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Is SQL a Programming Language?

Updated on: October 30th, 2023

SQL is a powerful tool for communicating with database management systems. When you write SQL queries, you give instructions to the computer and it performs these instructions—it sounds like programming. However, you cannot build an application with SQL as you can with Python or Java. So, is SQL a programming language?

For over 50 years, SQL, or Structured Query Language, has been a cornerstone in the world of data management. Yet, a question still lingers: "Is SQL a programming language?" In this article, we'll dive into this longstanding debate, shedding light on the arguments from both sides. Join us as we explore the legacy of SQL and its classification in the tech world.

If you're new to SQL or unsure about its details, start with our SQL Basics course. It's a straightforward introduction to get you up to speed quickly.

What Is SQL?

Let’s start with the basic definition. SQL, or Structured Query Language, is a language used for communication with relational databases. This communication involves tasks such as querying data, updating records, and defining structures, ensuring that data can be stored, retrieved, and manipulated efficiently within a database system. If you're curious about the various applications of SQL, delve deeper by reading this article.

Despite the importance of this role, this is quite a narrow task compared to what Python, Java, C++, etc. are used for. Naturally, there is a long-lasting debate around the question—is SQL a programming language? You cannot create an application or build a webpage with SQL, but it definitely looks like programming when you use SQL to talk to your databases.

To address this controversial issue, I suggest starting with recognizing the differences between several key concepts. We’ll have no problem answering if SQL is a programming language after we define the term “programming language” and have a clear understanding of the differences between general-purpose programming languages and domain-specific programming languages.

Programming Language vs. General-Purpose Programming Language

According to Webopedia, “a programming language is a vocabulary and set of grammatical rules for instructing a computer or computing device to perform specific tasks.” SQL is definitely a programming language given this definition.

It has an established vocabulary and strict syntax that should be followed. For example, all SQL statements start with specific keywords (e.g., SELECT, INSERT, CREATE, UPDATE, DELETE) and end with a semicolon. The order of clauses is also important. For example, GROUP BY should follow the WHERE clause and precede the ORDER BY clause:

SELECT column_one, column_two
FROM table
WHERE column_one > 2000
GROUP BY column_one, column_two
ORDER BY column_one;

Furthermore, messages that are written using this vocabulary and syntax instruct your computer to perform specific tasks, like accessing certain data in the database or creating tables in the database, etc.

Then why do we have all this controversy around recognizing SQL as a programming language? The problem is that people often mean “general-purpose programming language” when saying “programming language.” And there is a big difference between these terms.

Wikipedia says that “a general-purpose programming language is a programming language designed to be used for writing software in the widest variety of application domains.” Basically, you can create all kinds of applications using a general-purpose programming language, including desktop, mobile, or web applications. The most widely used programming languages from this category include Java, JavaScript, Python, C++, and Ruby.

In contrast to these languages, SQL has a very niche role of communicating with relational databases. Thus, you cannot build an application using only SQL. This leads us to the conclusion that SQL is not a general-purpose programming language.

SQL as a Domain-Specific Language

Now we know that SQL satisfies the definition of a programming language but not a general-purpose programming language. So, where does SQL belong?

Apart from general-purpose programming languages, there are also domain-specific languages (DSLs). Wikipedia defines a domain-specific language as “a computer language specialized to a particular application domain.” HTML, or Hypertext Markup Language, is one of the most popular domain-specific languages used for structuring webpages.

man programming

Similarly, SQL, with its specific application domain, can be defined as a domain-specific language. Structured Query Language is a highly targeted language for “talking” to databases. While being an effective and powerful tool for data management and access, SQL has limited usage compared to general-purpose programming languages. However, this drawback comes with certain benefits.

Because of its narrow application domain, SQL is usually easier to learn than a general-purpose programming language. You don’t need a computer science background to start with our SQL Basics course. Moreover, even when starting with zero programming knowledge, you can become an SQL expert in a few months after taking our SQL from A to Z track.

SQL and Turing Completeness

If you are not yet convinced that SQL is a programming language, here is another point to consider.

To evaluate how “powerful” a certain programming language is, computer scientists often use the concept of Turing completeness. According to the Wikipedia definition, a programming language “is said to be Turing complete or computationally universal if it can be used to simulate any Turing machine.” In simple terms, a Turing machine is a hypothetical machine, named by computer scientist Alan Turing, that can take any program of any complexity and run it.

So, we could say that SQL is Turing complete if any program that can be written to run for a Turing machine can also be written in SQL. And in fact, SQL, with the addition of recursive queries, satisfies this condition.

You can learn more about SQL recursive queries in this comprehensive guide. You can also learn how to create recursive queries or common table expressions (CTEs) in our Recursive Queries course.

Now you know that SQL is Turing complete and thus, computationally universal. But this is not yet the end of the story…

SQL and Procedural Languages

SQL can be extended with procedural languages that allow users to define their own functions and procedures. Therefore, procedural languages are programming languages in either sense of the term.

All database management systems (DBMSs) accept one or more dialects of procedural languages. Let’s have a look at some examples.

PL/SQL, or Procedural Language for SQL, is an extension for SQL in the Oracle database management system. Similar to general-purpose programming languages, PL/SQL includes elements like conditions and loops. With PL/SQL, you can also declare constants, variables, variable types, procedures, and functions.

PL/pgSQL, or Procedural Language/PostgreSQL, is a procedural language supported by the PostgreSQL object-relational database management system. It is very similar to Oracle’s PL/SQL and allows loops and conditions as well as user-defined functions. You can learn how to create user-defined functions in PostgreSQL with our comprehensive course.

MySQL is a database management system that doesn’t have a separate name for SQL extensions that allow the creation of functions and procedures, but it supports this functionality. MySQL has CREATE PROCEDURE and CREATE FUNCTION statements that create stored routines. User-defined functions are also supported in MySQL—they are regarded as externally stored functions.

Interested in the various flavors of SQL? Check our article about the most popular databases on the market. Dive deep into the diverse world of database systems, understand their unique characteristics, and discover which one aligns best with your needs.

As you can see, SQL is a powerful tool for data management and access. It can handle huge analytical queries with all kinds of data. But, it can also be used for fun! Read about how to draw a Christmas tree in SQL.

Time to Learn SQL!

Now you know that SQL is a powerful programming language that is worth your attention. While Structured Query Language has been around for decades, it’s still the go-to tool for data access and management in all kinds of modern applications.

Business analysts are at the forefront of decision-making processes in companies. To make informed decisions, they rely heavily on SQL to extract and analyze data. Data analysts, on the other hand, delve deep into datasets to uncover patterns and insights. Proficiency in SQL is crucial for this in-depth exploration.

woman preparing analysis

Data scientists combine their expertise in statistics with programming to make predictions and inform strategies. SQL is an indispensable tool in their arsenal, aiding in data extraction and manipulation.

In today's fast-paced corporate world, many other roles also intersect with data. For these professionals, a foundational understanding of SQL is often essential to effectively perform their duties.

SQL, while primarily recognized for its specialized role as a domain-specific language, offers more than just a way to communicate with databases. For many, it serves as an introductory gateway to the broader world of programming. By starting with SQL, individuals can grasp fundamental programming concepts and logic. This foundational knowledge then paves the way for a smoother transition into learning general-purpose programming languages, allowing them to delve deeper into the vast landscape of software development and coding. The path can become more complex and complicated over time, making it wise to know where to find computer science assignment help. Such assistance is crucial for managing the challenges and intricacies of advancing in programming.

Furthermore, SQL pairs exceptionally well with languages like Python. Python, known for its versatility and simplicity, has libraries and tools that seamlessly integrate with SQL databases. This combination allows for powerful data manipulation, analysis, and visualization, making the duo of SQL and Python a sought-after skill set in the realms of data science and analytics.

Are you excited about where SQL can bring your career? As companies increasingly rely on data to inform their strategies and operations, professionals with SQL expertise are in high demand. Whether you're looking to climb the corporate ladder, transition into a tech-centric role, or simply enhance your current skill set, mastering SQL can be a game-changing move for your career trajectory.

Here are some resources for you if you’re thinking about boosting your career:

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Yes, SQL Is a Programming Language!

While SQL is specialized for interacting with databases, it still has its own rules and ways to manage data – much like other programming languages. But it's unique because it's mainly used for databases. So, in its own specialized way, SQL can be considered a programming language. This understanding is key for anyone diving into the tech world.

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  • SQL Basics is an easy-to-follow introduction to SQL queries. No computer science background required!
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Thanks for reading, and happy learning!