A scripting language, script language or extension language is a programming language that allows control of one or more software applications. "Scripts" are distinct from the core code of the application, as they are usually written in a different language and are often created or at least modified by the end-user. Scripts are often interpreted from source code or bytecode, whereas the applications they control are traditionally compiled to native machine code. Scripting languages are nearly always embedded in the applications they control.
The name "script" is derived from the written script of the performing arts, in which dialogue is set down to be spoken by human actors. Early script languages were often called batch languages or job control languages. Such early scripting languages were created to shorten the traditional edit-compile-link-run process.
Historically, there was a clear distinction between "real" high speed programs written in languages such as C, and simple, slow scripts written in languages such as Bourne Shell or Awk. But as technology improved, the performance differences shrank and interpreted languages like Java, Lisp, Perl and Python emerged and gained in popularity to the point where they are considered general-purpose programming languages and not just languages that "drive" an interpreter.
Languages such as Tcl and Lua, were specifically designed as general purpose scripting languages that could be embedded in any application or used on their own. Other systems such as Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) provided strong integration with the automation facilities of an underlying system. Embedding of such general purpose scripting languages instead of developing a new language for each application also had obvious benefits, relieving the application developer of the need to code a language translator from scratch and allowing the user to apply skills learned elsewhere.
The Common Gateway Interface allowed scripting languages to control web servers, thus communicate over the web. Scripting languages that made use of CGI early in the evolution of the Web include Perl, ASP, and PHP.
A major class of scripting languages has grown out of the automation of job control, which relates to starting and controlling the behavior of system programs. (In this sense, one might think of shells as being descendants of IBM's JCL, or Job Control Language, which was used for exactly this purpose.) Many of these languages' interpreters double as command-line interpreters such as the Unix shell or the MS-DOS
COMMAND.COM. Others, such as AppleScript offer the use of English-like commands to build scripts. This combined with Mac OS X's Cocoa frameworks allows user to build entire applications using AppleScript & Cocoa objects.
With the advent of graphical user interfaces came a specialized kind of scripting language for controlling a computer. These languages interact with the same graphic windows, menus, buttons, and so on that a system generates. They do this by simulating the actions of a human user. These languages are typically used to automate user actions or configure a standard state. Such languages are also called "macros" when control is through simulated key presses or mouse clicks.
These languages could in principle be used to control any application running on a GUI-based computer; but, in practice, the support for such languages typically depends on the application and operating system. There are a few exceptions to this limitation. Some GUI scripting languages are based on recognizing graphical objects from their display screen pixels. These GUI scripting languages do not depend on support from the operating system, or application.
Many large application programs include an idiomatic scripting language tailored to the needs of the application user. Likewise, many computer game systems use a custom scripting language to express the programmed actions of non-player characters and the game environment. Languages of this sort are designed for a single application; and, while they may superficially resemble a specific general-purpose language (e.g. QuakeC, modeled after C), they have custom features that distinguish them. Emacs Lisp, while a fully formed and capable dialect of Lisp, contains many special features that make it most useful for extending the editing functions of Emacs. An application-specific scripting language can be viewed as a domain-specific programming language specialized to a single application.
On the server side of the HTTP link, application servers and other dynamic content servers such as Web content management systems provide content through a large variety of techniques and technologies typified by the scripting approach. Particularly prominent in this area are PHP, JSP and ASP, but other developments such as Ruby on Rails and Django have carved out a niche.
The processing of text-based records is one of the oldest uses of scripting languages. Scripts written for the Unix tools AWK, sed, and grep automate tasks that involve text-based configuration and log files. Of high importance here is the regular expression, a language developed for the formal description of the lexical structure of text, and used by all of these tools.
Perl was originally designed to overcome limitations of these tools and has grown to be one of the most widespread general purpose languages.
Some languages, such as Perl, began as scripting languages but were developed into programming languages suitable for broader purposes. Other similar languages – frequently interpreted, memory-managed, or dynamic – have been described as "scripting languages" for these similarities, even if they are more commonly used for applications programming. They are usually not called "scripting languages" by their own users.
Other complex and task-oriented applications may incorporate and expose an embedded programming language to allow their users more control and give them more functionality than can be available through a user interface, no matter how sophisticated. For example, Autodesk Maya 3D authoring tools embed the MEL scripting language, or Blender which has Python to fill this role.
Some other types of applications that need faster feature addition or tweak-and-run cycles (e.g. game engines) also use an embedded language. During the development, this allows them to prototype features faster and tweak more freely, without the need for the user to have intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the application or to rebuild it after each tweak (which can take a significant amount of time.) The scripting languages used for this purpose range from the more common and more famous Lua and Python to lesser-known ones such as AngelScript and Squirrel.