The Concept of Programming Languages

The Concept of Programming Languages

Understanding the motivation and key idea behind programming languages

This document aims to shed some light on the significance of programming languages and, at a high level, how code is actually executed by the CPU.

Instruction Sets

At the the very core of your computer is the Central Processing Unit (CPU). This is basically the brain of your computer and does all of the information processing. I think most people are already aware of the integral role that the CPU plays in a computer but this document intends to go deeper. How does the CPU actually do what it does? Of course, the answer provided here is just a very high level overview- there are entire books written on this topic.

In essence, a CPU is a machine which offers functionality through a particular set of instructions. Needless to say, this set of instructions is robust enough to make possible all the computing that we observe today. The instructions can be grouped into three major categories: data movement, arithmentic/logic and control flow (order of execution of instructions).

A program is a list of instructions to be executed by the CPU sequentially. In the early days of computing, computer scientists used to write programs using the CPU instruction set itself. This was programming in assembly language. But as you can imagine, there are many challenges associated with this. A few:

  • Programs written for a particular CPU may not run on another CPU which implements a different instruction set
  • The developer needs to have intricate knowledge of the CPU instruction set and implementation to be any good

This is where programming languages come in...

Programming Languages

Programming languages provide a higher level of abstraction over the CPU instruction set. The higher this level of abstraction, the higher the level of the programming language. For example, C and Python are both programming languages, but they differ in the level of abstraction that they provide over the CPU instruction set. C provides abstractions/constructs which are much closer to the CPU's instruction set than Python's. As such, one may say that C is, relative to Python, a low level programming langugage. But relative to assembly/machine code, both C and Pyhton are regarded to be higher level programming langugages.

Programming langugages provide solutions to the problems above. From this point onwards, I shall use C for examples most of the time as it's neither too high level nor loo low level. The C compiler is a special program which enables one to generate low level machine dependent code from machine independent C code.

  • Programming languages can be implemented differently on different CPUs. For example, the C compiler is implemented differently for an Intel i5 processor, compared to an i7 processor because the instruction sets for these CPUs differ.
  • The developer no longer needs to care about the CPU on which the code is to be executed. The implementation of the programming langugage (in the case of C, the C compiler) for that particular machine (architecture) will take care of that!

Let's see this in action! Suppose one wants to write a program to print the text "Hello World!" onto the screen (I know this is kind of a cliché, but its a simple enough demonstration). Here is the C source code which would accomplish this task, stored in a file called hello.c:

#include <stdio.h>
int main(void) {
    printf("Hello World!\n");

In order to see the equivalent assembly code (on my Dual-Core Intel Core i5 processor), we can use the C compiler to compile it into assembly ($ denotes a command line, gcc is a C compiler program):

$ gcc -S hello.c

This command instructs the program gcc to compile the C source code in the file hello.c into the corresponding assembly code. By default, this will output the assembly code in to a file called hello.s (or .asm). If we take a look at the contents of hello.s, here's an example of what one would see:

    .section	__TEXT,__text,regular,pure_instructions
    .build_version macos, 10, 15	sdk_version 10, 15, 4
    .globl	_main                   ## -- Begin function main
    .p2align	4, 0x90
_main:                                  ## @main
## %bb.0:
    pushq	%rbp
    .cfi_def_cfa_offset 16
    .cfi_offset %rbp, -16
    movq	%rsp, %rbp
    .cfi_def_cfa_register %rbp
    subq	$16, %rsp
    leaq	L_.str(%rip), %rdi
    movb	$0, %al
    callq	_printf
    xorl	%ecx, %ecx
    movl	%eax, -4(%rbp)          ## 4-byte Spill
    movl	%ecx, %eax
    addq	$16, %rsp
    popq	%rbp
                                        ## -- End function
    .section	__TEXT,__cstring,cstring_literals
L_.str:                                 ## @.str
    .asciz	"Hello World!\n"

Clearly, the assembly code is more intricate and requires a deeper understanding of CPU registers and instructions in order to write- but a developer need not understand this when writing his/her source code in C. From this example, it should be evident what "high level" means in the context of programming langugages: with just 4 lines of C code, a developer can achieve what would take over 20 lines of assembly code. Also, the generated assembly code is dependent on the architecture of the machine, but the C code which produces the assembly code is NOT: the CPU has been completely abstracted away by the programming language!