Clutching at its Perl 6, developer community ponders language name with less baggage

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Perl code image

Earlier this month, Elizabeth Mattijsen, a Dutch software developer and contributor to the open-source Perl programming language, opened an issue in the GitHub Perl 6 repository seeking to rename the project because having "Perl" in the name is "confusing and irritating."

To understand why that's so, it's necessary to know a bit about Perl's history. The first version of Perl was created by Larry Wall, who released it in late 1987 as a Unix scripting language. Over the years, subsequent versions have been released, with Perl 5 appearing in 1994. Perl 6 planning began in 2000 and its first release came toward the end of 2015.

Perl 5 is still in use today, though it exists alongside Perl 6, which isn't a successor so much as a splinter group, which included Wall. As Perl.org puts it, Perl 6 is "not intended as a replacement for Perl 5, but as its own thing."

Just as Python 3 differs from Python 2, Perl 6 differs from Perl 5, with an added complication: not everyone recognizes the legitimacy of the new heir or believes the Perl fiefdom has a future. Some Perl devs describe Perl 6 as a different, though related, programming language to Perl 5. And that's Mattijsen's concern.

"Having two programming languages that are sufficiently different to not be source compatible, but only differ in what many perceive to be a version number, is hurting the image of both Perl 5 and Perl 6 in the world," she wrote. "Since the word 'Perl' is still perceived as 'Perl 5' in the world, it only seems fair that 'Perl 6' changes its name."

Her preference would be to rename it "the Camelia Programming Language," Camelia being the name of the butterfly character that presently adorns the Perl 6 website.

Another Perl developer, Damian Conway, has argued in favor of "Raku," in reference to the Rakudo Perl 6 compiler.

In a blog post published Wednesday, Curtis "Ovid" Poe, an author of modules in the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network (CPAN), Perl's module registry, and a Perl instructional book, among other things, said disagreement over the proposed name change has divided the Perl community. But it's an issue that needs to be addressed, he suggests, because "Perl" has become a hate magnet.

"Routinely I see in numerous online discussions that people refuse to even consider Perl 6 because they hate Perl," he said.

Given that software developers are capable of vehement disagreement over whether tabs or spaces should be used for source code indentation, it's perhaps not surprising that Perl evokes strong reactions. (We should note that The Register runs on Perl.)

As we reported in 2017, and was cited in the discussion of Mattijsen's proposal, Perl is the most hated programming language. That stat came from a StackOverflow developer survey and our reader poll at the time echoed those results. Our poll was not a runway victory for Perl by any means – Java and Visual Basic came in a close second and third respectively in hate metrics – but it made StackOverflow's conclusions harder to dismiss.

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Official: Perl the most hated programming language, say devs

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The sentiment surrounding Perl appears not to be much different today. In July, the TIOBE Index of programming language popularity said that Perl's popularity was at an all-time low. And a year-and-a-half ago, consultancy RedMonk remarked on "the rapid decline in Perl."

Poe, in a comment on the issues post, urged the Perl community to act quickly.

"So long as 'Perl 6' has Perl in its name, the rancor will continue inside the Perl community, the confusion will continue outside the Perl community, and everyone is going to suffer for it," he said. "There is only one question really left to ask, and it's not a question we're willing to face: is it too late? I don't believe it is, but if we drag our feet forever, it may be."

The Java EE community, denied the use of Oracle's Java trademark, made the leap and reinvented itself as Jakarta EE. Perhaps Perl 6 can survive its own brand metamorphosis. It doesn't appear to have much of a choice. ®

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