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2.4E: Language Generations

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  • Generations of Programming Languages

    Early languages were specific to the type of hardware that had to be programmed; each type of computer hardware had a different low-level programming language (in fact, even today there are differences at the lower level, though they are now obscured by higher-level programming languages). In these early languages, very specific instructions had to be entered line by line – a tedious process.

    First-generation languages are called machine code. In machine code, programming is done by directly setting actual ones and zeroes (the bits) in the program using binary code. Here is an example program that adds 1234 and 4321 using machine language:

    10111001 00000000
    11010010 10100001
    00000100 00000000
    10001001 00000000
    00001110 10001011
    00000000 00011110
    00000000 00011110
    00000000 00000010
    10111001 00000000
    11100001 00000011
    00010000 11000011
    10001001 10100011
    00001110 00000100
    00000010 00000000

    Assembly language is the second-generation language. Assembly language gives english-like phrases to the machine-code instructions, making it easier to program. An assembly-language program must be run through an assembler, which converts it into machine code. Here is an example program that adds 1234 and 4321 using assembly language:

    MOV CX,1234
    MOV DS:[0],CX
    MOV CX,4321
    MOV AX,DS:[0]
    MOV BX,DS:[2]
    MOV DS:[4],AX

    Third-generation languages are not specific to the type of hardware on which they run and are much more like spoken languages. Most third-generation languages must be compiled, a process that converts them into machine code. Well-known third-generation languages include BASIC, C, Pascal, and Java. Here is an example using BASIC:


    Fourth-generation languages are a class of programming tools that enable fast application development using intuitive interfaces and environments. Many times, a fourth-generation language has a very specific purpose, such as database interaction or report-writing. These tools can be used by those with very little formal training in programming and allow for the quick development of applications and/or functionality. Examples of fourth-generation languages include: Clipper, FOCUS, FoxPro, SQL, and SPSS.

    Why would anyone want to program in a lower-level language when they require so much more work? The answer is similar to why some prefer to drive stick-shift automobiles instead of automatic transmission: control and efficiency. Lower-level languages, such as assembly language, are much more efficient and execute much more quickly. You have finer control over the hardware as well. Sometimes, a combination of higher- and lower-level languages are mixed together to get the best of both worlds: the programmer will create the overall structure and interface using a higher-level language but will use lower-level languages for the parts of the program that are used many times or require more precision.


    The programming language spectrum (click to enlarge).

    The programming language spectrum (click to enlarge)

    Compiled vs. Interpreted

    Besides classifying a program language based on its generation, it can also be classified by whether it is compiled or interpreted. As we have learned, a computer language is written in a human-readable form. In a compiled language, the program code is translated into a machine-readable form called an executable that can be run on the hardware. Some well-known compiled languages include C, C++, and COBOL.

    An interpreted language is one that requires a runtime program to be installed in order to execute. This runtime program then interprets the program code line by line and runs it. Interpreted languages are generally easier to work with but also are slower and require more system resources. Examples of popular interpreted languages include BASIC, PHP, PERL, and Python. The web languages of HTML and Javascript would also be considered interpreted because they require a browser in order to run.

    The Java programming language is an interesting exception to this classification, as it is actually a hybrid of the two. A program written in Java is partially compiled to create a program that can be understood by the Java Virtual Machine (JVM). Each type of operating system has its own JVM which must be installed, which is what allows Java programs to run on many different types of operating systems.