Language Preachers: A Language’s Worst Enemy

Nothing crushes a language’s chance at becoming popular like the activities of its political and religious agitators. It doesn’t matter if the situation of the language is that its on the rise, on the decline or on the rebound. Language preachers suck, always. The only chance a language has for a successful PR campaign is when that campaign is based completely on lies, is extremely well funded, and appears to provide a remedy-by-aversion to the sort of problems incompetent instructors and consultants can’t think through and yet still encourages the sale of completely abstract content about abstractions without actually having to write useful code (Java). It doesn’t matter if this campaign is a complete farce, it’ll work if it permits enough of the stupid to perceive themselves as now smart enough because it can generate an entire sub-industry based on trying to prove that something can be done in this newly minted language for the incompetent — a heavy side of brand new buzz words helps, too (if only the “cloud” had been a language…).

But that’s just Java. Other languages don’t have the benefit of an academic revolution to assist in shoving a particular interpretation of a single programming paradigm down our throats (complete with a language that enforces just that one paradigm). Most languages just have to make it on their own either on merit (Haskell, a few lisps, Python), be the language of the year’s hottest killer app (PHP and the original web, Ruby and Rails), be the language of a killer app (Javascript and Mozilla/Firefox), or be both strong on merits and be the mother of a whole family of killer apps (C being the obvious example of the closest thing to modern immortality).

Recently I’ve been involved in a few discussions about the relative merits of a few different languages, database systems, distro flavors, kernel details, etc. Of all these sopics the top two likely start a religious war are choice of language and choice of database. My made-up estimate is that language discussions are twice as likely to incite digital jihad than database discussions.

Maybe it is because we spend most of our time dealing directly in a language and actually thinking in that language, so it is internalized to a level nothing else is. I don’t “think” in LibreOffice (though I’ve seen a few people who can think in Calc functions and others in Excel functions — and I hope the two types never meet to talk about it), I don’t carry on an internal monologue of sorts in Firefox or Nautilus or Gnome — but I do talk to myself in a sort of visual way in Python, Guile, Haskell, C, Bash, Perl, plpgsql, opcodes and a few other languages when the need arises. Programmers are prone to do this — and it turns out that they are most likely to do it only in a single language, ever (pick one of Java, Perl, Javascript, PHP, or Ruby for the best religious wars).

To someone who doesn’t speak enough languages to have evolved a sort of quiet disdain for them all a weird form of moral relativism seems to pervade. All languages other than the one they already know well are at once “the best for some job, just depends on what you’re doing” and completely inferior at everything compared to $the_only_lang_i_know_well. And of course the complete n00b who doesn’t even know one language well yet will swear that LangX — which he will never take the time to study but will take the time to flood IRC with airy questions about — is the cure for cancer, war and was handed down by Mayan priests without actually knowing anything about it. Obviously there is a conflict here.

Most languages suck, and some suck far less than others. A very few suck so much less that they are almost good. That list is very short. The list of languages I think to myself in regularly is a mix of languages that I don’t completely despise and ones that I do despise but must use because useful projects are already written in them. It used to grind on me that I had to use inferior tools so often, but I’ve gotten past by accepting that most programmers are either really bad at what they do or are compelled by economic circumstances to abandon both their code and the quest for decent tools prematurely. Meh.

The last few years I’ve noticed a lot of Perl people getting zealous about their language. I’m not writing to bash Perl or its community — different communities go through their own inner social cycles as well. But the last six years or so has seen Perl people transition from a group that still self-assuredly represented the original web/CGI hackers and were held in guruly esteem to a group that is panicked about the low percentage of new projects written in Perl compared to the late 90’s and early 00’s. They’ve gone from a group that is solving problems to a group that is actively trying to tell everyone that Perl is still the thing to use, that its still hip and cool and better than everything else out there.

This is hurting Perl more than it is helping. Perl is indeed a good language, but the days when it was the de facto standard for a large subset of new project types is over. Panicking about it won’t help — but writing useful programs sure might. Today there are many alternatives that are at least as good as Perl ever was and many that are just better. Algol was and still is a great language, but I’m not about to start a new project in it. C is just better, and so far hasn’t been surpassed in that particular space (though its time may come, too). I make the decision to not use Algol out of an informed regard for the difficulty of maintaining Algol code in 2012 versus maintaining other code in 2012. If someone were constantly bombarding me with pro-Algol propaganda and biased trash benchmark comparisons then I would avoid Algol on principle instead of even learning enough about it to know whether or not it could have possibly been a good choice to begin with.

If Perl is the awzumest evar, then there is no need to proselytize. If it is on the decline, then there is a huge need to defend the temple — and this is the perception I have of this sort of behavior. It makes Perl people sound like Java people when it was a crap language trying to gain some mindshare — though in defense of that tactic Java did take over the shallow end of the pool, and that turned out to be the largest part of the pool by a vast margin.

The the Lisp community screwed itself by engaging in Java-style cheerleading for a time. This drove a wedge between the people who really could have benefitted from learning it and the community of language snobs who were already privy to The Great Mystery. The Postgres community was that way as well until very recently. I’m a card carrying lisper myself, but I admit the community just got retarded when it came to interacting with others. The only thing that has redeemed Lisp in recent years is that some of the best commercial Lisp developers also happen to be excellent writers. If it weren’t for that there would have been no revival because the inner community mixed with the outer community like water and oil over this language preaching business.

Perl is a genuinely good language and it has a genuinely good runtime (and the two are totally different issues). If it is fading, let it fade with majesty as one of the traditional uber-hacker languages of yore, bringing out your Perl magic as a way to intrigue and enlighten n00bs instead of making the word “Perl” synonymous with a noisy cult that is more interested in evangelizing than writing solutions to problems.

Don’t make the same mistake the Lispers did when they felt their language was threatened — its the difference between newcomers deliberately avoiding Perl instead of not having tried it yet.

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