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A low-level programming language is a programming language that provides little or no abstraction from a computer’s instruction set architecture—commands or functions in the language map closely to processor instructions. Low-level languages can convert to machine code without a compiler or interpreter— second-generation programming languages use a simpler processor called an assembler— and the resulting code runs directly on the processor. Low-level programming languages are sometimes divided into two categories: first generation and second generation. The row of switches at the bottom can be used to toggle in a machine language program. Machine code is the only language a computer can process directly without a previous transformation.

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Currently, programmers almost never write programs directly in machine code, because it requires attention to numerous details that a high-level language handles automatically. Furthermore it requires memorizing or looking up numerical codes for every instruction, and is extremely difficult to modify. True machine code is a stream of raw, usually binary, data. Although few programs are written in machine language, programmers often become adept at reading it through working with core dumps or debugging from the front panel.

Second-generation languages provide one abstraction level on top of the machine code. In the early days of coding on computers like the TX-0 and PDP-1, the first thing MIT hackers did was write assemblers. Most assemblers provide macros to generate common sequences of instructions. The C compiler calculates this based on the calling conventions of the target architecture. The assembly language version loads the input parameter from the stack into a register and in each iteration of the loop decrements the value in the register, never altering the value in the memory location on the stack. The C compiler could do the same or could update the value in the stack. The local variables a, b and c are abstractions that do not specify any specific storage location on the hardware.

The C compiler decides how to actually store them for the target architecture. The return function specifies the value to return, but does not dictate how it is returned. The C compiler for any specific architecture implements a standard mechanism for returning the value. These abstractions make the C code compilable without modification on any architecture for which a C compiler has been written. The x86 assembly language code is specific to the x86 architecture.

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