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.


"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.


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.

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