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The history of programming language semantics: an overview

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Troy Astarte



In the 1960s, a full formal description was seen as a crucial and unavoidable part of creating a new programming language. A key part of that was a thorough and rigorous description of the semantics. However, in the decades since, the focus on providing this has somewhat diminished. Why was formal semantics once seen as so critical? Why did it not succeed in the ways hoped? These questions are explored by considering the history of model-based approaches to describing programming languages, with a particular focus on the IBM Laboratory Vienna under Heinz Zemanek, and the Programming Research Group at Oxford University under Christopher Strachey. It is shown that there were a variety of different approaches to the problem, stemming from the different backgrounds of the people and groups involved. The story of formal language description is in some ways also the story of early programming languages and the integration of mathematics into the emerging new field of computer science, resulting in the formation of theoretical computing in the European style. This paper is the first draft of one that will be submitted for publication in a Johns Hopkins University Press volume. The finished paper is likely to be significantly different to the one here. This note will be updated when bibliographic information is available for the published version.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Astarte TK

Publication type: Report

Publication status: Published

Series Title: School of Computing Technical Report

Year: 2020

Pages: 38

Online publication date: 01/06/2020

Acceptance date: 01/06/2020

Report Number: 1533

Institution: Newcastle University

Place Published: Newcastle upon Tyne