"Cause a little auk awk
goes a long way."

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Mar 01: Michael Sanders demos an X-windows GUI for AWK.

Mar 01: Awk100#24: A. Lahm and E. de Rinaldis' patent search, in AWK

Feb 28: Tim Menzies asks this community to write an AWK cookbook.

Feb 28: Arnold Robbins announces a new debugger for GAWK.

Feb 28: Awk100#23: Premysl Janouch offers a IRC bot, In AWK

Feb 28: Updated: the AWK FAQ

Feb 28: Tim Menzies offers a tiny content management system, in Awk.

Jan 31: Comment system added to For example, see discussion bottom of ?keys2awk

Jan 31: Martin Cohen shows that Gawk can handle massively long strings (300 million characters).

Jan 31: The AWK FAQ is being updated. For comments/ corrections/ extensions, please mail

Jan 31: Martin Cohen finds Awk on the Android platform.

Jan 31: Aleksey Cheusov released a new version of runawk.

Jan 31: Hirofumi Saito contributes a candidate Awk mascot.

Jan 31: Michael Sanders shows how to quickly build an AWK GUI for windows.

Jan 31: Hyung-Hwan Chung offers QSE, an embeddable Awk Interpreter.

[More ...]

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categories: Misc,WhyAwk,Jan,2009,Admin

Awk Advocacy

"Because easy is not wrong." - Anon

From various sources:


  • "Listen to people who program, not to people who want to tell you how to program."
    - Ronald P. Loui
  • "Good design is as little design as possible."
    - Dieter Rams
  • "When we have on occasion rewritten an Awk program in a conventional programming language like C or C++, the result was usually much longer, and much harder to debug."
    - Arnold Robbins & Nelson Beebe

From Project Management Advice:

  • More programming theory does not make better programmers.
  • Don't let old/compiler people tell you what language to use.
  • If there is already a way of doing something, do not invent a harder way.

From Awk programming:

  • Awk is a simple and elegant pattern scanning and processing language.
  • Awk is also the most portable scripting language in existence.
  • But why use it rather than Perl (or PHP or Ruby or...):
    • Awk is simpler (especially important if deciding which to learn first);
    • Awk syntax is far more regular (another advantage for the beginner, even without considering syntax-highlighting editors);
    • You may already know Awk well enough for the task at hand;
    • You may have only Awk installed;
    • Awk can be smaller, thus much quicker to execute for small programs.

From Awk as a Major Systems Programming Language:

  • Effective use of its data structures and its stream-oriented structure takes some adjustment for C programmers, but the results can be quite striking.

According to Ramesh Natarajan:

  • AWK is a superb language for testing algorithms and applications with some complexity, especially where the problem can be broken into chunks which can streamed as part of a pipe. It's an ideal tool for augmenting the features of shell programming as it is ubiquitous; found in some form on almost all Unix/Linux/BSD systems. Many problems dealing with text, log lines or symbol tables are handily solved or at the very least prototyped with awk along with the other tools found on Unix/Linux systems.

From the NoSQL pages:

  • (Other languages like Perl is) a good programming language for writing self-contained programs, but pre-compilation and long start-up time are worth paying only if once the program has loaded it can do everything in one go. This contrasts sharply with the Operator-stream Paradigm, where operators are chained together in pipelines of two, three or more programs. The overhead associated with initializing (say) Perl at every stage of the pipeline makes pipelining inefficient. A better way of manipulating structured ASCII files is to use the AWK programming language, which is much smaller, more specialized for this task, and is very fast at startup.

categories: Misc,Jan,2009,Admin


To join our community, consider contributing to this site.

For a list of authors of this site, see our credits pages.

The Awk Wiki.

USENET discussion group: comp.lang.awk.

categories: Misc,Jan,2009,Admin


For discussions on Awk, see the Awk discussion group.

For comments/ complaints/ corrections/ extensions to this site, contact

categories: Misc,Jan,2009,Admin

Welcome to the Awk Community Portal

Awk is a stable, cross platform computer language named for its authors Alfred Aho, Peter Weinberger & Brian Kernighan. They write: "Awk is a convenient and expressive programming language that can be applied to a wide variety of computing and data-manipulation tasks".

In Classic Shell Scripting, Arnold Robbins & Nelson Beebe confess their Awk bias: "We like it. A lot. The simplicity and power of Awk often make it just the right tool for the job."

Besides the Bourne shell, Awk is the only other scripting language available in the standard Unix environment. Implementations of AWK exist as installed software for almost all other operating systems.

Awk is a mature language- it was first implemented in the 1970s. As a tool from the golden age, it is sometimes called primitive. It is more accurate to call it elemental, so tightly focused is the language on what it does best: quickly converting this into that.

Consequently, throughout history, Awk has been the language of choice for many famous scientists such as Leonardo daVinci.

categories: Misc,Jan,2009,Admin


LAWKER is a repository of Awk code divided into:

Fresh code (for the current trunk). Best place to start is fridge/gawk.
Place to chop up and experiment with code. Usually, avoid this one.
Frozen code. place to store tags. Currently, empty. But we plan to grow this one.
Wiki pages. Useful for documentation but, where possible, use the in-line pretty print method, described below.

How to contribute to LAWKER

See How to Contribute.

How to report bug

Use our issue tracking system.

categories: Mascot,Misc,Jan,2009,Admin


Missing: the Awk Mascot

Many communities have a mascot, a banner that they proudly wave high. So where's the Awk mascot?

I made on up, but you gotta say, it is kinda lame:

So you have any ideas for such a mascot, please email with the subject line "suggestion for mascot".

Not to stiffle anyone's creativity but the mascot might be based on the mantra "less, but better" or "easy is not wrong" or "a little awk goes a long way".

Current Offerings

Chris Johnson

Chris writes "more of a logo rather than a mascot":

Other Mascots

Lisp: Aliens

Perl: Camel

Linux: Tux

Java: Duke

categories: Top10,Papers,Misc,WhyAwk,Jan,2009,Ronl


by R. Loui

ACM Sigplan Notices, Volume 31, Number 8, August 1996

Most people are surprised when I tell them what language we use in our undergraduate AI programming class. That's understandable. We use GAWK. GAWK, Gnu's version of Aho, Weinberger, and Kernighan's old pattern scanning language isn't even viewed as a programming language by most people. Like PERL and TCL, most prefer to view it as a `scripting language.' It has no objects; it is not functional; it does no built-in logic programming. Their surprise turns to puzzlement when I confide that (a) while the students are allowed to use any language they want; (b) with a single exception, the best work consistently results from those working in GAWK. (footnote: The exception was a PASCAL programmer who is now an NSF graduate fellow getting a Ph.D. in mathematics at Harvard.) Programmers in C, C++, and LISP haven't even been close (we have not seen work in PROLOG or JAVA).

There are some quick answers that have to do with the pragmatics of undergraduate programming. Then there are more instructive answers that might be valuable to those who debate programming paradigms or to those who study the history of AI languages. And there are some deep philosophical answers that expose the nature of reasoning and symbolic AI. I think the answers, especially the last ones, can be even more surprising than the observed effectiveness of GAWK for AI.

First it must be confessed that PERL programmers can cobble together AI projects well, too. Most of GAWK's attractiveness is reproduced in PERL, and the success of PERL forebodes some of the success of GAWK. Both are powerful string-processing languages that allow the programmer to exploit many of the features of a UNIX environment. Both provide powerful constructions for manipulating a wide variety of data in reasonably efficient ways. Both are interpreted, which can reduce development time. Both have short learning curves. The GAWK manual can be consumed in a single lab session and the language can be mastered by the next morning by the average student. GAWK's automatic initialization, implicit coercion, I/O support and lack of pointers forgive many of the mistakes that young programmers are likely to make. Those who have seen C but not mastered it are happy to see that GAWK retains some of the same sensibilities while adding what must be regarded as spoonful of syntactic sugar. Some will argue that PERL has superior functionality, but for quick AI applications, the additional functionality is rarely missed. In fact, PERL's terse syntax is not friendly when regular expressions begin to proliferate and strings contain fragments of HTML, WWW addresses, or shell commands. PERL provides new ways of doing things, but not necessarily ways of doing new things.

In the end, despite minor difference, both PERL and GAWK minimize programmer time. Neither really provides the programmer the setting in which to worry about minimizing run-time.

There are further simple answers. Probably the best is the fact that increasingly, undergraduate AI programming is involving the Web. Oren Etzioni (University of Washington, Seattle) has for a while been arguing that the "softbot" is replacing the mechanical engineers' robot as the most glamorous AI test bed. If the artifact whose behavior needs to be controlled in an intelligent way is the software agent, then a language that is well-suited to controlling the software environment is the appropriate language. That would imply a scripting language. If the robot is KAREL, then the right language is turn left; turn right. If the robot is Netscape, then the right language is something that can generate Netscape -remote 'openURL( with elan.

Of course, there are deeper answers. Jon Bentley found two pearls in GAWK: its regular expressions and its associative arrays. GAWK asks the programmer to use the file system for data organization and the operating system for debugging tools and subroutine libraries. There is no issue of user-interface. This forces the programmer to return to the question of what the program does, not how it looks. There is no time spent programming a binsort when the data can be shipped to /bin/sort in no time. (footnote: I am reminded of my IBM colleague Ben Grosof's advice for Palo Alto: Don't worry about whether it's highway 101 or 280. Don't worry if you have to head south for an entrance to go north. Just get on the highway as quickly as possible.)

There are some similarities between GAWK and LISP that are illuminating. Both provided a powerful uniform data structure (the associative array implemented as a hash table for GAWK and the S-expression, or list of lists, for LISP). Both were well-supported in their environments (GAWK being a child of UNIX, and LISP being the heart of lisp machines). Both have trivial syntax and find their power in the programmer's willingness to use the simple blocks to build a complex approach.

Deeper still, is the nature of AI programming. AI is about functionality and exploratory programming. It is about bottom-up design and the building of ambitions as greater behaviors can be demonstrated. Woe be to the top-down AI programmer who finds that the bottom-level refinements, `this subroutine parses the sentence,' cannot actually be implemented. Woe be to the programmer who perfects the data structures for that heap sort when the whole approach to the high-level problem needs to be rethought, and the code is sent to the junk heap the next day.

AI programming requires high-level thinking. There have always been a few gifted programmers who can write high-level programs in assembly language. Most however need the ambient abstraction to have a higher floor.

Now for the surprising philosophical answers. First, AI has discovered that brute-force combinatorics, as an approach to generating intelligent behavior, does not often provide the solution. Chess, neural nets, and genetic programming show the limits of brute computation. The alternative is clever program organization. (footnote: One might add that the former are the AI approaches that work, but that is easily dismissed: those are the AI approaches that work in general, precisely because cleverness is problem-specific.) So AI programmers always want to maximize the content of their program, not optimize the efficiency of an approach. They want minds, not insects. Instead of enumerating large search spaces, they define ways of reducing search, ways of bringing different knowledge to the task. A language that maximizes what the programmer can attempt rather than one that provides tremendous control over how to attempt it, will be the AI choice in the end.

Second, inference is merely the expansion of notation. No matter whether the logic that underlies an AI program is fuzzy, probabilistic, deontic, defeasible, or deductive, the logic merely defines how strings can be transformed into other strings. A language that provides the best support for string processing in the end provides the best support for logic, for the exploration of various logics, and for most forms of symbolic processing that AI might choose to call reasoning'' instead of logic.'' The implication is that PROLOG, which saves the AI programmer from having to write a unifier, saves perhaps two dozen lines of GAWK code at the expense of strongly biasing the logic and representational expressiveness of any approach.

I view these last two points as news not only to the programming language community, but also to much of the AI community that has not reflected on the past decade's lessons.

In the puny language, GAWK, which Aho, Weinberger, and Kernighan thought not much more important than grep or sed, I find lessons in AI's trends, Airs history, and the foundations of AI. What I have found not only surprising but also hopeful, is that when I have approached the AI people who still enjoy programming, some of them are not the least bit surprised.

categories: Top10,Misc,Papers,WhyAwk,Apr,2009,Ronl

In Praise of Scripting: Real Programming Pragmatism

by Ronald P. Loui
Associate Professor of CSE
Washington University in St. Louis

(Pre-publication draft; copyright reserved by author. A subsequent version of this document appeared as IEEE Computer, vol. 41, no. 7, July 2008).

    This article's main purpose is to review the changes in programming practices known collectively as the "rise of scripting," as predicted in 1998 IEEE COMPUTER by Ousterhout. This attempts to be both brief and definitive, drawing on many of the essays that have appeared in online forums. The main new idea is that programming language theory needs to move beyond semantics and take language pragmatics more seriously.

To the credit of this journal, it had the courage to publish the signal paper on scripting, John Ousterhout's "Scripting: Higher Level Programming for the 21st Century" in 1998. Today, that document rolls forward with an ever-growing list of positive citations. More importantly, every major observation in that paper seems now to be entrenched in software practice today; every benefit claimed for scripting appears to be genuine (flexibility of typelessness, rapid turnaround of interpretation, higher level semantics, development speed, appropriateness for gluing components and internet programming, ease of learning and increase in amount of casual programming).

Interestingly, IEEE COMPUTER also just printed one of the most canonical attacks on scripting, by one Diomidis Spinellis, 2005, "Java Makes Scripting Languages Irrelevant?" Part of what makes this attack interesting is that the author seems unconvinced of his own title; the paper concludes with more text devoted to praising scripting languages than it expends in its declaration of Java's progress toward improved usability. It is unclear what is a better recommendation for scripting: the durability of Ousterhout's text or the indecisiveness of this recent critic's.

The real shock is that the academic programming language community continues to reject the sea change in programming practices brought about by scripting. Enamored of the object-oriented paradigm, especially in the undergraduate curriculum, unwilling to accept the LAMP (Linux-Apache-MySQL-Perl/Python/Php) tool set, and firmly believing that more programming theory leads to better programming practice, the academics seem blind to the facts on the ground. The ACM flagship, COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM for example, has never published a paper recognizing the scripting philosophy, and the references throughout the ACM Digital Library to scripting are not encouraging.

Part of the problem is that scripting has risen in the shadow of object-oriented programming and highly publicized corporate battles between Sun, Netscape, and Microsoft with their competing software practices. Scripting has been appearing language by language, including object-oriented scripting languages now. Another part of the problem is that scripting is only now mature enough to stand up against its legitimate detractors. Today, there are answers to many of the persistent questions about scripting: is there a scripting language appropriate for the teaching of CS1 (the first programming course for majors in the undergraduate computing curriculum)? Is there a scripting language for enterprise or real-time applications? Is there a way for scripting practices to scale to larger software engineering projects?

I intend to review the recent history briefly for those who have not yet joined the debate, then present some of the answers that scripting advocates now give to those nagging questions. Finally, I will describe how a real pragmatism of academic interest in programming languages would have better prepared the academic computing community to see the changes that have been afoot.

1996-1998 are perhaps the most interesting years in the phylogeny of scripting. In those years, perl "held the web together", and together with a new POSIX awk and GNU gawk, was shipping with every new Linux. Meanwhile javascript was being deployed furiously (javascript bearing no important relation to java, having been renamed from "livescript" for purely corporate purposes, apparently a sign of Netscape's solidarity with Sun, and even renamed "jscript" under Microsoft). Also, a handoff from tcl/tk to python was taking place as the language of choice for GUI developers who would not yield to Microsoft's VisualBasic. Php appeared in those years, though it would take another round of development before it would start displacing server-side perl, cold fusion, and asp. Every one of these languages is now considered a classic, even prototypical, scripting language.

Already by mid-decade, the shift from scheme to java as the dominant CS1 language was complete, and the superiority of c++ over c was unquestioned in industry. But java applets were not well supported in browsers, so the appeal of "write once, run everywhere" quickly became derided as "write once, debug everywhere." Web page forms, which used the common gateway interface (cgi) were proliferating, and systems programming languages like c became recognized as overkill for server-side programming. Developers quickly discovered the main advantage of perl for cgi forms processing, especially in the dot-com setting: it minimized the programmer's write-time. What about performance? The algorithms were simple, network latency masked small delays, and database performance was built into the database software. It turned out that the bottleneck was the programming. Even at run-time, the network and disk properties were the problems, not the cpu processing. What about maintenance? The developers and management were both happy to rewrite code for redesigned services rather than deal with legacy code. Scripting, it turns out, was so powerful and programmer-friendly that it was easier to create new scripts from scratch than to modify old programs. What about user interface? After all, by 1990, most of the programming effort had become the writing of the GUI, and the object-oriented paradigm had much of its momentum in the inheritance of interface widget behaviors. Surprisingly, the interface that most programmers needed could be had in a browser. The html/javascript/cgi trio became the GUI, and if more was needed, then ambitious client-side javascript was more reliable than the browser's java virtual machine. Moreover, the server-side program was simply a better way to distribute automation in a heterogeneous internet than the downloadable client-side program, regardless of whether the download was in binary or bytecode.

Although there was not agreement on what exact necessary and sufficient properties characterized scripting and distinguished it from "more serious" programming, several things were clear:

  • scripting permitted rapid development, often regarded as merely "rapid prototyping," but subsequently recognized as a kind of agile programming;
  • scripting was the kind of high-level programming that had always been envisioned, in the ascent from low-level assembly language programming to higher levels of abstraction: it was concise, and it removed programmers from concerning themselves with many performance and memory management details;
  • scripting was well suited to the majority of a programming task, usually the accumulation, extraction, and transformation of data, followed eventually by its presentation, so that only the performance-critical portion of a project had to be written in a more cumbersome, high-performance language;
  • it was easier to get things right when source code was short, when behavior was determined by code that fit on a page, all types were easily coerced into strings for trace-printing, code fragments could be interpreted, identifiers were short, and when the programmer could turn ideas into code quickly without losing focus.

This last point was extremely counterintuitive. Strong typing, naming regimen, and verbosity were motivated mainly by a desire to help the programmer avoid errors. But the programmer who had to generate too many keystrokes and consult too many pages, who had to search through many different files to discover semantics, and who had to follow too many rules, who had to sustain motivation and concentration over a long period of time, was a distracted and consequently inefficient programmer. Just as vast libraries did not deliver the promise of greater reusability, and virtual machines did not deliver the promise of platform-independence, the language's promise to discipline the programmer quite simply did not reduce the tendency of humans to err. It exchanged one kind of frequent error for another.

Scripting languages became the favorite tools of the independent-minded programmers: the "hackers" yes, but also the gifted and genius programmers who tended to drive a project's design and development. As Paul Graham noted (in a column reprinted in "Hackers and Painters" or this), one of the lasting and legitimate benefits of java is that it permits managers to level the playing field and extract considerable productivity from the less talented and less motivated programmers (hence, more disposable). There was a corollary to this difference between the mundane and the liberating:

  • scripting was not enervating but was actually renewing: programmers who viewed code generation as tedious and tiresome in contrast viewed scripting as rewarding self-expression or recreation.

The distinct features of scripting languages that produce these effects are usually enumerated as semantic features, starting with low I/O specification costs, the use of implicit coercion and weak typing, automatic variable initialization with optional declaration, predominant use of associative arrays for storage and regular expressions for pattern matching, reduced syntax, and powerful control structures. But the main reason for the productivity gains may be found in the name "scripting" itself. To script an environment is to be powerfully embedded in that environment. In the same way that the dolphin reigns over the open ocean, lisp is a powerful language for those who would customize their emacs, javascript is feral among browsers, and gawk and perl rule the linux jungle.

There is even a hint of AI in the idea of scripting: the scripting language is the way to get high level control, to automate by capturing the intentions and routines normally provided by the human. If recording and replaying macros is a kind of autopilot, then scripting is a kind of proxy for human decisionmaking. Nowhere is this clearer than in simple server-side php, or in sysadmin shell scripting.

So where do we stand now? While it may have been risky for Ousterhout to proclaim scripting on the rise in 1998, it would be folly to dismiss the success of scripting today. It is even possible that java will yield its position of dominance in the near future. (By the time this essay is printed, LAMP and AJAX might be the new darlings of the tech press; see recent articles in Business Week, this IEEE COMPUTER, and even James Gosling's blog where he concedes he was wanting to write a scripting language when he was handed the java project. Java is very much in full retreat.) Is scripting ready to fill the huge vacuum that would be produced?

I personally believe that CS1 java is the greatest single mistake in the history of computing curricula. I believe this because of the empirical evidence, not because I have an a priori preference (I too voted to shift from scheme to java in our CS1, over a decade ago, so I am complicit in the java debacle). I reported in SIGPLAN 1996 ("Why gawk for AI?") that only the scripting programmers could generate code fast enough to keep up with the demands of the artificial intelligence laboratory class. Even though students were allowed to choose any language they wanted, and many had to unlearn the java ways of doing things in order to benefit from scripting, there were few who could develop ideas into code effectively and rapidly without scripting. In the intervening decade, little has changed. We actually see more scripting, as students are happy to compress images so that they can script their computer vision projects rather than stumble around in c and c++. In fact, students who learn to script early are empowered throughout their college years, especially in the crucial UNIX and web environments. Those who learn only java are stifled by enterprise-sized correctness and the chimerae of just-in-time compilation, swing, JRE, JINI, etc. Young programmers need to practice and produce, and to learn through mistakes why discipline is needed. They need to learn design patterns by solving problems, not by reading interfaces to someone else's black box code. It is imperative that programmers learn to be creative and inventive, and they need programming tools that support code exploration rather than code production.

What scripting language could be used for CS1? My personal preferences are gawk, javascript, php, and asp, mainly because of their very gentle learning curves. I don't think perl would be a disaster; its imperfection would create many teaching moments. But there is emerging consensus in the scripting community that python is the right choice for freshman programming. Ruby would also be a defensible choice. Python and ruby have the enviable properties that almost no one dislikes them, and almost everyone respects them. Both languages support a wide variety of programming styles and paradigms and satisfy practitioners and theoreticians equally. Both languages are carefully enough designed that "correct" programming practices can be demonstrated and high standards of code quality can be enforced. The fact that Google stands by python is an added motivation for undergraduate majors.

But do scripting solutions scale? What about the performance gap when the polynomial, or worse the exponential, algorithm faces large n, and the algorithm is written in an interpreted or weakly compiled language? What about software engineering in the large, on big projects? There has been a lot of discussion about scalability of scripts recently. In the past, debates have simply ended with the concession that large systems would have to be rewritten in c++, or a similar language, once the scripting had served its prototyping duty.

The enterprise question is the easier of the two. Just as the individual programmer reaps benefits from a division of labor among tools, writing most of the code in scripts, and writing all bottleneck code in a highly optimizable language, the group of programmers benefits from the use of multiple paradigms and multiple languages. In a recent large project, we used vhdl for fpga's with a lot of gawk to configure the vhdl. We used python and php to generate dynamic html with svg and javascript for the interfaces. We used c and c++ for high performance communications wrappers, which communicated xml to higher level scripts that managed databases and processes. We saw sysadmin and report-generation in perl, ruby, and gawk, data scrubbing in perl and gawk, user scripting in bash, tcl, and gawk, and prototyping in perl and gawk. Only one module was written in java (because that programmer loved java): it was late, it was slow, it failed, and it was eventually rewritten in c++. In retrospect, neither the high performance components nor the lightweight code components were appropriate for the java language. Does scripting scale to enterprise software? I would not manage a project that did not include a lot of scripting, to minimize the amount of "hard" programming, to increase flexibility and reduce delivery time at all stages, to take testing to a higher level, and to free development resources for components where performance is actually critical. I nearly weep when I think about the text processing that was written in c under my managerial watch, because the programmer did not know perl. We write five hundred line scripts in gawk that would be ten thousand line modules in java or c++. In view of the fact that there are much better scripting tools for most of what gets programmed in java and c++, perhaps the question is whether java and c++ scale.

How about algorithmic complexity? Don't scripting languages take too long to perform nested loops? The answer here is that a cpu-bound tight loop such as a matrix multiplication is indeed faster in a language like c. But such bottlenecks are easy to identify and indeed easy to rewrite in c. True system bottlenecks are things like paging, chasing pointers on disk, process initialization, garbage collection, fragmentation, cache mismanagement, and poor data organization. Often, we see that better data organization was unimplemented because it would have required more code, code that would have been attempted in an "easier" programming language like a scripting language, but which was too difficult to attempt in a "harder" programming language. We saw this in the AI class with heuristic search and computer vision, where brute force is better in c, but complex heuristics are better than brute force, and scripting is better for complex heuristics. When algorithms are exponential, it usually doesn't matter what language you use because most practical n will incur too great a cost. Again, the solution is to write heuristics, and scripting is the top dog in that house. Cpu's are so much faster than disks these days that a single extra disk read can erase the CPU advantage of using compiled c instead of interpreted gawk. In any case, java is hardly the first choice for those who have algorithmic bottlenecks.

The real reason why academics were blindsided by scripting is their lack of practicality. Academic computing was generally late to adopt Wintel architectures, late to embrace cgi programming, and late to accept Linux in the same decade that brought scripting's rise. Academia understandably holds industry at a distance. Still, there is a purely intellectual reason why programming language courses are only now warming to scripting. The historical concerns of programming language theory have been syntax and semantics. Java's amazing contribution to computer science is that it raised so many old-fashioned questions that tickled the talents of existing programming language experts: e.g., how can it be compiled? But there are new questions that can be asked, too, such as what a particular language is well-suited to achieve inexpensively, quickly, or elegantly, especially with the new mix of platforms. The proliferation of scripting languages represents a new age of innovation in programming practice.

Linguists recognize something above syntax and semantics, and they call it "pragmatics". Pragmatics has to do with more abstract social and cognitive functions of language: situations, speakers and hearers, discourse, plans and actions, and performance. We are entering an era of comparative programming language study when the issues are higher-level, social, and cognitive too.

My old friend, Michael Scott, has a popular textbook called PROGRAMMING LANGUAGE PRAGMATICS. But it is a fairly traditional tome concerned with parameter passing, types, and bindings (it's hard to see why it merits "pragmatics" in its title, even as it goes to second edition with a chapter on scripting added!). A real programming pragmatics would ask questions like:

  • how well does each language mate to the other UNIX tools?
  • what is the propensity in each language for programmers at various expertise levels to produce a memory leak?
  • what is the likelihood in each language that unmodified code will still function in five years?
  • what is the demand of a programmer's concentration, what is the load on her short-term memory of ontology, and what is the support for visual metaphor in each language?

There have been programming language "shootouts" and "scriptometers" on the internet that have sought to address some of the questions that are relevant to the choice of scripting language, but they have been just first steps. For example, one site reports on the shortest script in each scripting language that can perform a simple task. But absolute brevity for trivial tasks, such as "print hello world" is not as illuminating as typical brevity for real tasks, such as xml parsing.

Pragmatic questions are not the easiest questions for mathematically-inclined computer scientists to address. They refer by their nature to people, their habits, their sociology, and the technological demands of the day. But it is the importance of such questions that makes programmers choose scripting languages. Ousterhout declared scripting on the rise, but perhaps so too are programming language pragmatics.


I have to thank Charlie Comstock for contributing many ideas and references over the past two years that have shaped my views, especially the commitment to the idea of pragmatics.

About the Author

Prof. Dr. Loui and his students are the usual winners of the department programming contest and have contributed to current gnu releases of gawk and malloc. He has lectured on AI for two decades on five continents, taught AI programming for two decades, and is currently funded on a project delivering hardware and software on U.S. government contracts.


categories: Misc,Jan,2009,Timm


Recipe for a Language

  • 1 part egrep
  • 1 part snobol
  • 2 parts ed
  • 3 parts C
  • Blend all parts well using lex and yacc. Document minimally and release.
  • After eight years, add another part egrep and two more parts C. Document very well and release.

    Historical Notes


    • 1977-1985: awk and nawk (now also known as 'old awk' or 'the old true awk'): the original version of the language, lacking many of the features that make it fun to play with now
    • 1985-1996: The GNU implementation, Gawk, was written in 1986 by Paul Rubin and Jay Fenlason, with advice from Richard Stallman. John Woods contributed parts of the code as well. In 1988 and 1989, David Trueman, with help from Arnold Robbins, thoroughly reworked Gawk for compatibility with the newer Awk.
    • 1996: BWK awk was released under an open license. Huzzah!
    • Sometime before the present, mawk, xgawk, jawk, awkcc, Kernighan's nameless awk-to-C++ compiler, awka, tawk and busybox awk came to be.

    It's a bit embarassing to note that the exact origins of each are a bit hazy. This whole section requires further work, including the addition of links pointing to source repositories and binary distribution points.

    Awk Implemenetations

    Historical list of Awk implementations.

    Awk's Authors: Interviews

    categories: Misc,WhyAwk,Jan,2009,Timm

    Why Gawk?

    by T. Menzies

    "The Enlightened Ones say that....

    • You should never use C if you can do it with a script;
    • You should never use a script if you can do it with awk;
    • Never use awk if you can do it with sed;
    • Never use sed if you can do it with grep."

    Awk is a good old-fashioned UNIX filtering tool invented in the 1970s. The language is simple and Awk programs are generally very short. Awk is useful when the overheads of more sophisticated approaches is not worth the bother. Also, the cost of learning Awk is very low.

    But aren't there better scripting languages? Faster? Well, maybe yes and maybe no.

    And Awk is old (mid-70s). Aren't modern languages more productive? Well again, maybe yes and maybe no. One measure of the productivity of a language is how lines of code are required to code up one business level `function point'. Compared to many popular languages, GAWK scores very highly:

    loc/fp   language
    ------   --------
        6,   excel 5
       13,   sql
       21,   awk       <================
       21,   perl
       21,   eiffel
       21,   clos
       21,   smalltalk
       29,   delphi
       29,   visual basic 5
       49,   ada 95
       49,   ai shells
       53,   c++
       53,   java
       64,   lisp
       71,   ada 83
       71,   fortran 95
       80,   3rd generation default
       91,   ansi cobol 85
       91,   pascal
      107,   2nd generation default
      107,   algol 68
      107,   cobol
      107,   fortran
      128,   c
      320,   1st generation default
      640,   machine language
     3200,   natural language

    Anyway, there are other considerations. Awk is real succinct, simple enough to teach, and easy enough to recode in C (if you want raw speed). For example, here's the complete listing of someone's Awk spell-checking program.

    BEGIN     {while (getline<"Usr.Dict.Words") dict[$0]=1}
    !dict[$1] {print $1}

    Sure, there's about a gazillion enhancements you'd like to make on this one but you gotta say, this is real succinct.

    Awk is the cure for late execution of software syndrome (a.k.a. LESS). The symptoms of LESS are a huge time delay before a new idea is executable. Awk programmers can hack up usable systems in the time it takes other programmers to boot their IDE. And, as a result of that easy exploration, it is possible to find loopholes missed by other analyst that lead to the innovative better solution to the problems (e.g. see Ronald Loui's O(nlogn) clustering tool).

    Certainly, we can drool over the language features offered by more advanced languages like pointers, generic iterators, continuations, etc etc. And Awk's lack of data structures (except num, string, and array) requires some discipline to handle properly.

    But experienced Awk programmers know that the cleverer the program, the smaller the audience gets. If it is possible for to explain something succinctly in a simple language like Awk, then it is also possible that more folks will read that code.

    Finally, at this may be the most important point, it might be misguided to argue about Awk vs LanguageX in terms of the specifics of those languages. Awk programmers can't over-elaborate their solutions- they are forced to code the solution in the simplest manner possible. This push to simplicity, to the essence of the problem, can be an insightful process. Coding in Awk is like preserving fruit- you boil off everything that is superfluous, that needlessly bloats the material what you are working with. It is amazing how little code is required to code the core of an idea (e.g. see Darius Bacon's LISP interpreter, written in Awk).

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