Why does APL have such a devoted following, despite its strange appearance? What have its users, since the 1960s, seen in it that made them embrace such an unpopular language?
I'm not one of those fanatical APLers, but I think I understand why. Imagine the year is 1965. All computing is on mainframes, and the only high-level languages you've ever seen are Fortran and Algol-60. And then one day you meet APL, and discover:
- It has a read-eval-print loop: you can type expressions in and see the results immediately, without running a compiler. It's a remarkably powerful calculator, in the days before calculators were common. (This may account for its popularity in finance.)
- It's mostly functional: most operations return a result rather than requiring you to specify a destination to modify, so you can easily combine many operations in one expression.
- It has built-in collections — specifically multidimensional arrays, but any decent collection support would do as well. We take collections for granted nowadays, at least in languages higher-level than C, but this wasn't always so. There's a reason many early languages (not just APL and Lisp) were built around a collection type.
- It has high-order operations:
mapis (often) implicit, and
scan, and Cartesian product are single characters.
- It's terse, and not just because of its one-character names. You really can say in a line of APL what would take a page of Fortran.
Under these circumstances, wouldn't you be amazed by the powerful new language? Wouldn't you become a faithful user, and for decades wonder why all other languages were so uselessly primitive?