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Semantics First! - Rethinking the Language Design Process

TitleSemantics First! - Rethinking the Language Design Process
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsErwig, M., and E. Walkingshaw
Conference NameSoftware Language Engineering - 4th International Conference, SLE 2011
Date Published07/2011
Conference LocationBraga, Portugal

The design of languages is still more of an art than an engineering discipline. Although recently tools have been put forward to support the language design process, such as language workbenches, these have mostly focused on a syntactic view of languages. While these tools are quite helpful for the development of parsers and editors, they provide little support for the underlying design of the languages. In this paper we illustrate how to support the design of languages by focusing on their semantics first. Specifically, we will show that powerful and general language operators can be employed to adapt and grow sophisticated languages out of simple semantics concepts. We use Haskell as a metalanguage and will associate generic language concepts, such as semantics domains, with Haskell-specific ones, such as data types. We do this in a way that clearly distinguishes our approach to language design from the traditional syntax-oriented one. This will reveal some unexpected correlations, such as viewing type classes as language multipliers. We illustrate the viability of our approach with several real-world examples.