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What is Interpreted Language?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 16, 2024
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An interpreted language is a kind of programming language that relies on another piece of software called an interpreter to run. Most programming languages rely on a compiler, which changes the code into a set of instructions that are specifically designed for a particular type of machine and operating system. When writing programs using an interpreted language, the program itself is a text file with code, and the interpreter acts as an intermediary, translating the instructions into something the machine can understand on the fly. Interpreted languages have several limitations in terms of performance, but they’re also easier to work with and ideal for certain kinds of applications.

There was a time when using an interpreted language was often very questionable, mostly because of speed. During the era when computer processing power was at a premium, interpreted languages had very limited uses because they were significantly more resource-hungry. With compiled languages, everything is more efficient and direct because the programs have already been translated into machine-friendly instructions. The compiling process has to happen every time a person runs an interpreted program, and the interpreting software has to run constantly at the same time, which generally puts more stress on performance.

Interpreted languages also have several advantages. Some of them are very easy to learn, such as python. Programs made with interpreted languages can sometimes be easier to test because they don’t have to be complied repeatedly, and it’s usually easier to make changes to an existing piece of software. In general, the process of working with an interpreted language is more streamlined, with shorter development times and often less overall work.

One other major advantage for interpreted languages is easy portability. Generally speaking, If there is a version of the interpreter for multiple different kinds of machines and operating systems, then any program written in that language can be used across a wide variety of platforms. For example, a program written in an interpreted language might be able to run on a Macintosh™, Windows®, or Linux®-based system without any modification.

As computer speeds improved, the use of interpreted languages generally increased, but there were still certain limitations. Even with fast computers, an interpreted language isn't considered ideal for certain kinds of applications, like games. Some programs are built using a combination of interpreted languages and compiled languages. In these kinds of implementations, the interpreted language may only handle a small aspect of the functionality, while the majority of the program uses compiled code. An example would be a game with its own built-in interpreter for a scripting language that lets end-users easily create and modify content.

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