A prominent purpose of programming languages is to provide instructions to a computer. As such, programming languages differ from most other forms of human expression in that they require a greater degree of precision and completeness. When using a natural language to communicate with other people, human authors and speakers can be ambiguous and make small errors, and still expect their intent to be understood. However, computers do exactly what they are told to do, and cannot understand the code the programmer "intended" to write. The combination of the language definition, the program, and the program's inputs must fully specify the external behavior that occurs when the program is executed.
Many languages have been designed from scratch, altered to meet new needs, combined with other languages, and eventually fallen into disuse. Although there have been attempts to design one "universal" computer language that serves all purposes, all of them have failed to be accepted in this role. The need for diverse computer languages arises from the diversity of contexts in which languages are used:
- Programs range from tiny scripts written by individual hobbyists to huge systems written by hundreds of programmers.
- Programmers range in expertise from novices who need simplicity above all else, to experts who may be comfortable with considerable complexity.
- Programs must balance speed, size, and simplicity on systems ranging from microcontrollers to supercomputers.
- Programs may be written once and not change for generations, or they may undergo nearly constant modification.
- Finally, programmers may simply differ in their tastes: they may be accustomed to discussing problems and expressing them in a particular language.
One common trend in the development of programming languages has been to add more ability to solve problems using a higher level of abstraction. The earliest programming languages were tied very closely to the underlying hardware of the computer. As new programming languages have developed, features have been added that let programmers express ideas that are more removed from simple translation into underlying hardware instructions. Because programmers are less tied to the needs of the computer, their programs can do more computing with less effort from the programmer. This lets them write more programs in the same amount of time.
Natural language processors have been proposed as a way to eliminate the need for a specialized language for programming. However, this goal remains distant and its benefits are open to debate. Edsger Dijkstra took the position that the use of a formal language is essential to prevent the introduction of meaningless constructs, and dismissed natural language programming as "foolish." Alan Perlis was similarly dismissive of the idea.