State of Emacs Lisp on Guile


Update: Added an extra set of benchmarks for Guile 3 in a Debian Sid Docker container.

Disclaimer: I don’t use Guile. I hardly know it. There are other Scheme implementations I know far better. But since Guile Emacs is a hot topic with much hopes and unproven claims, I experiment with it every now and then. All “benchmark” results here are to be taken with caution, they’ve been created using Guile 2.2.6 and Emacs 26.3 on a Thinkpad X230t running Arch Linux.

With that out of the way, laurus from #emacs[1] reminded me that one of the reasons why Guile Emacs was possible in the first place is Guile’s language tower, with Emacs Lisp being one of the supported languages. But what does that mean? How complete is the Emacs Lisp support? What can it be used for? These and a few other questions are the topic of this blog post.

In need of a spec

Standardized programming languages have the great benefit of being based on a specification one can consult whenever in doubt of how things are supposed to behave. This allows several competing implementations to be developed, with their own unique strengths and benefits. if you adhere to the standard, switching between implementations isn’t hard and can help shaking out bugs, for example when compiling your C programs with different compilers.

Things get considerably harder if your chosen language decided to forego this approach and the correct behavior is defined by it, yet this didn’t stop people from writing alternative implementations for programming languages such as Python and Ruby. Emacs Lisp got into a similar situation ever since Guile was extended to the degree of supporting Emacs Lisp as an additional language. Provided your version of Guile is new enough, you can evaluate trivial code in the REPL:

scheme@(guile-user)> (define foo 1)
scheme@(guile-user)> foo
$1 = 1
scheme@(guile-user)> ,L elisp
Happy hacking with Emacs Lisp!  To switch back, type `,L scheme'.
elisp@(guile-user)> (defvar bar 2)
$2 = bar
elisp@(guile-user)> bar
$3 = 2

So far so good. But how much of Emacs Lisp is supported? Not much apparently, many common functions like message and error are unbound. It doesn’t seem possible to do anything with buffers or files either. This greatly limits the possibilities of writing useful scripts in Emacs Lisp[2]. One way of determining what exactly is supported would be consulting the source code, but where’s the fun in that when you could instead test it programmatically, thereby creating an executable spec…

Generating the spec

The usual test approaches fail me. Reading test inputs via stdin with read-string? Accessing the arguments with argv? Reading from a file with insert-file-contents? Obtaining an environment variable with getenv? None of that is supported. At least you can print to stdout with princ. I went for a slightly different approach instead, obtain a list of functions/variables[3] in a minimal Emacs environment, then generating a test file that checks their existence and prints a test summary. Here’s the code generation part:

(defun printf (fmt &rest args)
  (princ (apply 'format fmt args)))

(printf ";; elisp spec adherence test
(defvar passed 0)
(defvar failed 0)
(defun test-sym (pred sym)
  (if (funcall pred sym)
      (setq passed (1+ passed))
    (setq failed (1+ failed))))
(defun test-fun (sym) (test-sym 'fboundp sym))
(defun test-var (sym) (test-sym 'boundp sym))\n\n")

 (lambda (atom)
   (when (fboundp atom)
     (printf "(test-fun '%S)\n" atom))
   (when (and (not (keywordp atom)) (boundp atom))
     (printf "(test-var '%S)\n" atom))))

(printf "\n")
(printf "(princ \"Passed: \")\n")
(printf "(princ passed)\n")
(printf "(terpri)\n")
(printf "\n")
(printf "(princ \"Failed: \")\n")
(printf "(princ failed)\n")
(printf "(terpri)\n")

Assuming it’s been saved as gen-elisp-spec.el, the executable spec itself is generated with emacs -Q --batch --script gen-elisp-spec.el > elisp-spec.el. Here’s a test session using Emacs and Guile:

[wasa@box ~]$ time emacs -Q --batch --script elisp-spec.el
Passed: 9567
Failed: 2
emacs -Q --batch --script elisp-spec.el  0.10s user 0.02s system 99% cpu 0.117 total
[wasa@box ~]$ time guile --language=elisp elisp-spec.el
Passed: 137
Failed: 9432
guile --language=elisp elisp-spec.el  77.62s user 0.27s system 103% cpu 1:15.04 total

This is kind of surprising. I didn’t expect Emacs to fail its own test and didn’t expect Guile to implement this little either. Most surprising is the abysmal speed of the test[4], I’m looking forward to anyone being able to explain that part to me. Here’s one more test using the official Debian Sid Docker image with Emacs 26.3 and Guile 3.0.2:

root@d27668492764:/# time emacs -Q --batch --script elisp-spec.el
Passed: 9108
Failed: 2

real    0m0.104s
user    0m0.097s
sys     0m0.007s
root@d27668492764:/# time guile --language=elisp elisp-spec.el
Passed: 137
Failed: 8973

real    6m20.950s
user    10m32.294s
sys     0m7.846s

This is not exactly an improvement. At least the numbers are small enough to print out the offending symbols, for Emacs it’s atom and printf (which polluted the test environment), for Guile I’ve taken the liberty of annotating the list:

;; binding
let let*
;; functions
lambda apply funcall
;; evaluation
eval load eval-and-compile eval-when-compile
;; sequences
aref aset make-vector nth
;; sequencing
progn prog2 prog1
;; iteration
dolist while
;; control flow
if when unless cond
;; short-circuiting
or and not
;; explicit nonlocal exit
throw catch
;; exceptions
signal condition-case unwind-protect
;; input
;; output
prin1-to-string print princ send-string-to-terminal terpri
;; cxr
car cdr caar cadr cdar cddr
car-safe cdr-safe
;; associations
assoc assq
;; search
member memql memq
;; destructive list processing
nreverse setcar setcdr rplaca rplacd
;; other list processing
cons list make-list `
mapcar mapc
append concat
;; symbols
defconst defvar defun defmacro
get put
fset set setq setplist
symbol-function symbol-name symbol-plist symbol-value
intern make-symbol
fmakunbound makunbound
quote function
;; plist
plist-get plist-put
lax-plist-get lax-plist-put
;; strings
string string-match substring
upcase downcase
;; predicates
zerop floatp stringp numberp integerp wholenump
boundp fboundp functionp symbolp
consp listp nlistp
atom null
;; math
1+ 1-
fceiling ffloor ftruncate fround float
min max
;; comparators
> < >= <= /= =
eq eql equal
string-equal string=
;; numerical operators
+ - * %
;; misc

Some notable omissions and differences:

  • No division. Most likely incompatible with Scheme’s numeric tower.
  • Input is read with read-from-minibuffer, not read-string.
  • send-string-to-terminal is unusual to have, but most likely the primitive output function.
  • string-match is nice to have, but of limited use without match-string.
  • prin1-to-string exists, prin1 doesn’t.
  • print doesn’t add newlines and behaves like prin1 should.

To do anything outside of textbook exercises you’d need to define extra primitives. Guile’s module/language/elisp/boot.el shows how to apply a band-aid on some of the previous shortcomings:

(fset '/ (@ (guile) /))
(fset 'read-string 'read-from-minibuffer)
(fset 'prin1 (@ (guile) write))
(defun print (object) (prin1 object) (terpri))

You could write more of it to reach that goal of using Emacs Lisp as scripting language outside of Emacs, but need to write Scheme to get there. Why not just use Scheme? Why invent a new runtime? The effort would be comparable to what node.js did for Chrome’s JavaScript engine, except with a far weaker sales-pitch.

What does this mean for Guile Emacs?

What I’ve shown above is barely sufficient to bootstrap an Emacs on top of it. Guile Emacs requires a customized version of Guile and Emacs, then loads up the supporting Emacs Lisp files to do the rest. There are more incompatibilities, like called-interactively-p being stubbed out. Extending the presented rudimentary spec to contain actual tests would help with tracking progress and usability. It might even improve the overall quality of GNU Emacs itself, provided that the core developers are on board and believe in the idea. I’ve briefly searched emacs-devel for previous discussion on the topic, but only found bikeshedding about Guile Emacs itself, so anyone who feels strongly about the subject, feel free to start a discussion there!

With regards to Guile Emacs itself, the situation is trickier. The above repositories have not been touched for five years, with Robin Templeton being the sole contributor for two Google Summer of Code events. Even though the work is far from complete, it is impressive what a college student managed to do under supervision of Guile’s maintainer Andy Wingo. Further advancements require similarly motivated individuals to participate in the Guile community and become part of the effort, much like with other free software projects. It’s tempting to take a shortcut like donating to other developers, but unless they’ve figured out a way of converting that money into equivalent work, there will be little connection between what you give away and what they do in return. This again is a topic worth discussing, preferably with the people that can make a change.

[1]laurus did some research as well, you can find an interesting discussion on the #guile channel:
[2]At least you could now solve SICP in Emacs Lisp with less footguns: You have bignums, lexical scoping by default and TCO!
[3]This isn’t exactly correct, what’s tested for is whether the symbol has its function/value slot bound which may contain other things, for example macros and keywords.
[4]Consider that people like to advocate for Guile Emacs with the argument that it will make for a faster Emacs. While this may hold true in the long term, it’s nowhere near close to that yet. Here’s hoping that Guile 3 will alleviate some of the pain…