All languages equally complex

This post compares complexity in spoken languages and programming languages.

There is a theory in linguistics that all human languages are equally complex. Languages may distribute their complexity in different ways, but the total complexity is roughly the same across all spoken languages. One language may be simpler in some aspect than another but more complicated in some other respect. For example, Chinese has simple grammar but a complex tonal system.

Even if all languages are equally complex, that doesn’t mean all languages are equally difficult to learn. An English speaker might find French easier to learn than Russian, not because French is simpler than Russian in some objective sense, but because French is more similar to English.

All spoken languages are supposed to be equally complex because languages reach an equilibrium between at least two forces. Skilled adult speakers tend to complicate languages by looking for ways to be more expressive. But children must be able to learn their language relatively quickly, and less skilled speakers need to be able to use the language as well.

I wonder what this says about programming languages. There are analogous dynamics. Programming languages can be relatively simpler in some way while being relatively complex in another way. And programming languages become more complex over time due to the demands of skilled users.

But there are several important differences. Programming languages are part of a complex system of language, standard libraries, idioms, tools, etc. It may make more sense to speak of a programming “system” to make better comparisons, taking into account the language and its environment.

I do not think that all programming systems are equally complex. Some are better designed than others. Some are more appropriate for a given task than others. Some programming systems achieve simplicity by sacrificing efficiency. Some abstractions leak less than others.

On the other hand, I imagine the levels of complexity are more similar when comparing programming systems rather than just comparing programming languages.  Larry Wall said something to the effect that Perl is ugly so you can write beautiful programs in it. I think there’s some truth to that. A language can always be small and elegant by simply not providing much functionality, forcing the user to implement that functionality in application code.

See Larry Wall’s article Natural Language Principles in Perl for more comparisons of spoken languages and programming languages.

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