How Many Programming Languages Exist?

goran-ivos-iacpoKgpBAM-unsplash (1)
Photo by Goran Ivos on Unsplash

You might not know that there are around 6500 spoken languages in the world. But do you know how many programming languages are there? We might have a surprising answer for you. 

According to Wikipedia, there are approximately 700 different programming languages, while some sources claim that number is closer to head-spinning 9000. Yes, there have been countless programming languages created throughout history, and like with any spoken language there is a hierarchy; in this case, it’s based on programming usage and prevalence.

So, what is a programming language?

If you’re not an IT professional, you are maybe wondering what exactly a programming language is. Actually, it is somewhat similar to a spoken language. For example, when we talk we use language to communicate our thoughts in order for someone to understand us. It is the same with programming languages, but with a computer on the other side ready to understand us. A more dictionary-friendly definition is offered by Webopedia: “A programming language is a vocabulary and set of grammatical rules for instructing a computer or computing device to perform specific tasks.” 

Programming languages use coding syntax in order to create software programs made to perform tasks. An easy way to understand coding syntax is to imagine that it provides word sets (in a specific order) in order for the computer to complete a task humans are instructing them to do. It is a basic concept for all programming languages.

Programming languages are divided into two categories:

1. High-level languages

These languages use syntax that is similar to English; they are called higher because of their similarity with human language and, consequently, simpler for programmers to understand. Some of the most popular high-level languages are C, C++, Java, and Python, which are used to develop desktop, web, and mobile apps.

2. Low-level languages

On the other hand, low-level languages are used to write programs connected directly to the computer’s architecture and hardware. They can be divided into two categories: machine and assembly. Assembly languages are very useful because it is otherwise very hard to write programs in a machine language. Basically, an assembly program is converted into a machine one using an assembler. However, in order for a developer to write this kind of program, he/she must have deep knowledge of computer architecture. Also, these languages can be used in the development of device drivers and operating systems.

How many programming languages are really there?

It is not easy to offer a simple answer, but we have a list of resources and their coding language lists that show their quantity and relevance.

Coding languages list

TIOBE: 150 languages

The TIOBE Programming Community index back in 1991. began tracking 25 coding languages. Nowadays, the index has more than 150 languages, with ratings checked monthly. The ratings are created via the opinion of skilled engineers from all around the world, and also courses, third-party vendors, and familiar search engines such as Google, Bing, Amazon, YouTube, etc.

Wikipedia: 700 languages

Our most used online encyclopedia lists more than 700 different languages alphabetically. This list focuses on the inclusion of all existing notable programming languages. However, Wikipedia information is subjective, even though their list offers a useful insight into how many different programming languages there are. 

HOPL: 8,945 languages

HOPL is an online genealogy of 8,945 languages, including languages that date back into the 18th century as well as the ones created today. The HOPL coding list features 7,800 links and more than 11,000 citations.

GitHub: 370 languages

GitHub is a software development platform with over 40 million registered users. Every year they publish a so-called State of the Octoverse Report that includes takeaways and statistics of the past year. The most recent one reported that in 2019 developers worked on more than 370 primary programming languages on the platform.

FOLDOC: 1000 languages

FOLDOC is a free online computing dictionary that consists of languages, and a general computing terms search tool and comprises over 1000 languages. 

DZone: 253 languages

DZone is one of the biggest online communities that publishes knowledge recources for software developers and has a list of 253 coding languages. 

The Language List

The Language List began tracking programming languages in 1991. with the goal of becoming one of the most complete sources of computer languages, it collects information on 2500 languages from past and present. 

99 Bottles of Beer

Our last coding languages list is perhaps the most peculiar one, just like the name might suggest. The website 99 Bottles of Beer holds a collection of the song called ’99 bottles of beer’ written in more than 1500 programming languages. Also, visitors are able to post comments and rate the coding accuracy of the languages listed there. 

What about a Markup language?

Markup languages are different from standard coding languages so that they integrate a document annotation system, making it syntactically separable from the text. Therefore, a coding language is a formal language that offers commands used to create different kinds of output and results. The most important feature of markup languages is that they are, unlike most of the other languages, at the same time human and machine-readable. One of the most popular markup languages HTML (HyperText Markup Language) uses word tags to determine different sections of a website (for example <head>, <body>, <table> or <image>).

Another popular markup language is XML (Extensible Markup Language) used for storing structured data. Instead of using predefined tags, XML utilizes custom tags to define elements of the webpage. So, XML helps to share data between two platforms and is used for databases and mobile applications too.

Lots of people don’t think of Markup languages as computer programming languages because of their lack of writing computational code. They are frequently called declarative, in a way that they simply declare what should be on the page. Also, it is important to highlight that knowledge of languages with computational coding is almost always demanded for technical roles. 

What are Query and Esoteric languages?

Techopedia claims that a query language is a programming language that deals with sending queries and then requesting and retrieving data from databases and various information systems. Structured Query Language (SQL) is the most widely used language for this kind of data retrieval and management system. Moreover, it was the second most popular programming language in the test performed by employers in the 2020 IT Skills report. SQL keeps being popular because of its query accuracy, mass data collection, and ease of use.

Some coding languages are actually made solely for fun, while some are created with an aim to challenge the norms of existing language designs. These languages are called esoteric languages, and they differ from standard languages as well. The reason lies in the fact that standard coding languages (like JavaScript) help with specific tasks’ performance, while esoteric languages exist only for entertainment. 

Query and esoteric languages both differ from standard programming languages and are therefore not included in a coding languages list, so it’s no surprise that our coding language list roundup has so many discrepancies.

How many programming languages are in use?

The truth is, not all coding languages are used. Actually, the majority of those found in the roundup are never used because some languages are replaced due to changes in technology, while some are being created solely for one-time usage.

A single search query on Quora about how many programming languages there are resulted in finding some interesting insights on the questions. What is more interesting is what people comment about the popularity of some languages – many talk about languages that challenge the user (like in the form of riddles or jokes) but have no real coding value.

Special-purpose programming languages

Also called domain-specific languages, special-purpose programming languages are made for a specific app domain so they can exclusively be used to solve a particular problem and are therefore not so widely used. Some of the examples are LISP and Prolong.

Which programming languages are being used the most?

The answer to this question is as subjective as the one we were trying to provide for the number of existing programming languages. It simply depends on who is giving the answer and what you consider a relevant programming language. However, it is perhaps most logical to hear developers opinion on the topic; for example, GitHub reported that in the last year developers collaborated in more than 370 primary languages there, so it is eligible to say that such platform can give us an accurate insight in the most commonly used languages.

And which programming languages are used the most professionally?

When we dive into a professional sphere, the number of commonly used programming languages is reduced even more. The 2020 IT Skills Report provides an original insight into the most tested languages in the professional IT world; with coding tests in 57 languages, frameworks, and libraries and 213,782 tests sent last year, 40% of them are done with JavaScript. However, test don’t equate 100% because candidates can be tested for numerous languages simultaneously. Also, tests are made with the tech stack in mind, which means they can cover more technologies in one test. So JavaScript + CSS lead with 20.7% of tests performed, tightly followed by JavaScript + HTML (17.8%) and Java + SQL (15.6%). It is obvious there are only a handful of languages commonly used in professional circles.

For the conclusion

As you may agree, the answer to the question ‘how many programming languages are there?’ is not so clear. The coding languages list roundup showed that the answer varies a lot depending on who you ask. However, one thing is certain – the number of programming languages that are actually in use is significantly smaller than the one including all the existing languages. That number is even smaller when it comes to languages used by IT professionals. 

In the end, the most commonly used programming languages are serving numerous purposes and systems, which makes them highly functional, adaptable, and therefore popular amongst IT professionals.