A Look at Forth's Academic Standing
Peter J. Knaggs
Department of Computing and Information Systems,
University of Paisley, High Street,
Paisley, Scotland. PA1 2BE
In this paper we look at the problems affecting the academic acceptance of
Forth. We take stock of its current standing, and the perceived current
In the current era of accountability, academics find it difficult to justify
being involved in, or even interested in Forth. We make two suggestions as
to how this may rectified.
As Forth gains more general acceptance it is seen that some form of control
over the standard of Forth programmers will be required. The idea of a
controlling body is outlined.
The intention of this paper is to provoke discussion within the
community about the problems outlined.
1. The Past
Forth has suffered from the attitude that it is a "hackers" language. In
certain circles this has proved to be an advantage, however, it has slowed
the academic acceptance of Forth considerable. The main reason for people
holding this attitude relates back to the early days when EFIG/FIG released
their portable public domain system. Software houses/managers took one look
at this hoch-potch of ideas and pre-standard code before either becoming
engrossed in the idea or dropping it like a hot brick. Now when we talk of
Forth, this is what they remember. We are well aware that Forth has move on
greatly since those days. A simple look at the new ANSI Standard
[ANS93] shows this quite clearly. Yet
the software managers still have this pre-'78 idea of Forth!
This must be changed if Forth is to gain any standing as a language.
Fortunately this has indeed been happening, but only by stealth. Ie., Hiding
Forth inside other products such as VP-Planer [Bro90],
the Open Boot ROM [Bra92], and similar projects.
Many people still regard Forth as a "write only" language. This mainly comes
from the constraints of the Block (or Screen) and perceived lack of comments.
However, the block system probably encourages more structure and documentation
than other so called normal (imperative) languages. The average manager does
not see the shadow (or comment) block, this is not helped by some programmers,
not supplying comment blocks!
Chapter 11 of the ANSI Standard outlines a file interface that should totally
overcome this outdated criticism. Unfortunately the move to file base systems
will bring with it the bad habits found with these other languages. Ie., The
code will start to become less documented, with people relying on the file
layout. The file structure will encourage larger, less generalised code
fragmentation. For examples of bad fragmentation and limited documentation,
just look at any file based compiler (such as C, Pascal or ADA).
Software managers tend to see only the (mostly badly documented) code. They
do not appreciate that Forth is not just another programming language, but
rather a philosophy of programming [Bro84]. Many ideas
currently in favour (such as structured programming, reusability, libraries,
etc.) generally known as "Software Engineering" have been available
and used in Forth for many years [Bro82,
Because of its involvement with the distribution of public domain Forth
systems in the '70s, the Forth Interest Group has been permanently associated
with the early "hackers" attitude to Forth. FIG now has the status of a
simple user group. The idea of releasing a common base into the public domain
was a very ambitious one, and before its time. As the electronic distribution
and discussion of the ANSI Standard was breaking new ground. FIG was one of
the leaders in this kind of marketing, unfortunately it failed to keep peoples
interest, or come out with new packages. Thus aided its own destruction by
promoting the general feeling that Forth has not progresses since FIG-Forth.
Fortunately both the Forth community, and others, have learned the lessens of
this disaster. This form of marketing is being used with grate success by
other organisations, such as the Free Software Foundation (FSF).
2. The Present
Forth is slowly gaining some respectability. Now that we finally have an ANSI
Standard, it will go a long way to improving Forth's standing in many
manager's eyes. The "portability" aspect of the standard should not be
ignored. This is one area where Forth has been lacking. The standard not
only addresses this problem but actively encourages the development of
As previously stated, there are many projects using Forth in the underling
architecture. However, the companies involved do not wish their involvement
with Forth to become public knowledge. There are generally two reasons for
this: (a) they consider this to be commercially sensitive information; or (b)
their software managers think they will be criticised and belittled for making
what was, apparently, an intelligent production decision.
Many Forth-like development languages have been developed by different
organisations. The Ten15 Development Language (TDL) being the most important
of these. This has now been adopted as the "Architecture Neutral Distribution
Format" (ANDF) development target language for the Open Systems Foundation
(OSF) [OSF91]. Although the basic ideas and principals of
the ANDF system are very close to those of Forth [Moo74],
it is implemented at a higher level. It is receiving large funding grants for
3. Academic Requirements
With the push for more accountability in education academics are increasingly
being pushed to produce more refereed papers in both Journals and Conferences
[Dav92]. This "Publish or Perish" attitude means that if
we are wanting academics to take an interest in Forth, we are going to have
to provide some mechanism for justifying time spent looking into Forth related
3.1. The Current Situation
At current there are no Forth related conferences. The current so
called conferences are all workshops from the academic viewpoint.
The academic (or perhaps more accurately the Research Assessment) definitions
A meeting where practitioners of a technology meet to discuss current
issues, projects, research, and advances with the technology.
The papers presented at a workshop are current up to date discussion
of the technology. Workshops are not normally refereed, with papers
being completed (on occasions) on the day of the workshop. For
examples of workshops refer to the Springer-Verlag Workshop Series.
A Conference is a meeting of practitioners and researchers to
interchange opinions, discuss current issues and research in the
technology. The papers at a conference have all be refereed, and
are published (in a conference proceedings) before the conference.
3.2. Current Conferences
The following is a list of the current Forth conferences:
- FORML: (Forth Modification Laboratory)
By its very title this is a "Laboratory", or a Workshop. The
material presented most defiantly falls into the Workshop
category. This is a meeting of practitioners discussing technical
aspects of current projects. Proposed extensions to the technology,
etc. The presentations are not refereed and very often
opinion, with little or no supporting argument.
- EuroFORML: (European Forth Modification Laboratory)
This is a European version of the FORML conference, the
same comments hold. It is a Workshop with presentations
on current projects, technical extensions, and opinions are
- EuroFORTH: (European Forth conference)
For various reasons some vendors involved in EuroFORML,
wanted to change its name to be more meaningful, thus the EuroFORTH
conference was formed. Unfortunately this is still the EuroFORML
at hart, and is really a Workshop.
This move does, however, show promise. It may be possible to convert
the EuroFORML workshop into a fully refereed EuroFORTH conference (see
- Rochester Forth Conference:
While this calms to be a conference, it is not. Papers are reviewed
before acceptances, however the papers are not truly refereed. The
full proceedings are not available for some time after the conference.
Rather than a conference this is indeed a Workshop.
As with EuroFORTH this could be converted into a formal conference.
Being organised by the Institute of Applied Forth Research
(publisher of the only refereed Journal) this should prove to be
a very simple operation, involving little additional organisation.
- Forth Language Workshop:
This is a workshop held by the ACM Special Interest Group on Forth
as part of the larger ACM Computer Science Conference (in conjunction
with the ACM Computer Science Education Conference, and the ACM
Symposium on Applied Computing). It currently enjoys sufficient
support that an independent workshop is no envisaged.
3.3. Current Journals
Now we look at the current Forth related publications:
- Journal of Forth Application and Research:
This is a formally refereed Journal, published by the Institute of
Applied Forth Research. The journal carries papers on all aspects
of the language. Technical issue of current projects, reports on
current research, etc.
This Journal seams to be going through a lethargic stage. I submitted
a paper in 1990 and have yet to receive any form of acknowledgement. In
addition to this, the last issue of the Journal to be published was
Volume 6, Issue 2, in 1990.
If we are wanting to encourage people to write papers of academic
standing this is simply intolerable.
- Soviet Journal of Forth Application and Research:
The, now defunct, soviet version of the Journal of Forth
Application and Research. It carried translations of papers
appearing in the Journal, and some original (refereed) papers of
One edition was published, although some additional "electronic
editions" where published, this also appears to have come to an
The ACM SIG-Forth Newsletter, publishes unrefereed articles and
letters. Although generally of good quality the material is not
- Forth Dimensions:
A publication of the Forth Interest Group. Articles may be
reviewed, and edited, but are certainly not refereed. As with the
SIG-Forth Newsletter, the quality of the material is generally
good, however, publication in such an organ is of no academic credit.
Several other magazines and journals will publish the occasional
article on Forth. Dr. Dobbs Journal, Byte, Embedded Systems
Programming, Midnight Engineering, etc. However, these are magazines
that take interesting articles. The articles published by such
magazines may be of interest, but do not carry any academic credit.
4. The Future
These are comments, recommendations, suggestions as to how we may be able to
make Forth more attractive to academics, or at least provide a means of
justification for academic interest in Forth.
I feel that the Rochester Forth Conference should be converted into a true
conference. That is to say, an organising committee receiving papers for
review. As this conference is currently organised by the Institute for
Applied Forth Research, it should not be too difficult to arrange a full
program committee/referees, etc.
The EuroFORML workshop, should be called EuroFORTH. This is less confusing
for people outside the community and makes it easier to justify attendance
than the `Forth Modification Laboratory'. I also recommend that the
EuroFORML be converted into a full refereed conference. Thus using a new
name for a new style of meeting.
It is not my aim to change the style or manner of the meetings, simply to
make them more academically acceptable. I suggest the EuroFORML conference be
made into a formal conference, complete with conference (program) committee,
refereed papers etc. Having said that papers must be refereed and effectively
published before appearance at the conference, there is nothing stopping the
conference chairman/committee from having an official "Workshop",
"Tutorial", and/or "Plenary" sessions.
We should be well served in this department, however, the "Journal of Forth
Application and Research" has not published since 1990. The Journal being
published by the Institute for Applied Forth Research could be seen as
somewhat incestuous. For a Journal to be acceptable it should be
published by an independent publisher. This would mean that the publisher
sees sufficient interest (or sales) to back a Journal. A Journal being
published by the community it serves is generally disregarded as a
"crack-pot" journal of no academic standing.
Could we start a European Forth Journal? If possible we should approach
a known publisher with this idea rather than taking it on ourselves.
Possible suggestions would be Springer-Verlag, John Wiley & Sons,
North-Holland, McGraw Hill... Perhaps it may be possible to obtain
monies from the EEC to support such an effort?
To start such a Journal an `editor in chief' is required, besides a full set
of people prepared to referee papers. Presently I feel that the community can
only really support one Journal, however, the current status of the Journal
of Forth Application and Research is sufficiently vague that I feel a new
(possibly European) Journal may be required.
5. And Beyond...
It is envisaged that when Forth does become more accepted we must dispel
the "hackers" myth from the Forth Interest Group. We propose a new
membership based organisation to monitor and control the professional'
Forth programmers. An outline for such an organisation may be:
Precisely how such an organisation should operate is another matter. There
are currently a few suggestions:
- It will be supported by membership subscriptions (and possibly
- It would confer `Student', `Associate', `Member', and `Fellow' status
on its members. Thus allowing an employer to gage the standing of a
Forth programmer, by his membership status.
- Would validate taught courses. Possibly leading to direct acceptance
at `Associate' or `Member' level.
- May be charged with the organisation of the formal conferences.
- May publish a Forth Journal.
Investigation of this matter has not extended beyond the speculation stage.
We now await comment, suggestions, and support on this idea.
- It should be set up as a totally new organisation. With a name
such as the "Institute of Forth Programmers". Precisely how the
initial capital would be raised is another question.
This has an inherent drawback. The institute will have no academic
standing. Indeed it probably would be seen as a new name for the
Forth Interest Group. This we are trying to avoid. It will also
duplicating efforts of both the Forth Interest Group, and the
Institute for Applied Forth Research.
- It should be set up under the guidance of the British Computer
- It should be set up as a subgroup of the Institute for Electrical
Both suggestions mean a Special Interest Group.
Membership to such an organisation may be a requirement before
membership of the SIG. Perhaps the ACM SIG could be reformed into
this new organisation?
- A Special Interest Group as a joint-subgroup between the BCS and
In this paper we have attempted to look at the problems affecting the
general acceptance of Forth. In particular we have investigated its
academic standing. We have taken stock of its current standing, and the
perceived current prejudices.
In the current era of accountability (the "publish or perish" temperament)
academics can no longer justify being involved in, or even interested in,
Forth. We must provide a basis for such justification. Two main
suggestions where put forward:
As Forth gains more general acceptance it is seen that we will require
some control over the standard of Forth programmers if we are to remove
some old prejudices. The idea of a controlling body was outlined.
Precisely how this body is to operate, and under what conditions, is left
open to discussion.
- We have at least one refereed conference. This will be a
redevelopment of an existing `workshop'. The Rochester Forth
Conference and the EuroFORTH Conference where suggested.
- We have at least one independent refereed Journal. This will have
to fight in the marketplace with the existing Forth Journals.
All of the material presented is open to correction, question, and
suggestions. The intention of this paper is to provoke discussion
within the community. A full workshop may be required to discuss some of
these ideas and to develop some firm proposals.
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