High-level programming language

In computer science, a high-level programming language is a programming language with strong abstraction from the details of the computer. In contrast to low-level programming languages, it may use natural language elements, be easier to use, or may automate (or even hide entirely) significant areas of computing systems (e.g. memory management), making the process of developing a program simpler and more understandable than when using a lower-level language. The amount of abstraction provided defines how "high-level" a programming language is.[1]

In the 1960s, high-level programming languages using a compiler were commonly called autocodes.[2] Examples of autocodes are COBOL and Fortran.[3]

The first high-level programming language designed for computers was Plankalkül, created by Konrad Zuse.[4] However, it was not implemented in his time, and his original contributions were largely isolated from other developments due to World War II, aside from the language's influence on the "Superplan" language by Heinz Rutishauser and also to some degree Algol. The first significantly widespread high-level language was Fortran, a machine-independent development of IBM's earlier Autocode systems. Algol, defined in 1958 and 1960 by committees of European and American computer scientists, introduced recursion as well as nested functions under lexical scope. It was also the first language with a clear distinction between value and name-parameters and their corresponding semantics.[5] Algol also introduced several structured programming concepts, such as the while-do and if-then-else constructs and its syntax was the first to be described in formal notation – "Backus–Naur form" (BNF). During roughly the same period, Cobol introduced records (also called structs) and Lisp introduced a fully general lambda abstraction in a programming language for the first time.


"High-level language" refers to the higher level of abstraction from machine language. Rather than dealing with registers, memory addresses and call stacks, high-level languages deal with variables, arrays, objects, complex arithmetic or boolean expressions, subroutines and functions, loops, threads, locks, and other abstract computer science concepts, with a focus on usability over optimal program efficiency. Unlike low-level assembly languages, high-level languages have few, if any, language elements that translate directly into a machine's native opcodes. Other features, such as string handling routines, object-oriented language features, and file input/output, may also be present. One thing to note about high-level programming languages is that these languages allow the programmer to be detached and separated from the machine. That is, unlike low-level languages like assembly or machine language, high-level programming can amplify the programmer's instructions and trigger a lot of data movements in the background without their knowledge. The responsibility and power of executing instructions have been handed over to the machine from the programmer.

Abstraction penalty

High-level languages intend to provide features which standardize common tasks, permit rich debugging, and maintain architectural agnosticism; while low-level languages often produce more efficient code through optimization for a specific system architecture. Abstraction penalty is the cost that high-level programming techniques pay for being unable to optimize performance or use certain hardware because they don't take advantage of certain low-level architectural resources. High-level programming exhibits features like more generic data structures and operations, run-time interpretation, and intermediate code files; which often result in execution of far more operations than necessary, higher memory consumption, and larger binary program size.[6][7][8] For this reason, code which needs to run particularly quickly and efficiently may require the use of a lower-level language, even if a higher-level language would make the coding easier. In many cases, critical portions of a program mostly in a high-level language can be hand-coded in assembly language, leading to a much faster, more efficient, or simply reliably functioning optimised program.

However, with the growing complexity of modern microprocessor architectures, well-designed compilers for high-level languages frequently produce code comparable in efficiency to what most low-level programmers can produce by hand, and the higher abstraction may allow for more powerful techniques providing better overall results than their low-level counterparts in particular settings.[9] High-level languages are designed independent of a specific computing system architecture. This facilitates executing a program written in such a language on any computing system with compatible support for the Interpreted or JIT program. High-level languages can be improved as their designers develop improvements. In other cases, new high-level languages evolve from one or more others with the goal of aggregating the most popular constructs with new or improved features. An example of this is Scala which maintains backward compatibility with Java which means that programs and libraries written in Java will continue to be usable even if a programming shop switches to Scala; this makes the transition easier and the lifespan of such high-level coding indefinite. In contrast, low-level programs rarely survive beyond the system architecture which they were written for without major revision. This is the engineering 'trade-off' for the 'Abstraction Penalty'.

Relative meaning

Examples of high-level programming languages in active use today include Python, Visual Basic, Delphi, Perl, PHP, ECMAScript, Ruby, C# and many others.

The terms high-level and low-level are inherently relative. Some decades ago, the C language, and similar languages, were most often considered "high-level", as it supported concepts such as expression evaluation, parameterised recursive functions, and data types and structures, while assembly language was considered "low-level". Today, many programmers might refer to C as low-level, as it lacks a large runtime-system (no garbage collection, etc.), basically supports only scalar operations, and provides direct memory addressing. It, therefore, readily blends with assembly language and the machine level of CPUs and microcontrollers.

Assembly language may itself be regarded as a higher level (but often still one-to-one if used without macros) representation of machine code, as it supports concepts such as constants and (limited) expressions, sometimes even variables, procedures, and data structures. Machine code, in its turn, is inherently at a slightly higher level than the microcode or micro-operations used internally in many processors.

Execution modes

There are three general modes of execution for modern high-level languages:

When code written in a language is interpreted, its syntax is read and then executed directly, with no compilation stage. A program called an interpreter reads each program statement, following the program flow, then decides what to do, and does it. A hybrid of an interpreter and a compiler will compile the statement into machine code and execute that; the machine code is then discarded, to be interpreted anew if the line is executed again. Interpreters are commonly the simplest implementations of the behavior of a language, compared to the other two variants listed here.
When code written in a language is compiled, its syntax is transformed into an executable form before running. There are two types of compilation:
Machine code generation
Some compilers compile source code directly into machine code. This is the original mode of compilation, and languages that are directly and completely transformed to machine-native code in this way may be called truly compiled languages. See assembly language.
Intermediate representations
When code written in a language is compiled to an intermediate representation, that representation can be optimized or saved for later execution without the need to re-read the source file. When the intermediate representation is saved, it may be in a form such as bytecode. The intermediate representation must then be interpreted or further compiled to execute it. Virtual machines that execute bytecode directly or transform it further into machine code have blurred the once clear distinction between intermediate representations and truly compiled languages.
Source-to-source translated or transcompiled
Code written in a language may be translated into terms of a lower-level language for which native code compilers are already common. JavaScript and the language C are common targets for such translators. See CoffeeScript, Chicken Scheme, and Eiffel as examples. Specifically, the generated C and C++ code can be seen (as generated from the Eiffel language when using the EiffelStudio IDE) in the EIFGENs directory of any compiled Eiffel project. In Eiffel, the translated process is referred to as transcompiling or transcompiled, and the Eiffel compiler as a transcompiler or source-to-source compiler.

Note that languages are not strictly interpreted languages or compiled languages. Rather, implementations of language behavior use interpreting or compiling. For example, ALGOL 60 and Fortran have both been interpreted (even though they were more typically compiled). Similarly, Java shows the difficulty of trying to apply these labels to languages, rather than to implementations; Java is compiled to bytecode which is then executed by either interpreting (in a Java virtual machine (JVM)) or compiling (typically with a just-in-time compiler such as HotSpot, again in a JVM). Moreover, compiling, transcompiling, and interpreting are not strictly limited to only a description of the compiler artifact (binary executable or IL assembly).

High-level language computer architecture

Alternatively, it is possible for a high-level language to be directly implemented by a computer – the computer directly executes the HLL code. This is known as a high-level language computer architecture – the computer architecture itself is designed to be targeted by a specific high-level language. The Burroughs large systems were target machines for ALGOL 60, for example.

See also


  1. ^ HThreads - RD Glossary
  2. ^ London, Keith (1968). "4, Programming". Introduction to Computers. 24 Russell Square London WC1: Faber and Faber Limited. p. 184. ISBN 0571085938. The 'high' level programming languages are often called autocodes and the processor program, a compiler.
  3. ^ London, Keith (1968). "4, Programming". Introduction to Computers. 24 Russell Square London WC1: Faber and Faber Limited. p. 186. ISBN 0571085938. Two high level programming languages which can be used here as examples to illustrate the structure and purpose of autocodes are COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) and FORTRAN (Formular Translation).
  4. ^ Giloi, Wolfgang, K. (1997). "Konrad Zuse's Plankalkül: The First High-Level "non von Neumann" Programming Language". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 17–24, April–June, 1997. (abstract)
  5. ^ Although it lacked a notion of reference-parameters, which could be a problem in some situations. Several successors, including AlgolW, Algol68, Simula, Pascal, Modula and Ada therefore included reference-parameters (The related C-language family instead allowed addresses as value-parameters).
  6. ^ Surana P (2006). "Meta-Compilation of Language Abstractions" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-02-17. Retrieved 2008-03-17.
  7. ^ Kuketayev. "The Data Abstraction Penalty (DAP) Benchmark for Small Objects in Java". Retrieved 2008-03-17.
  8. ^ Chatzigeorgiou; Stephanides (2002). "Evaluating Performance and Power Of Object-Oriented Vs. Procedural Programming Languages". In Blieberger; Strohmeier (eds.). Proceedings - 7th International Conference on Reliable Software Technologies - Ada-Europe'2002. Springer. p. 367.
  9. ^ Manuel Carro; José F. Morales; Henk L. Muller; G. Puebla; M. Hermenegildo (2006). "High-level languages for small devices: a case study" (PDF). Proceedings of the 2006 international conference on Compilers, architecture and synthesis for embedded systems. ACM.

External links


Autocode is the name of a family of "simplified coding systems", later called programming languages, devised in the 1950s and 1960s for a series of digital computers at the Universities of Manchester, Cambridge and London. Autocode was a generic term; the autocodes for different machines were not necessarily closely related as are, for example, the different versions of the single language Fortran.

Today the term is used to refer to the family of early languages descended from the Manchester Mark 1 autocoder systems, which were generally similar. In the 1960s, the term autocoders was used more generically as to refer to any high-level programming language using a compiler.

Examples of languages referred to as autocodes are COBOL and Fortran.


CoCoA (Computations in Commutative Algebra)

is a free computer algebra system developed by the University of Genova, Italy, used to compute with numbers and polynomials. The CoCoA Library (CoCoALib)

is available under GNU General Public License. CoCoA has been ported to many operating systems including Macintosh on PPC and x86, Linux on x86, x86-64 & PPC, Solaris on SPARC and Windows on x86.

CoCoA is mainly used by researchers (see citations at


but can be useful even for "simple" computations.

CoCoA's features include:

Very big integers and rational numbers using the GNU Multi-Precision Library

Multivariate Polynomials

Gröbner basis

User interfaces: text; Emacs-based; Qt-basedIt is able to perform simple and sophisticated operations on multivariate polynomials and on various data related to them (ideals, modules, matrices, rational functions). For example, it can readily compute Gröbner basis, syzygies and minimal free resolution, intersection, division, the radical of an ideal, the ideal of zero-dimensional schemes, Poincaré series and Hilbert functions, factorization of polynomials, toric ideals. The capabilities of CoCoA and the flexibility of its use are further enhanced by the dedicated high-level programming language.

Its mathematical core, CoCoALib, has been designed as an open source C++ library, focussing on ease of use and flexibility.

CoCoALib is based on GNU Multi-Precision Library.

CoCoALib is used by





FriCAS is a general purpose computer algebra system with a strong focus on mathematical research and development of new algorithms. It comprises an interpreter, a compiler and a still-growing library

of more than 1,000 domains and categories.

FriCAS provides a strongly typed high-level programming language called SPAD and a similar interactive language

that uses type-inferencing for convenience. Aldor was intentionally developed being the

next generation compiler for Axiom and forks. FriCAS (optionally) allows running Aldor programs. Both languages

share a similar syntax and a sophisticated (dependent) type system.FriCAS is comprehensively documented and available as source code and as a binary distribution for the most common

platforms. Compiling the sources requires besides other prerequisites a Common Lisp environment (whereby

many of the major implementations are supported and freely available as open source).

FriCAS runs on many POSIX platforms such as Linux, macOS, Unix,

BSD as well as under Cygwin and

Microsoft Windows (restricted).

Genie (programming language)

Genie is a modern, general-purpose high-level programming language in development since 2008. It was designed as an alternative, simpler and cleaner dialect for the Vala compiler, while preserving the same functionality of the Vala language. Genie uses the same compiler and libraries as Vala; the two can indeed be used alongside each other. The differences are only syntactic.

Genie's syntax is derived from numerous modern languages like Python, Boo, D and Delphi. In the vein of Pascal and Python, Genie uses indentation rather than curly brackets to delimit blocks.

Like Vala, Genie uses the GObject type system to create classes and interfaces declared in Genie source code, without imposing additional runtime requirements (i.e., unlike Python, Java or C#, it does not require a virtual machine).

Genie allows access to C libraries, especially those based in GObject (like GTK), without using a different application binary interface (ABI). During compilation, the code is first translated to C source and header files, which are then compiled to platform-specific machine code using any available C compiler like GCC, thus allowing cross-platform software development.

Programs developed in Vala and Genie don't depend on the GNOME Desktop Environment, usually requiring only GLib.


Handel-C is a high-level programming language which targets low-level hardware, most commonly used in the programming of FPGAs. It is a rich subset of C, with non-standard extensions to control hardware instantiation with an emphasis on parallelism. Handel-C is to hardware design what the first high-level programming languages were to programming CPUs. Unlike many other design languages that target a specific architecture Handel-C can be compiled to a number of design languages and then synthesised to the corresponding hardware. This frees developers to concentrate on the programming task at hand rather than the idiosyncrasies of a specific design language and architecture.

Hardware verification language

A hardware verification language, or HVL, is a programming language used to verify the designs of electronic circuits written in a hardware description language. HVLs typically include features of a high-level programming language like C++ or Java as well as features for easy bit-level manipulation similar to those found in HDLs. Many HVLs will provide constrained random stimulus generation, and functional coverage constructs to assist with complex hardware verification.

SystemVerilog, OpenVera, e, and SystemC are the most commonly used HVLs. SystemVerilog attempts to combine HDL and HVL constructs into a single standard.

History of programming languages

The first high-level programming language was Plankalkül, created by Konrad Zuse between 1942 and 1945. The first high-level language to have an associated compiler was created by Corrado Böhm in 1951, for his PhD thesis. The first commercially available language was FORTRAN (FORmula TRANslation); developed in 1956 (first manual appeared in 1956, but first developed in 1954) by a team led by John Backus at IBM.

When FORTRAN was first introduced it was treated with suspicion because of the belief that programs compiled from high-level language would be less efficient than those written directly in machine code. FORTRAN became popular because it provided a means of porting existing code to new computers, in a hardware market that was rapidly evolving; the language eventually became known for its efficiency.

John Backus

John Warner Backus (December 3, 1924 – March 17, 2007) was an American computer scientist. He directed the team that invented and implemented FORTRAN, the first widely used high-level programming language, and was the inventor of the Backus–Naur form (BNF), a widely used notation to define formal language syntax. He later did research into the function-level programming paradigm, presenting his findings in his influential 1977 Turing Award lecture "Can Programming Be Liberated from the von Neumann Style?"

The IEEE awarded Backus the W. W. McDowell Award in 1967 for the development of FORTRAN. He received the National Medal of Science in 1975 and the 1977 ACM Turing Award "for profound, influential, and lasting contributions to the design of practical high-level programming systems, notably through his work on FORTRAN, and for publication of formal procedures for the specification of programming languages".He retired in 1991 and died at his home in Ashland, Oregon on March 17, 2007.

LANSA (development environment)

LANSA is an integrated development environment (IDE) for building desktop, web and mobile software applications that can be deployed to Cloud, Windows, Linux and IBM i server platforms.

The LANSA development environment includes:

High-level programming language

Business rules and data definitions metadata repository

Data management services

Application framework

Integrated development environment (IDE)

Lois Haibt

Lois Mitchell Haibt (born 1934) is an American computer scientist best known for being a member of the ten-person team at IBM that developed FORTRAN, the first successful high-level programming language. She is known as an early pioneer in computer science.

Low-level programming language

A low-level programming language is a programming language that provides little or no abstraction from a computer's instruction set architecture—commands or functions in the language map closely to processor instructions. Generally, this refers to either machine code or assembly language. The word "low" refers to the small or nonexistent amount of abstraction between the language and machine language; because of this, low-level languages are sometimes described as being "close to the hardware". Programs written in low-level languages tend to be relatively non-portable.

Low-level languages can convert to machine code without a compiler or interpreter— second-generation programming languages use a simpler processor called an assembler— and the resulting code runs directly on the processor. A program written in a low-level language can be made to run very quickly, with a small memory footprint. An equivalent program in a high-level language can be less efficient and use more memory. Low-level languages are simple, but considered difficult to use, due to numerous technical details that the programmer must remember. By comparison, a high-level programming language isolates execution semantics of a computer architecture from the specification of the program, which simplifies development.

Low-level programming languages are sometimes divided into two categories: first generation and second generation.

MIR (computer)

The MIR series of early Soviet personal computers was developed from 1965 (MIR), 1968 (MIR-1) to 1969 (MIR-2) in a group headed by Victor Glushkov. MIR (МИР) stands for «Машина для Инженерных Расчётов» (Machine for Engineering Calculations) and means both "world" and "peace" in Russian. It was designed as a relatively small-scale computer for use in engineering and scientific applications. Among other innovations, it contained a hardware implementation of a high-level programming language capable of symbolic manipulations with fractions, polynomials, derivatives and integrals. Another innovative feature for that time was the user interface combining a keyboard with a monitor and light pen used for correcting texts and drawing on screen. It could be considered one of the first personal computers.


Macaulay2 is a free computer algebra system developed by Daniel Grayson (from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign) and Michael Stillman (from Cornell University) for computation in commutative algebra and algebraic geometry. Stillman, along with Dave Bayer had authored the predecessor, Macaulay. The software is named after Francis Sowerby Macaulay, an English mathematician who made significant contributions to algebraic geometry.

Macaulay2 uses its own high level programming language, intended to closely match the syntax used by mathematicians in the field. Both are published under the GNU General Public License version 2. At the core of Macaulay2 is an implementation of Gröbner basis methods for computing syzygies and manipulating systems of polynomial equations.

In a 2006 interview, Andrei Okounkov cited Macaulay2 along with TeX as a successful open-source project used in mathematics and suggested that funding agencies look into and learn from these examples.Macaulay2 can use emacs GNU TeXmacs.


NEWP (or the New Executive Programming Language) is a high-level programming language used on the Unisys MCP systems. The language is used to write the operating system and other system utilities, although it can also be used to write user software as well. Several constructs separate it from extended ALGOL on which it is based. Language operators such as MEMORY which allows direct memory access are strictly used by programs running as the MCP.

Natural-language programming

Natural-language programming (NLP) is an ontology-assisted way of programming in terms of natural-language sentences, e.g. English. A structured document with Content, sections and subsections for explanations of sentences forms a NLP document, which is actually a computer program. Natural languages and natural-language user interfaces include Inform7, a natural programming language for making interactive fiction, Ring, a general-purpose language, Shakespeare, an esoteric natural programming language in the style of the plays of William Shakespeare, and Wolfram Alpha, a computational knowledge engine, using natural-language input. Some methods for program synthesis are based on natural-language programming.


RAPID is a high-level programming language used to control ABB industrial robots. RAPID was introduced along with S4 Control System in 1994 by ABB, superseding the ARLA programming language.

Features in the language include:

Routine parameters:

Procedures - used as a subprogram.

Functions - return a value of a specific type and are used as an argument of an instruction.

Trap routines - a means of responding to interrupts.

Arithmetic and logical expressions

Automatic error handling

Modular programs

Multi tasking


SETL (SET Language) is a very high-level programming language based on the mathematical theory of sets. It was originally developed by (Jack) Jacob T. Schwartz at the New York University (NYU) Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences in the late 1960s.

Very high-level programming language

A very high-level programming language (VHLL) is a programming language with a very high level of abstraction, used primarily as a professional programmer productivity tool.Very high-level programming languages are usually domain-specific languages, limited to a very specific application, purpose, or type of task, and they are often scripting languages (especially extension languages), controlling a specific environment. For this reason, very high-level programming languages are often referred to as goal-oriented programming languages.The term VHLL was used in the 1990s for what are today more often called high-level programming languages (not "very") used for scripting, such as Perl, Python, Ruby, and Visual Basic.

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