I did it! For those of you who don’t know yet, MAL is a Clojure-like language specially made for getting into the language implementation business. It is significantly less work than implementing R5RS, comes with loads of test cases, a step-by-step guide, many existing implementations and an implementation in MAL itself which is used to test self-hosting.
My implementation is fairly standard. As much as people love hating on Emacs Lisp, it has proven to be a perfectly viable choice for writing interpreters. I doubt picking Common Lisp or CHICKEN would have made for much nicer code.
If you’re wondering whether to implement MAL as well, go for it! It will teach you how interpreting Lisp works and that writing an interpreter is easier than it looks like. While it doesn’t need to be in a language not featured in its repository, it’s nice to contribute a new one.
To run the implementation, check out the MAL repository, change into its directory and run emacs -Q --batch --load elisp/stepA_mal.el. Development was done on Emacs 24.5 with brief testing on Emacs 24.3 as it is still a fairly popular implementation.
Here’s a few random notes I’ve made while writing this thing:
- --batch mode is terrible. This is not surprising given what purpose Emacs Lisp was developed for (an extension language to be used inside Emacs), but still annoying because I couldn’t find any way of making readline-style keybindings work in my REPL. Neither adding hooks to the command loop nor changing keymaps (be it in the read functions or minibuffer-setup-hook) did work, so you’ll need to use rlwrap for a nicer experience.
- You can read input with read-from-minibuffer. It cannot read more than one line and throws an error on EOF, so I wrapped it into ignore-errors and checked whether it returned nil…
- You can print with the print/princ/prin1 family. message on the other hand prints to stderr, same for everything displaying things in the echo area. All of these return their argument, so don’t forget to return nil afterwards.
- To add a final newline, you use terpri (short for “Terminate Print Line”). message does include a newline, print/princ/prin1 don’t.
- The truthiness semantics of Emacs Lisp and MAL are incompatible. Not having false is one thing, the conflation of nil and () is worse as it is impossible for interop code to tell the difference.
- There is no acceptable support for structs/records. Emacs Lisp doesn’t allow you to define your own opaque types, so cl-defstruct does encode them in form of vectors (alternatively, lists). This would be OK if one could define custom printer functions, but you can’t. Another problem is that it’s way too simple to fake these structs from other code as they use an interned symbol for the tag.
- I did initially use cl-defstruct for atoms, environments and functions, but later I rolled my own thing as I found the Common Lisp way of defining custom constructors way too wordy. In other words, there’s no longer a dependency on cl-lib.el.
- Later I’ve found out that while metadata support is only required for functions, it is a nice-to-have for the other types, so I switched to boxing all types and adding a metadata field. While this made for more visual noise in the internal representation and code, debugging became significantly simpler as there’s no longer a way to mix up types (and get confusing/silent errors later).
- Support for vectors and hash tables is lacking. While it was possible to get by by coercing vectors to lists and using the basic hash table functions, the hash table equality code is easily the most unreadable part of core.el.
- Unlike what their names suggest, throw and catch are for control flow (not exception handling) and are used to implement a return.
- Exception handling is weird, but usable. You can use define-error, but only in Emacs 24.4. If you just signal an undefined error and retrieve an error string for it, Emacs turns its into the infamous Peculiar error.
- One of the nicer new Emacs Lisp features is the closure support. Just add a file-local variable for lexical-binding with t as value to the file where it needs to be enabled. An unfortunate side effect is that the closures are printed as self-referential lists which makes for terrible debug printing. Don’t make the mistake of traversing them or you’ll run into the recursion limit.
- Actually, it’s not called a recursion limit, but rather max-lisp-eval-depth and you’ll run into it if your TCO step has gone wrong. Fortunately it’s not contagious, so unless you infect a regularly executed part of Emacs, your session will remain usable.
- The ability to use Edebug on functions was invaluable. A weird side-effect was that it kept polluting the closures of my editing session, so I had to restart Emacs once in a while when inspecting them.
- The advanced steps were surprisingly easy to implement, with the exception of self-hosting fixes. Getting to the bottom of those took time, I figured out the last one on the #mal channel. Additional checks to catch those are on their way.
- The guide is very helpful, but gets spottier towards the end. I’m currently helping out to get that part on the same level as the rest of it.
|||At the time of writing, 46 implementations have been handed in already.|