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A.2 Perl as a Natural Language

Natural languages, languages (such as English) that people use on a daily basis to communicate with each other, are rich and complete. Most natural languages allow the speaker to express themselves succinctly and clearly. However, most natural languages are also full of arcane constructs that carry over from the language's past. In addition, for a given natural language, it is impossible to fully master the vocabulary and grammar because they are very large, extremely complex, and always changing.

You may wonder what these facts about natural languages have to do with a programming language like Perl. Surprising to most newcomers to Perl, the parallels between Perl and a natural language like English are striking. Larry Wall, the father of Perl, has extensive scholastic training as a linguist. Larry applied his linguistic knowledge to the creation of Perl, and thus, to the new student of Perl, a digression into these language parallels will give the student insight into the fundamentals of Perl.

Natural languages have the magnificent ability to provide a clear communication system for people of all skill levels and backgrounds. The same natural language can allow a linguistic neophyte (like a three-year-old child) to communicate herself nearly completely to others, while having only a minimal vocabulary. The same language also provides enough flexibility and clarity for the greatest of philosophers to write their works.

Perl is very much the same. Small Perl programs are easy to write and can perform many tasks easily. Even the newest student of Perl can write useful Perl programs. However, Perl is a rich language with many features. This allows the creation of simple programs that use a "limited" Perl vocabulary, and the creation of large, complicated programs that seem to work magic.

When studying Perl, it is helpful to keep the "richness" of Perl in mind. Newcomers find Perl frustrating because subtle changes in syntax can produce deep changes in semantics. It can even be helpful to think of Perl as another natural language rather than another programming language. Like in a natural language, you should feel comfortable writing Perl programs that use only the parts of Perl you know. However, you should be prepared to have a reference manual in hand when you are reading code written by someone else.

The fact that one cannot read someone else's code without a manual handy and the general "natural language" nature of Perl have been frequently criticized. These arguments are well taken, and Perl's rich syntax and semantics can be confusing to the newcomer. However, once the initial "information overload" subsides, most programmers find Perl exciting and challenging. Discovering new ways to get things done in Perl can be both fun and challenging! Hopefully, you will find this to be the case as well.


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