very highly developed abilities for
>3-d spatial processing, could write truly 'visual programming languages'.

Humans also have highly developed spatial processing ability.
Sonar isn't a requirement.  One nice thing about vision is that it
seamlessly crosses over the rational/intuitive (or subconcious)
barrier by its very nature.  I think you can see where I'm headed.

Enough for now.  Back to our regularly scheduled flamewars.  



Mon, 13 Apr 1998 03:00:00 GMT  
 Syntaxology (Re: C++ vs Smalltalk?)
[William D. Gooch]

|   Rational thinking, yes.  One of the worst limitations of current
|   programming paradigms is their tight connection with rational thought,
|   or to put it another way, the lack of a solid connection to intuitive
|   capabilities (which in some ways can be much more powerful than
|   reason).  The problem most people (especially us technical types,
|   myself certainly included) have with this is that they can't put their
|   intuitive capabilities into a nice, clean, well- defined litte niche
|   along with everything else.

the problem is communication, not rational thought.  if you can devise a
means to communicate intuition and intent without language, programming
would be among the least interesting applications.

#<Erik 3023812036>
--
a good picture may well be worth a thousand words, but on the WWW,
even bad imagemaps cost tens of thousands of words.



Tue, 14 Apr 1998 03:00:00 GMT  
 Syntaxology (Re: C++ vs Smalltalk?)

: >Try reading programs, out loud, in natural language. Which kind of
: >language makes you sit and read the screen and think longer before you
: >talk?

: If read-aloud-ability is important, then we should be programming in
: COBOL.  (Of course, most of the code in the world *is* COBOL, even in
: non-English speaking countries, but let's not sully the discussion with
: facts).

Certainly that example shows that 'read-aloud-ability' ought not
be the only consideration; COBOL might have many faults for many
applications but an alien syntax is not one.

: --



Tue, 14 Apr 1998 03:00:00 GMT  
 Syntaxology (Re: C++ vs Smalltalk?)


|>
[ snip ]
|> > >: Ever since I first heard of it, I've thought that the theory of a "Universal
|> > >: Grammar" is silly, ill-founded and counterproductive.  
|>
|> > >Why?  I think it's a decent hypotheis to entertain.
|>
|> > What justifies the notion?  (similarities between languages with
|> > common roots don't count)  What is gained by having such a theory?  
|>
|> Explanation of experimentally observed data.

I don't understand what would count as 'experimentally observed
data' in a UG theory that postulates only commonalities in
some meta-area (e.g. learning strategies). By definition, the
universal aspects are not directly observable.

|>
|> > How is it not simply a windmill in the mist for linguists to tilt at, in
|> > true Don Quixote fashion?  (I see some similarity to Lenat's notion
|> > of what constitutes "common sense")
|>
|> > >I think of it as 'the result of the universal neural circuits in 2 year
|> > >olds'.  The *ability to learn* is built in.  To have a good ability to learn
|> > >some general features of the brain must be pre-wired.  And general features of
|> > >natural langauge must thus be constrained by what 2 year olds can learn.
|>
|> > I won't jump in and respond to these assertions, because there is
|> > no proof for them (or corresponding counter-claims), and I think
|> > we'd be getting into an endless and somewhat pointless debate.
|> > There are enough of those already floating around.  I agree with
|> > some of what you are saying here, but I think you're stretching
|> > pretty far to reach the conclusion that there is a Universal Grammar.
|>
|> I'm not a cognitive science researcher or linguist, but from what I
|> understand that is reasonably close to the emerging consensus.

I suspect that the consensus is an illusion generated by the
ability of Chomsky and Pinker to gain a wide hearing for their
ideas. Besides, UG sounds neat. :)
|>
|> This subject has been obviously a huge research effort for decades.

Oh, I think centuries would fit. The current hunt for UG is part
of a continuum which includes the development of invented natural
languages (invariably advertised as being easy to learn for all)
and speculation about the First Language.

|>
|> Various natural languages might not 'instantiate' all of the particular
|> kinds of forms seen in other languages and yet there are indeed some
|> common features.  So there may not be a single Universal Grammar, but
|> there is likely a single Universal Grammar Processor and Learner.  (The
|> 'yacc' file is not built in, but 'yacc' is).
|>
|> People have been researching the "subsymbolic" computational principles
|> (motivated by some biological reality) for some time now. And yes,
|> vaguely-realistic biological models suggest mechanisms for linguistic
|> processing that happen to show particular abilities, and mistakes,
|> experimentally observed in human subjects.  

True. But this has been true of a number of theories of language
processing and general cognition going back for decades. Usually,
the theories fail not because they make wrong predictions (they
rarely get that far) but because some new information about  human
brain function comes to light.

|>
|> Somehow, young children tend to learn language in similar ways everywhere,
|> with reasonably well defined patterns of memorization -> rule-inference ->
|> fluency despite having no contact with one another.
|>
|> If you accept a materialistic notion of language (if some brain areas are
|> lesioned from a stroke grammar *is* indeed impaired, no matter the native
|> language of the victim) then to me one would have to show evidence to
|> justify the opposite: that there is no limit or bias to natural human
|> grammar.
|>
|> cheers
|> matt

But this is not an argument for UG, except in a trivial sense, e.g.
we could postulate that UG prohibits sentences 10,000 words long,
on the basis that these never occur in speech. The general learning
abilities of humans have little if anything to say about the range
of existing grammatical structures.

I suggest followups go to sci.lang.

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Tue, 14 Apr 1998 03:00:00 GMT  
 Syntaxology (Re: C++ vs Smalltalk?)

Quote:

>the problem is communication, not rational thought.  if you can devise a
>means to communicate intuition and intent without language, programming
>would be among the least interesting applications.

Who said anything about doing away with language?  I was
suggesting the exploration of different *forms* of language.


Wed, 15 Apr 1998 03:00:00 GMT  
 
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