Scripting languages are designed for different tasks than system programming languages, and this leads to fundamental differences in the languages. System programming languages were designed for building data structures and algorithms from scratch, starting from the most primitive computer elements such as words of memory. In contrast, scripting languages are designed for gluing: they assume the existence of a set of powerful components and are intended primarily for connecting components together. System programming languages are strongly typed to help manage complexity, while scripting languages are typeless to simplify connections between components and provide rapid application development.
Scripting languages and system programming languages are complementary, and most major computing platforms since the 1960’s have provided both kinds of languages. The languages are typically used together in component frameworks, where components are created with system programming languages and glued together with scripting languages. However, several recent trends, such as faster machines, better scripting languages, the increasing importance of graphical user interfaces and component architectures, and the growth of the Internet, have greatly increased the applicability of scripting languages. These trends will continue over the next decade, with more and more new applications written entirely in scripting languages and system programming languages used primarily for creating components.
Scripting languages assume that there already exists a collection of useful components written in other languages. Scripting languages aren’t intended for writing applications from scratch; they are intended primarily for plugging together components. Scripting languages are often used to extend the features of components but they are rarely used for complex algorithms and data structures; features like these are usually provided by the components. Scripting languages are sometimes referred to as glue languages or system integration languages.
In order to simplify the task of connecting components, scripting languages tend to be typeless: all things look and behave the same so that they are interchangeable. For example, in Tcl or Visual Basic a variable can hold a string one moment and an integer the next. Code and data are often interchangeable, so that a program can write another program and then execute it on the fly. Scripting languages are often string-oriented, since this provides a uniform representation for many different things.
A typeless language makes it much easier to hook together components. There are no a priori restrictions on how things can be used, and all components and values are represented in a uniform fashion. Thus any component or value can be used in any situation; components designed for one purpose can be used for totally different purposes never foreseen by the designer.
John K. Ousterhout
(This article appears in IEEE Computer magazine, March 1998)