FlexVerb: A Serious Toy Language
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FlexVerb: A Serious Toy Language

TLDR: FlexVerb is a barely-implemented programming language based on Latin and Ancient Greek. It is essentially a blog post, in executable code form, about an obscure linguistic quirk and its unexpected benefits.


There is hardly any implementation at all. I've only implemented the smallest possible subset of FlexVerb. (I will happily add contributors to the GitHub repo if I see sensible pull requests, though.) I implemented only a tiny subset partly because this is the first language I've ever implemented in the first place, and mostly because I only need a tiny subset working in order to make my point.

Here is pretty much everything you can actually do, in real life, with FlexVerb today:

↪  bin/flexverb -e 'verb(print) direct-object("hello world")'
hello world

↪  bin/flexverb hello_world.fv
hello world

That's pretty much it. That and a syntax definition file for Vim.

Why FlexVerb is interesting anyway

Most programming languages are based either on the language of modern Western mathematics, or the English language, or (most commonly) some synthesis of the two. Most of those syntheses are awkward, but some are graceful.

However, the number of human languages is incredibly vast, and many of them use very different structures from English. I believe that the role English plays, as a model for the overwhelming majority of programming languages, is very unlikely to last forever.

(Human languages also have an incredible virtue that, if I ever have children, I will fervently want a programming language to have: all spoken languages are easy for a child to learn. In fact, all spoken languages are inevitable for a child to learn, under the right circumstances.)

FlexVerb demonstrates what a programming language based on Latin and Ancient Greek might look like, because those are the two human languages I know the most about, after English.

Word order and transformation in classical Western languages

Classical Western languages (and their modern descendants, to a lesser degree) communicate a word's grammatical purpose not through the word's location in the sentence, but through its form. If you want to say "farmer," in Latin, you can't, at least, not yet. There isn't enough information to determine the shape of the word, because the shape of the word will depend on how you use it. So you have to also choose its use case.

(I hope it's obvious how a language where it is impossible to say a word until you've determined its purpose could be useful for training young programmers.)

The Latin word for "farmer" will be "agricola" if there is one farmer who is the subject of the sentence. But if the farmer plays the role of the direct object in the sentence, the word will be "agricolam." In other words, the agricola says hello, but you say hello to the agricolam.

I'll oversimplify for the purposes of this readme, and you can find corrections below, but in English, "the farmer said hello" only works as a sentence if "the farmer" appears at the beginning. "Said hello the farmer" doesn't mean anything. Even Yoda would have to say "Said hello, the farmer did" for people to make sense of that. But in Latin, you could put "agricola" at the beginning of the sentence, at the end, or in the middle. Since the word's form communicates its purpose, its location is irrelevant. So "says hello agricola" means "the farmer says hello," and "agricola says hello" also means "the farmer says hello."

But even though "agricola says hello" and "says hello agricola" do not differ insofar as each communicates the same basic idea, they do differ as sentences. Latin and Greek used these differences to communicate nuance and emphasis. "Agricola says hello" emphasizes that the farmer said hello, as opposed to goodbye. "Says hello agricola" emphasizes that it was the farmer who said it (as opposed to the goatherd). Since word order didn't play the central role in Latin or Greek grammar which it plays in English grammar, writers were free to use it for more subtle purposes. This is a freedom which code could, at least in theory, benefit from.

FlexVerb brings this language feature to code

FlexVerb is a tiny toy language, implemented in Ruby via Parslet, in which token order is inconsequential.

For example:

verb(print) direct-object("hello world")

The verb is print, the object is "hello world". You can abbreviate those terms:

v(print) o("hello world")

More importantly, you can switch them around:

o("hello world") v(print)

So if you print "hello world", and then you print something else, you would use the first form.

v(print) o("hello world")
v(print) o("I like turtles")

But you would use the second form if you first print "hello world," and next you say it out loud through a speech synthesizer (like the say command in OS X).

o("hello world") v(print)
o("hello world") v(say)

Obviously, this is a silly example, but consider a controller in a web app, which, after a user signs up, needs to email a confirmation message and also add welcome text to the next page it renders.

verb(render) adjective(welcome) object(message)
verb(email) adjective(confirmation) object(message)

Which of course compresses to

v(render) a(welcome) o(message)
v(email) a(confirmation) o(message)

Add permissive whitespace:

v(render)   a(welcome)        o(message)
v(email)    a(confirmation)   o(message)

It's really easy to see how the above code sample could turn into a pair of message classes which have different content, and which each implement their send function slightly differently. In Ruby:


Likewise, it's really easy to see how the following FlexVerb code could get shorter with Ruby's tap, or a with statement like those found in JavaScript and Python:

o("hello world")   v(print)
o("hello world")   v(email)
o("hello world")   v(render)
o("hello world")   v(say)

Although FlexVerb has plenty of silly failings, it has one really wonderful advantage: it suggests refactorings very rapidly. It's really easy to look at FlexVerb code and spot alternative ways to structure it. The restructuring is really easy too; it's a zero-cost thing to move terms around and see which ones line up most easily, which in my opinion is a good first step in any refactoring anyway.

This echoes one of the virtues of human classical languages.

Lawyers often learn classical languages prior to entering law school, not just because Western legal systems contain a lot of terminology dating back to the Roman Empire, but also because classical languages train you to structure your thoughts. For this latter reason, I also recommend studying classical languages for any programmer.

In Latin and Ancient Greek, the freedom to structure sentences any way you like, coupled with very explicit grammar, makes it really easy to surface implicit lists, grids, and hierarchies. I believe this simple, toy example of a programming language makes those same things easy by having those same characteristics.

Syntax Highlighting

In a language like this, syntax highlighting is crucial, because you really want the verb() and direct-object() markers to fade into the background. (Good syntax highlighting for Lisp de-emphasizes parentheses for the same reason.) So FlexVerb includes a syntax highlighting file for Vim. This is not a fully-fledged pathogen plugin, and no other text editors are currently supported, but pull requests are welcome.

Epic humblebrag (or maybe just crazybrag)

The syntax definition for FlexVerb tells Vim to treat the v() stuff as comments, de-emphasizing them in most color schemes, while highlighting the actual parts of speech distinctly. This allows you to recognize the purpose of a term as soon as you see it, without having to figure it out from the verb() or direct-object() markers, and that's actually how I first discovered syntax highlighting. I invented syntax highlighting independently long before I ever saw it in a text editor, back when I was studying Latin for fun after dropping out of college. I realize that every part of that last sentence is insane, but it's all true.

I was taking a class through a local university's extension program. We were reading a book in Latin by the philosopher Cicero. All the different "agricola" and "agricolam" permutations were hard to remember, but easy to look up and label, so I'd first underline each word in a sentence with a particular color to indicate the word's grammatical function, and then read the whole sentence through.


I haven't implemented this, but here's how I imagine it working.

subject(23) verb(times) direct-object(5)

corresponds to

23 * 5

which is how Ruby models basic math, because * is really just a method on the object 23. This equivalent Ruby makes the underlying semantics more explicit:

23.* 5


v(multiply) s(23) o(5)

retains those exact same semantics, but phrases it in the way Lisps phrase basic math. (FlexVerb should probably give you both times and multiply for convenience.) To translate:

(* 23 5)

Although FlexVerb does not yet support the subject() idea, FlexVerb already permits this kind of flexible phrasing, and adding a math implementation would be trivial. (Pull requests welcome!)

Operator precedence

Loren Segal provided a simple math challenge:

5 + 3 * 12

That's easy!

s(5) v(plus) o(s(3) v(times) o(12))

Admittedly, it's ugly, but with good syntax highlighting, you could make it much easier to read. It would basically look like this:

  5    plus      3    times    12

Not for production use, duh

Obviously this is an exploratory project. I don't expect the language to see a whole lot of adoption, and it's a very incomplete implementation. It's really just a fun toy for people who find languages interesting.

A note about the actual human languages

Everything I said above oversimplifies Latin. To use actual Latin vocabulary, the sentences "agricola says hello" and "says hello agricola" would be something more like "agricola dicit vale" and "dicit vale agricola," but I think "agricola vale dicit" and "vale dicit agricola" would actually be more idiomatic. Word order is not entirely inconsequential in classical languages, it's just much, much less significant and rigid than it is in English.

Also, rather than two forms, "farmer" in Latin takes at least 10 different forms, and that's just for beginner-level stuff like "the field was plowed by the farmers" and "this is the farmer's farm."

Ancient Greek is even more complicated. I think some words have a total of 17 different categories of formal transformation. Also, the Romans made Latin a standardized language everywhere in their empire, while the independent Greek city-states each developed their own different, idiosyncratic dialect. So that's not really 17 categories of formal transformation per word; it's 17 categories of formal transformation per word, per dialect. The total number of forms a word can take in Ancient Greek is quite large.

I've also oversimplified English. There are situations where you can shift around the position of the subject and the verb in an English sentence and still get away with it. Examples:

Quoth the raven, 'nevermore.'

What light through yonder window breaks?

Both examples are not only archaic but also from poetry. I don't actually know if this is a limitation of English, or a limitation of my knowledge of English.

Related projects

Perligata is a Perl library which enables you to write code purely in Latin. It's insane even by Perl standards (although this is not necessarily a bad thing).


SQL syntax is also very interesting in this context, as I believe that among computer languages in serious use today, it's the only one which features prepositions, and also the one most closely based on English.

Ithkuil is an invented human language designed to prevent ambiguity.