Lacking Natural Simplicity

Random musings on books, code, and tabletop games.

The criticisms of Pascal in “Why Pascal is Not My Favorite Programming Language” applied to Oberon

I reread Brian W. Kernighan’s famous paper “Why Pascal is Not My Favorite Programming Language” (HTML, PDF) to see if those or similar criticisms can still be applied to the Oberon family of languages, Oberon, Oberon-2, and Revised Oberon. I found Oberon-2 to be particularly inspiring, but feel that both Oberon and Oberon-2 lack some of the practical aspects that made C such a revelation to me back in the 1980s when I first encountered it, after having programmed mostly in various BASICs, 6502 machine code, VAX MACRO, and Pascal.

So, here are Kernighan’s summary, nine criticisms, along with my comments.

  1. Since the size of an array is part of its type, it is not possible to write general-purpose routines, that is, to deal with arrays of different sizes. In particular, string handling is very difficult.

    This is still a problem in the original Oberon, but Oberon-2 introduced open arrays, which allows any size of array to be passed to a procedure. While you can’t return arrays of arbitrary sizes from a procedure, you can dynamically allocate any size array using POINTER TO ARRAY and NEW, and return the pointer. Revised Oberon adopted open arrays.

  2. The lack of static variables, initialization and a way to communicate non-hierarchically combine to destroy the “locality” of a program - variables require much more scope than they ought to.

    This criticism still applies. None of the Oberon languages include static variables or initialization.

    The lack of static variables is somewhat mitigated by the ability to divide things up using modules, since the tendency is to create a module for the shared variable and the procedures that depend on it, but is still clumsy if the only thing you need is a static variable in one procedure.

  3. The one-pass nature of the language forces procedures and functions to be presented in an unnatural order; the enforced separation of various declarations scatters program components that logically belong together.

    Oberon and Oberon-2 allow mixing CONST, TYPE and VAR declarations in any order and to appear multiple times, but still requires procedure and forward procedure declarations to come after all other declarations. In Revised Oberon CONST, TYPE, and VAR declarations must occur and in that order, followed by procedure declarations, so the original criticism applies entirely again.

  4. The lack of separate compilation impedes the development of large programs and makes the use of libraries impossible.

    Not a problem any more. All the Oberon languages use modules, introduced in Modula. Arguably, this is much superior to C’s model of separate compilation and using header files to ensure consistent function declarations are consistent across files.

  5. The order of logical expression evaluation cannot be controlled, which leads to convoluted code and extraneous variables.

    This appears to not apply to the Oberon languages.

  6. The ‘case’ statement is emasculated because there is no default clause.

    Original Oberon and Oberon-2 both have ELSE clauses for CASE statements. Revised Oberon does not.

  7. The standard I/O is defective. There is no sensible provision for dealing with files or program arguments as part of the standard language, and no extension mechanism.

    IO in the Oberon family of languages is mostly defined by the procedures provided in the Oberon System, the operating system written in Oberon (and later in Oberon-2). It has good facilities for dealing with files, considered by some to be a better API than the familiar Unix/C API, for the functionality it provides.

    None of the Oberon languages provide a standard method for access to program arguments in the Unix/C style, as the Oberon System used entirely different mechanisms. Those Oberon[-2] implementations I've used outside of the Oberon System all provided some access to the program arguments, usually as a procedure returns the number of program arguments and another that returns a specific argument, but none of them used the same API.

  8. The language lacks most of the tools needed for assembling large programs, most notably file inclusion.

    The addition of separately compiled modules that provide a defined interface mostly obviates this criticism and is superior to the kludge of separate complication and include files provided by C.

  9. There is no escape.

    All the Oberon languages include the module SYSTEM, which provides low level access to addresses of variables and to individual bits of memory, along with bit manipulation of integers. Revised Oberon adds access to sizes of types. Oberon and Oberon-2 provide a VAL function that allows interpreting a variable of one type as a variable of another type. Revised Oberon does not.

All the Oberon languages still have semicolon as separator instead of semicolon as terminator. I much prefer semicolon as terminator.

All-in-all, I'm disappointed in Revised Oberon. While I approve of a few of its changes, most of them seem to be a definite step backward. I think Wirth's minimalism does him a disservice here.

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