Programming languages over the last 40 years

The Curious Codex

             6 Votes

2024-06-25 Published
2024-06-25 Updated
940 Words, 5  Minute Read

The Author

By Richard (Senior Partner)

Richard has been with the firm since 1992 and was one of the founding partners



GEN Have been writing software since the late 1980's and we've seen many shifts in popularity with some languages like BASIC, PASCAL, FORTH, FIFTH, LISP virtually disappearing, whilst others like C and C++ maintaining a place in the hearts and minds of developers worldwide. There will be a never ending catalogue of languages being birthed, used, and then forgotten but that is the way. When I first started, it was C or assembly, and my first programming experience was on CP/M 86 and AlphaMicro AM100. Those systems were very basic, and in CP/M everything was done in assembly using interrupts to invoke OS calls, and on the Alpha it was similar but you had to jump to a selection of vectors loading registers with the call data. I also remember some languages not on our popularity list, simply because there's no data available, like COBOL and ALGOL, both forerunners of modern languages.


The 1980s saw the rise of several foundational programming languages:

  • C Developed in the early 1970s, C became widely popular in the 1980s due to its efficiency and control over hardware, making it ideal for system programming and operating systems. Even today, linux is mostly written in C, and many projects are maintained in c, sometimes called GNU C
  • C++ Introduced in 1983 as an extension of C, C++ added object-oriented features, which made it suitable for large-scale software development. C++ is very much in use today.
  • Pascal Popular in academia for teaching structured programming and data structuring. Borland Delphi notably used Pascal as its base.
  • Ada Developed for the US Department of Defense, Ada was used for large, critical software systems. This language was short lived but well worth a mention.
  • Basic Basic was developed in the 60's, but became popular in the 80's due to its inclusion in most micro-computers of the time.


The 1990s were marked by the emergence of languages that are still widely used today

  • Java Developed by Sun Microsystems in 1995, Java's "write once, run anywhere" capability made it a popular choice for web and enterprise applications. Java is still used today in many applications and web backends.
  • Python Created in 1991, Python's simplicity and readability quickly gained it a following, especially in scientific computing and data analysis.
  • JavaScript Introduced in 1995, JavaScript became essential for web development due to its integration with web browsers. Latterly it escaped browsers with Node.js which is used globally for web and api backends.
  • PHP Also released in 1995, PHP became a staple for server-side web development, and today around 77% of the worlds websites run with PHP as the backend.


The 2000s saw the rise of languages tailored for specific domains and new paradigms

  • C# Developed by Microsoft in 2000, C# was used for Windows applications and enterprise software. C# remains isolated to the Microsoft Ecosystem.
  • Ruby Created in 1995, Ruby was used for web and enterprise applications.
  • Objective-C Developed by Apple in 2000, Objective-C was used for macOS and iOS applications. Objective-C was awkward, and not really C anymore, but was later replaced by Swift.


The 2010s were characterized by the growth of languages suited for modern web and mobile development

  • Swift Developed by Apple in 2014, Swift was used for iOS and macOS applications and quickly became the replacement language for the Apple ecosystem.
  • Go Developed by Google, Go was used for system programming and applications requiring high performance automation and processing.
  • Rust Developed by Mozilla, Rust was used for system programming and applications requiring performance and stability due to its strict typing. Rush is apparently crash-proof.


In the current decade, several trends have emerged

  • Python Continues to dominate due to its simplicity and the ever expanding selection of library modules.
  • PHP Continues to hold its own as 'The' language for server-side programming.
  • JavaScript Remains crucial for web development, with frameworks like React, Angular, and Vue.js enhancing its capabilities.
  • TypeScript A superset of JavaScript, TypeScript has gained popularity for its static typing and improved developer experience.
  • Kotlin Preferred for Android development, Kotlin's interoperability with Java and modern features have made it a strong contender.
  • Rust Maintains its position as a "most loved" language due to its performance and safety features.


Several indices and surveys track the popularity of programming languages

  • TIOBE Index Measures popularity based on search engine queries. As of 2024, Python, C, and C++ are at the top
  • Stack Overflow Developer Survey Reflects the preferences of the developer community, with JavaScript, Python, and Java frequently ranking high
  • GitHub and PYPL Index Track the usage and search trends for programming languages, often highlighting the rise of languages like Python and JavaScript


The evolution of programming languages over the last 40 years reflects the changing landscape of technology and the diverse needs of developers. While older languages like C and Java continue to be relevant, newer languages like Python, JavaScript, and Rust are shaping the future of software development. The choice of programming language often depends on the specific requirements of a project, the ecosystem, and the community support available.

In our table below, we're only including languages that are client-side, or OS native and significantly relevant from the 9000 or so languages in existence. We've normalised the values as much as possible based on the sources above, and other online research. Its not 100% accurate, but its a good best guess.

Year C C++ Java Python JS PHP Ruby Go Rust C# Basic Fortran Pascal Delphi Lisp Forth Others
1980 5% - - - - - - - - - 10% 15% 10% - 5% 2% 53%
1985 10% 1% - - - - - - - - 8% 12% 8% - 4% 3% 54%
1990 15% 5% - 0.1% - - - - - - 6% 10% 6% - 3% 2% 52.9%
1995 18% 10% 1% 0.5% 0.5% 1% - - - - 4% 8% 4% 1% 2% 1% 49%
2000 20% 15% 10% 2% 3% 5% 0.5% - - 1% 2% 6% 2% 2% 1% 1% 29.5%
2005 18% 14% 15% 4% 5% 6% 2% - - 3% 1% 4% 1% 1% 1% 0.5% 24.5%
2010 16% 12% 17% 6% 8% 7% 3% 0.1% - 5% 0.5% 3% 0.5% 0.5% 0.5% 0.2% 20.7%
2015 12% 10% 15% 10% 10% 5% 2% 1% 0.5% 6% 0.2% 2% 0.2% 0.2% 0.2% 0.1% 25.6%
2020 9.89% 6.78% 9.45% 9.12% 1.98% 1.22% 0.98% 2.04% 2.23% 6.01% 0.1% 1.53% 0.1% 1.52% 1.17% 0.1% 45.78%
2024 9.23% 10.03% 8.40% 15.39% 3.32% 1.22% 0.98% 2.04% 2.23% 6.65% 0.1% 1.53% 0.1% 1.52% 1.17% 0.1% 35.99%

             6 Votes

Comments (2)

Sketchy · 2024-07-02 09:00 UTC
What the hell is LISP

David Barnes · 2024-07-01 15:45 UTC
I remember LISP, what a language that was, never made sense but was super powerful for the time.

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