Studies in Quantitative Linguistics 7
„Quantitative Linguistics Computing with Perl”
Fan Fengxiang
ISBN: 978-3-942303-01-9
Contents Studies 7 (free of charge)
PDF-file  Studies 7 download link 15.00 EUR
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Empirical research in linguistics, in particular in quantitative linguistics, relies to

a high degree on the acquisition of large amounts of appropriate data and, as a

matter of course, on sometimes intricate computation. The last decades with the

advent of faster and faster electronic machinery and at the same time growing

storage capacities at falling prices contributed, together with advances in linguistic

theory and analytic methods, to the availability of suitable linguistic

material for all kinds of investigations on all levels of analysis.

Ideally, a researcher in quantitative linguistics has enough programming

knowledge to acquire the data needed for his/her specific study. This is, however,

not always the case. If professional programmers can be asked for help, most

problems may be overcome; however, also this way is not always possible. And

sometimes, it may be more awkward to explain a task than do perform it.

The selection of the appropriate programming language should not be

conducted by taste or familiarity (as it is, unfortunately, very often even among

programmers); instead, at least the following criteria should be taken into account:

  1. Quality of the language. There is a number of quality-related properties of

a programming language such as ability of preventing programming

mistakes, readability of the code, changeability, testability, learnability.

Unfortunately, these and other properties are not independent of each

other; some of them compete (e.g. efficiency is always a competitor of

most other properties) whereas others co-operate (e.g. readability advances

most of the others). A programmer has to decide on priorities of

the quality properties with respect to the individual task and application.

  1. Nature of the problem. Every programming language has advantages and

disadvantages also with respect to the task to be performed. One of the

criteria often cited is the old distinction between low-level (close to the

basic processor instructions and to the memory organisation of the

computer) and high-level languages (with concepts close to the problems

or algorithms). However, matters of efficiency etc. do not play a role any

more (at least in the overwhelming majority of applications) since the

compilers and their optimisers produce better code than most human

programmers would be able to do. But there are still concepts and tasks

that can be expressed in one language better than in another one, e.g. only

few programmers would prefer a scripting language for the programming

a data base.

  1. Size and complexity of the problem. The larger a problem and the higher

its complexity the more relevant become the quality properties of the

language. If, e.g. several persons work on the same project, readability of

the code is of fundamental importance but even if a single programmer


does all the coding of a complex problem he/she will encounter problems

with his own code after some time if the programming language allows

code in a less readable form. In any case, corrections, changes, and

maintenance of a program depend crucially on some of the quality properties.

  1. Security aspects. This is a simple matter: If the application you write is

supposed to run in a environment that is accessible to potential attacks

(e.g., the Internet or a computer network or if other users have access to

the computer) and if the data your program works with should be

protected, then a special focus should be put on security properties of the

programming language. Scripting languages, e.g., are known to be frail, as

a rule. You should make sure that the language you use has at least

protection mechanisms you can switch on. Surprisingly, this aspect is very

often neglected – even by institutions such as banks (Internet banking).

  1. Reliability of the compiler/interpreter/libraries. Many popular languages

are not defined. Instead, ‘reference implementations’ are offered. However,

to be sure how a language element works you would have try it out

in every possible form of use and combination with other elements – an

unrealistic idea. Another aspect is even more significant in practice: Some

languages, among them some of the currently most popular ones, are

subject to substantial changes every now and then. The user of such a

language is witness and victim of a ripening process (or mere experimentation):

If your program will work with the next version of the language, is

more or less a matter of chance. You should consider how much harm

such a situation would do to your project if you decide to use a language

that is not defined.

  1. Frequency of application. It matters whether your program is an ad-hoc

solution and will be used just once or a few times to evaluate some data

and then will be discarded or whether it is meant to be useful for a longer

time and may be changed and adapted for varying conditions. In the first

case, not so much value is to be set on quality properties of the language;

immediate availability of a practical solution may then come into foreground.

In the latter case, however, readability, changeability and other

properties play a bigger role.

  1. Intended users of the software product. Similarly, if you alone will use a

program, some disadvantages such as missing robustness or a bad user

interface would not constitute a serious problem as you will exactly know

which behaviour you have to expect and how to circumvent inelegance or

even mistakes. If, on the other hand, an unknown number of unknown

persons will use it you should base you product on reliable tools, among

them the language you formulate your solution in.

The main problem, however, quantitative linguists will have to face – independent

of how they are inclined to weight the criteria discussed above – is probably


that they fail to have an overview about programming languages and their pro’s

and con’s. Whenever a programming layman is asked for advice the probability

is high that the answer will depend on personal taste and familiarity with a

language and possibly on its current popularity. You should, at least, know what

criteria to base your decision on; with an idea of your priorities at hand and after

discussing them with a programming expert, you can increase the chance to

obtain a good hint.

Perl belongs to the so-called scripting languages. To run a program written in

Perl you need the Perl interpreter; it has to be installed on your computer before

the program can be executed. The reason is that such a program is interpreted,

line by line, each time it is started as opposed to compiled programs which can

run without any interpreter. There are, again, pro’s and con’s of either solution.

Scripting languages have, e.g. the advantage that a program can change its own

logic and easily adapt its data structures while it runs, to an extent which is

impossible with compiled programs – a comfortable but also potentially dangerous


Linguists fancy, in particular, the powerful language elements of Perl,

which enable a programmer to write powerful programs in very short time. This

property is especially useful for string and text manipulation and analysis

because many ready-made tools for string handling are ‘innate’ to the language.

Advanced programmers will find it even more useful for Internet programming.

A clear disadvantage is the not so readable program text which makes finding

and correcting of mistakes sometimes awkward in long and complex programs.

Therefore, careful formulations and exhaustive comments within the program

code are strongly recommended. If these caveats are taken into account Perl can

be used with much success with little effort – and make a lot of fun.

Reinhard Köhler