9. Interpreters

A skilled artisan must understand the tools with which they work. A carpenter needs to understand saws and planes. A chef needs to understand knives and pots. A programmer, among other tools, needs to understand the compilers that implement the programming languages they use.

A full understanding of compilation requires a full course or two. So here, we’re going to take a necessarily brief look at how to implement programming languages. The goal is to understand some of the basic implementation techniques, so as to demystify the tools you’re using. Although you might never need to implement a full general-purpose programming language, it’s highly likely that at some point in your career you will want to design and implement some small, special-purpose language. Sometimes those are called domain-specific languages (DSLs). What we cover here should help you with that task.

A compiler is a program that implements a programming language. So is an interpreter. But they differ in their implementation strategy.

A compiler’s primary task is translation. It takes as input a source program and produces as output a target program. The source program is typically expressed in a high-level language, such as Java or OCaml. The target program is typically expressed in a low-level language, such as MIPS or x86 assembly. Then the compiler’s job is done, and it is no longer needed. Later the OS helps to load and execute the target program. Typically, a compiler results in higher-performance implementations.

An interpreter’s primary task is execution. It takes as input a source program and directly executes that program without producing any target program. The OS actually loads and executes the interpreter, and the interpreter is then responsible for executing the program. Typically, an interpreter is easier to implement than a compiler.

It’s also possible to implement a language using a mixture of compilation and interpretation. The most common example of that involves virtual machines that execute bytecode, such as the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) or the OCaml virtual machine (which used to be called the Zinc Machine). With this strategy, a compiler translates the source language into bytecode, and the virtual machine interprets the bytecode.

High-performance virtual machines, such as Java’s HotSpot, take this a step further and embed a compiler inside the virtual machine. When the machine notices that a piece of bytecode is being interpreted frequently, it uses the compiler to translate that bytecode into the language of the machine (e.g., x86) on which the machine is running. This is called just-in-time compilation (JIT), because code is being compiled just before it is executed.

A compiler goes through several phases as it translates a program:

Lexing. During lexing, the compiler transforms the original source code of the program from a sequence of characters to a sequence of tokens. Tokens are adjacent characters that have some meaning when grouped together. You might think of them analogously to words in a natural language. Indeed, keywords such as if and match would be tokens in OCaml. So would constants such as 42 and "hello", variable names such as x and lst, and punctuation such as (, ), and ->. Lexing typically removes whitespace, because it is no longer needed once the tokens have been identified. (Though in a whitespace-sensitive language like Python, it would need to be preserved.)

Parsing. During parsing, the compiler transforms the sequence of tokens into a tree called the abstract syntax tree (AST). As the name suggests, this tree abstracts from the concrete syntax of the language. Recall that abstraction can mean “forgetting about details.” The AST typically forgets about concrete details. For example:

  • In 1 + (2 + 3) the parentheses group the right-hand addition operation, indicating it should be evaluated first. A tree can represent that as follows:

      / \
     1   +
        / \
       2   3

    Parentheses are no longer needed, because the structure of the tree encodes them.

  • In [1; 2; 3], the square brackets delineate the beginning and end of the list, and the semicolons separate the list elements. A tree could represent that as a node with several children:

      /  |  \
     1   2   3

    The brackets and semicolons are no longer needed.

  • In fun x -> 42, the fun keyword and -> punctuation mark separate the arguments and body of the function from the surrounding code. A tree can represent that as a node with two children:

      /     \
     x       42

    The keyword and punctuation are no longer needed.

An AST thus represents the structure of a program at a level that is easier for the compiler writer to manipulate.

Semantic analysis. During semantic analysis, the compiler checks to see whether the program is meaningful according to the rules of the language that the compiler is implementing. The most common kind of semantic analysis is type checking: the compiler analyzes the types of all the expressions that appear in the program to see whether there is a type error or not. Type checking typically requires producing a data structure called a symbol table that maps identifiers (e.g., variable names) to their types. As a new scope is entered, the symbol table is extended with new bindings that might shadow old bindings; and as the scope is exited, the new bindings are removed, thus restoring the old bindings. So a symbol table blends features of a dictionary and a stack data structure.

Besides type checking, there are other kinds of semantic analysis. Examples include the following:

  • checking whether the branches of an OCaml pattern match are exhaustive,

  • checking whether a C break keyword occurs within the body of a loop, and

  • checking whether a Java field marked final has been initialized by the end of a constructor.

You can think of parsing as “checking to see whether a program is meaningful”—which is how we just defined semantic analysis. So the distinction between parsing and semantic analysis is more about convenience: parsing does enough work to implement the production of an AST, and semantic analysis does the rest of the work.

Sometimes semantic analysis is even necessary to fully determine what the AST should be! Consider, for example, the expression (foo) - bar in a C-like language. It might be:

  • the unary negation of a variable bar, cast to the type foo, or

  • the binary subtraction operation with operands foo and bar, where the parentheses were gratuitous.

Until enough semantic analysis has been done to figure out whether foo is a variable name or a type name, the compiler doesn’t know which AST to generate. In such situations, the parser typically produces an AST in which some tree nodes represent the ambiguous syntax, then the semantic analysis phase rewrites the tree to be unambiguous.

Translation to intermediate representation. After semantic analysis, a compiler could immediately translate the AST (augmented with symbol tables) into the target language. But if the same compiler wanted to produce output for multiple targets (e.g., for x86 and ARM and MIPS), that would require defining a translation from the AST to each of the targets. In practice, compilers typically don’t do that. Instead, they first translate the AST to an intermediate representation (IR). Think of the IR as a kind of abstraction of many assembly languages. Many source languages (e.g., C, Java, OCaml) could be translated to the same IR, and from that IR, many target language outputs (e.g., x86, ARM, MIPS) could be produced.

An IR language typically has abstract machine instructions that accomplish conceptually simple tasks: loading from or storing to memory, performing binary operations, calling and returning, and jumping to other instructions. The abstract machine typically has an unbounded number of registers available for use, much like a source program can have an unbounded number of variables. Real machines, however, have a finite number of registers, which is one way in which the IR is an abstraction.

Target code generation. The final phase of compilation is to generate target code from the IR. This phase typically involves selecting concrete machine instructions (such as x86 opcodes), and determining which variables will be stored in memory (which is slow to access) vs. processor registers (which are fast to access but limited in number). As part of code generation, a compiler therefore attempts to optimize the performance of the target code. Some examples of optimizations include:

  • eliminating array bounds checks, if they are provably guaranteed to succeed;

  • eliminating redundant computations;

  • replacing a function call with the body of the function itself, suitably instantiated on the arguments, to eliminate the overhead of calling and returning; and

  • re-ordering machine instructions so that (e.g.) slow reads from memory are begun before their results are needed, and doing other instructions in the meanwhile that do not need the result of the read.

Groups of Phases. The phases of compilation can be grouped into two or three pieces:

  • The front end of the compiler does lexing, parsing, and semantic analysis. It produces an AST and associated symbol tables. It transforms the AST into an IR.

  • The middle end (if it exists) of the compiler operates on the IR. Usually this involves performing optimizations that are independent of the target language.

  • The back end of the compiler does code generation, including further optimization.

Interpretation Phases. An interpreter works like the front (and possibly middle) end of a compiler. That is, an interpreter does lexing, parsing, and semantic analysis. It might then immediately begin executing the AST, or it might transform the AST into an IR and begin executing the IR.

In the rest of this book, we are going to focus on interpreters. We’ll ignore IRs and code generation, and instead study how to directly execute the AST.


Because of the additional tooling required, the code in this chapter is not runnable in a browser like previous chapters. But we do provide downloadable code for each interpreter implemented here.