Polymorphism and language

Alan Kay alank at wdi.disney.com
Sun Aug 30 01:19:00 UTC 1998

Adam --

Thanks for the thanks. Actually, we need you and the rest of the list to
help think about the following situation and to make an analogy to computer
languages:  a child learning a natural language starts a progression that
can culminate in Shakespeare, Cervantes, Newton and Einstein. The biggest
change is in the ideas that the child can deal with, and in the larger
rhetorical structures in which they are expressed. From the standpoint of
the language itself, it is the vocabulary that most enlarges with the new
concepts, but the syntax only grows a little (and none of the old is

We would like to achieve that with Squeak. Lots of this already works,
especially for young children (if you unearth the tiling scriptors and
viewers you will see what I mean). The next stage, however, is "scripting"
in the same niche as Hypertalk -- but which needs to be much better -- and
for this, Smalltalk-80 syntax is not as initially friendly as it could be
-- though it is closer to readable than it at first appears. We need some
ideas for a syntax and a style that bridges from childhood through
nonpro-enduser through expert use. Naturally, we have been thinking about
this for some time, but one of the many nice things about this list is the
diversity of intelligent viewpoints -- and these can be a real help when
tough design problems present themselves.

The idea is that anyone should be able to find a starting place with
Squeak, and the system should be self revealing enough so that it acts as a
kind of curriculum that can take interested users as far as they want to
go. Syntax and style are a small but important part of this goal.

BTW, any foreign syntax (e.g. APL or standard musical notation) can be
daunting, it generally takes a year or more to become really fluent, and
then the notation usually pays off big -- the trick (or question) is how to
make progress without despair in the meantime...




At 12:33 AM -0000 8/30/98, Adam Bridge wrote:
>Teach me to be an English major back in the 60s instead of delving into the
>computer realm.  It took me until the late 70s to get THERE.
>APL was always a mystery to me: it's coding into symbols, while conceptually
>rich, was too high a price of admission for me, perhaps because the same
>learning disability that makes foreign languages so difficult for me was
>in the same way.
>Thank you for your remarks and insights.  I enjoy Squeak and this news group
>because it always seems to operate where my mind ought to be.  Which makes it
>both rare and beyond price.
>On 8/29/98 at 4:37 PM, alank at wdi.disney.com (Alan Kay) wrote:
>> This was a dream of the sixties, and the very first working version of
>> Smalltalk (72) manifested this dream. It was set up so that each object
>> could easily implement its own grammar for receiving messages. This allowed
>> many "small languages" to be developed and mixed. The expressivity was very
>> high. Unfortunately, we forgot that languages are also for communication --
>> for being read, not just for being written -- and what we quickly wound up
>> with was a Tower of Babel -- as least as far as people who were trying to
>> learn from our code were concerned. For Smalltalk-76 we decided that the
>> language should be always be readable, and that the extensibility that was
>> really needed was in expressing meanings.

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