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Why Software Language Engineering?

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This chapter explains why languages are becoming more and more important in computer science and why language engineering, the art of creating languages, is an important topic for computer scientists.
This chapter is from the book
  • An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.
  • —Victor Hugo French dramatist, novelist, and poet (1802–1885)

This chapter explains why languages are becoming more and more important in computer science and why language engineering, the art of creating languages, is an important topic for computer scientists. This chapter also gives some background knowledge on several theories regarding languages and language engineering.

1.1 An Increasing Number of Languages

In the past few years, an increasing number of languages used for designing and creating software have been created. Along with that has come an increasing interest in language engineering: in other words, the act of creating languages.

First, domain-specific languages (DSLs) have become more and more dominant. DSLs—languages for describing software—are focused on describing either a certain aspect of a software system or that software system from a particular viewpoint. One can compare a DSL to a certain jargon, for example, in stockmarket jargon terms like "going short" and "bear market" have specific meaning.

Second, modeling languages, specifically domain-specific modeling languages (DSMLs)—a special type of DSL—have become very important within the field of model-driven development (MDD), also known as model-driven architecture (MDA). Each model is written in a specific language, and the model is transformed into another model written in (in most cases) yet another language. Without the existence of multiple modeling and programming languages, model-driven development would be certainly less relevant. However, multiple languages do exist and, judging by the number of (programming) language debates on the Internet, many people are very happy with that. They are glad that they can use their favorite language because, in their opinion, the other languages are all so very worthless.

Another driving force behind the increase in the number of languages used in software development is the recognition of various categories of software systems. Each category of software systems, or architecture type, defines its own set of languages. For example, Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) has brought a large number of languages into being:

  • Semantic Web Services Language (SWSL)
  • Web Services Business Process Execution Language (WS-BPEL)
  • Web Services Choreography Description Language (WS-CDL)
  • Web Services Description Language (WSDL)
  • Web Services Flow Language (WSFL, from IBM)
  • Web Services Modeling Language (WSML, from ESSI WSMO group)

The coming years will bring more and more languages describing software into this world. Without a doubt, there will be developments similar to the ones we have witnessed in the creation of programming languages. Some languages will be defined and owned by private companies, never to be used outside that company. Some languages will be defined by standardization committees (e.g., OMG, CCITT, DOD, ISO); others will be created by private companies and standardized later on. Some languages will become popular, and some will find an early death in oblivion. But the one thing we can be certain of is that information technology (IT) professionals will be spending their time and efforts on creating languages and the tooling to support their use.

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