Natural Language and DSLs

A year ago I had blogged about Inform 7, an interesting DSL for the implementation of interactive fiction. I had briefly explored it, but didn’t do much more, because some of the concepts made it hard to use for my purposes (e.g. “relations” could only be defined between instances of objects, not classes. So you needed a lot of workarounds). However, just recently the developers released a new version that removes several limitations.

I happen to come back to look at the DSL, if only for inspiration on how you can find notations that seem natural and yet are formal.  Inform 7

  • wants describe a “world” in an executable way
  • expects its users to be literary inclined, not programming geeks.

These goals are obviously similar to the use of DSLs. An example of how a description of a physical system could look like can be found in the examples:

Especially the first three lines show how a physical system with rules can be described in (almost) natural language. And it can actually be executed. This is a transcript of the session:

Of course, we’d probably not describe lead pigs put components of cars and satellites ….

Another interesting feature is the specification of tabular data. Again from the docs:

Table 2.1 – Selected Elements

Element Symbol Atomic number Atomic weight
“Hydrogen” “H” 1 1
“Iron” “Fe” 26 56
“Zinc” “Zn” 30 65
“Uranium” “U” 92 238

And the access to the table:

symbol in row 3 of the Table of Selected Elements

It will be interesting to see, if notations like this will establish themselves more and more.

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