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How Many Programming Languages are there in the World?

by Breck Yunits

November 20, 2017 — ~7,099 spoken languages exist. But how many programming languages exist?

This is one of the questions I aim to answer with PLDB. I am building a comprehensive database of programming languages.

Spoken languages vary widely in popularity. For example. English has 1.5 billion total speakers and 375 million native speakers. Hawaiian, an endangered language, has only ~26,000 native speakers.

Similarly, some programming languages are very popular, others are used moderately, and many are completely abandoned. Javascript may be the most popular programming language, with approximately ~5.3 million LinkedIn users claiming it as a skill.

The number of programming languages in the world depends on the rules you establish for deciding whether or not a language counts.

What do other people say?

TIOBE - 250

The TIOBE index is one of the best lists of popular programming languages and monitors ~250 popular programming languages. TIOBE tracks a programming language if it passes 3 tests: it must have its own Wikipedia page, it must be Turing complete, and a Google search for it must return over 5,000 search results.

Wikipedia - 700

Wikipedia has a list whose goal is to include "all notable programming languages in existence", that currently lists over 700 programming languages. Wikipedia's list excludes certain types of languages such as markup languages.

FOLDOC - 1,000

FOLDOC, a 90's era online dictionary of computing, lists over 1,000 programming languages, though that includes aliases.

The Language List - 2,500

The Language List--started in 1991--tracks ~2,500 computer languages. The Language List includes popular languages as well as many "published languages". If a language was published in a journal it may be on the list, regardless of its implementation history or popularity.

HOPL - 8,945

HOPL is a collection curated by Diarmuid Pigott. It lists 8,945 programming languages!

J.E. Sammet - ~165 (In 1971)

Jean Sammet was an early computer pioneer, helping developer the COBOL language. She also was one of the first to start tracking programming languages and as early as 1971 tracked ~165 languages.

What do I say?

At the moment I am closely tracking hundreds of programming languages with thousands more in my periphery. Until I have a more comprehensive database across all the languages I track, I'll have to make some estimates.

My current estimate for active general purpose programming languages is between 500 and 2,000.

My current estimate for all active computer languages is between 5,000 and 25,000.

As my database improves I will refine my definitions and estimates accordingly.

Reproducibility notes

A hard count of programming languages was made by querying the PLDB database, which consists of thousands of human-checked facts about programming languages. Confidence intervals were added ad hoc through spot checking with the reference lists above.

Analyze this data yourself in Ohayo

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