Last week, I wrote a post comparing simple programs written in Haskell, Python, and Java to demonstrate the expressiveness of Haskell. It got me thinking whether expressiveness is something we can compare between any two programming languages.
One thing that is very visible among the three implementations is the size of the programs. Is that a good measure of expressiveness of a language? I don’t think so. If being concise is what makes a language expressive, obfuscated C programs would be everywhere and even encouraged.
We also have APL, a unique mathematically-inclined programming language designed for conciseness. To anyone unfamiliar with the syntax of the language, APL looks like a series of nonsensical graphical symbols, letters, and numbers. However, to an APL programmer, each graphical symbol or set of symbols stands in for a mathematical function.
Trying to be concise took away expressiveness in the case of C but is the strength of APL.
Type systems restrict possible valid programs in a language. This, in some sense, should make the statically checked, strongly typed languages less expressive than the dynamically checked, weakly typed languages as there are less valid programs that can be constructed. Some programs are invalid in strongly typed languages but are valid in weakly typed languages.
But, both Haskell and Lisp are considered highly expressive languages. Haskell is strongly typed and statically checked where as Lisp is weakly typed (compared to Haskell) and dynamically checked language.
I don’t consider programming paradigm to be a property of a programming language, it is rather something that a language promotes. This is evident in Python which provides many constructs to supports procedural, object oriented, and functional style of programming.
However, it is definitely possible that some problems and/or their solutions are better expressed in one style than in other.
How quickly can you express your ideas in a language can also be a measure of expressiveness. Dynamically typed languages, like Python, Ruby, etc., are considered to excel at this. However, proponents of modern statically typed languages like Haskell claim that its type inferencing mechanism nullifies this advantage by being quick to write programs and providing static type safety.
It might be safe to consider expressiveness of a language to be some combination of each of the above factors. But that adds more fuel to the confusion. What is the right balance? How do we compare two languages with different weights associated with each the above factors?
We can also go by the definition where expressiveness is simple measure of all the things that can be expressed in that language. Most general purpose programing languages are Turing Complete, that is they can express anything computable.
I think each programming language defines what expressiveness means for that language.
For Lisp and family, being able to express almost anything with its macro system is its expressive power. For Haskell and family, it is its type system which allows expressing abstract concepts clearly with added type safety. For Python and other dynamic languages, expressiveness is a measure of how quickly you can express the abstraction.