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What is Assembly Language?

By Archana Khambekar
Updated May 16, 2024
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An assembly language is a low-level way to instruct a computer to carry out a task. Computers do not inherently understand instructions from people. At the most basic level, computers understand instructions in binary language, that is, sequences of zeroes and ones. Binary language or machine language is extremely cumbersome to program in, however. Assembly language was invented as a symbolic representation of the underlying sequences of zeroes and ones.

Suppose we were to program a game which, upon a certain action, awards the player with five points. The computer keeps the score in a certain location; the locations are either a storage place within the CPU, called a "register," or in some space in the memory. The computer understands locations and low-level actions called operations. So if the score is kept at register RA, then it understands the command, 0101 1100 0000 0101, where the first four numbers indicate the operation ADD, the next four indicate the register RA, and the last eight indicate the number 5.

Originally computers had to be coded this way; machine language is slow, error-prone, and it can be very hard for one person to understand what another person is trying to code. So computer programmers created a language in which the operations, locations, numbers, etc., can be better understood. Thus the equivalent command for the above example would be ADD RA 5. In this hypothetical example, mnemonics are used for the ADD operation and the register RA, and the number 5 is written in digits.

A program called an assembler converts assembly language code into the underlying machine language. In earlier days, even this conversion used up expensive computing resources, so the operation codes, opcodes in short, such as Subtract were abbreviated as SUB, Copy-Move was abbreviated as MOV and in some cases even ADD was abbreviated to A.

Assembly language is mostly a thin layer above the machine structure. Hence the opcodes, registers, and the whole language is very much dependent on the CPU family. So, the Intel x86 family has opcodes such as MOV, MOVSX, and MOVZX, whereas IBM 360 has opcodes such as MVI, MVC, MVZ. When designing a computer or CPU, the designers specify the machine language including the opcodes.

Programmers soon moved to "high-level" languages such as COBOL, Pascal, C++, and SQL. Compilers convert code written in these languages into machine language. Assembly code is still used for specialized CPUs, however, or for ensuring speed from game consoles to car systems.

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Discussion Comments

By anon983612 — On Jan 01, 2015

If computers will start to think and decide what to do like humans, then I would like to have my brain connected to computers and have a mind.

By BioNerd — On Feb 09, 2011

Assembly language basically starts from the very basic form of binary and works its way up to manageable data in minimalistic forms. With the development of quantum computers, however, the amount of data and processing power in a computer may shift radically. This could become dangerous, computers might even be able to think and innovate for themselves!

By Armas1313 — On Feb 07, 2011

@JavaGhoul

It is to be hoped that by that time, education in more advanced and innovative matters, which are more particularly human, will be propagated by the internet. Hopefully the technocracy of that day will feel a burden to help those less fortunate.

By JavaGhoul — On Feb 06, 2011

@Armas1313

I feel like the Luddites may have been right. If computers advance to be able to perform basic human functions, many of the working class will be out of a job. What will people do at that point?

By Armas1313 — On Feb 04, 2011

Languages are becoming increasingly tiered to the point where they will one day be as simple as human language. We may be able to construct new programs simply by speaking. When computers advance to this level, they will probably be able to complete most of our simple daily tasks.

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