Ape - New Toy Language

I read “Thinking Fourth” and also played with Joy and Cat some time ago, but honestly I had written them off as “toy” languages. Recently I’ve had renewed interest in concatenative languages after watching Slava Pestov’s nice TechTalk about Factor. This is a very powerful implementation!


I decided to play with my own variation. The one thing that these stack-based languages seem to have in common is a soup of stack manipulation primitives and a lack of scoped name binding. They have a top-level “define” as their single means of abstraction. I understand the whole point-free style of concatenative languages in general, in which parameters are not named. I like this style actually because it is so very much more succinct! However, I don’t like the lack of scoped “defines” and I think that optionally popping and naming things on the stack can lead to clearer code in some cases. Also, I found that some of the other stack manipulation primitives were not really so “primitive.” If I had “let”, I could implement them in terms of it.


What I really set out to do was to see what the minimal set of primitives should be. I found it annoying that Joy and Cat had all these stack manipulation primitives such as “dip”, “dup”, “pop”, “swap”, etc. My little moment of eureka was when I realized I could add a “let” primitive and get my scoped binding as well as be able to get rid of these other primitives!

The language and data structure revolves around an extremely simplified AST structure:

type node = Symbol of string

          | List of node list

We have atomic Symbols and composite Lists (of Symbols and/or other Lists). That’s it! There is no native concept of Integers, Booleans, etc. Only Symbols. Further, there are only four primitive operations in my new language!


We need a means of composing and decomposing structures. This is done through cons (adding a given node to a List) and uncons (breaking a given List into it’s “head” node and “tail” remaining List). For example:

a [] cons yields [a]
a [b c] cons yields [a b c]
[a] [b c] cons yields [[a] b c]

Decomposition yields the opposite:

[a] uncons yields a []
[a b c] uncons yields a [b c]
[[a] b c] uncons yields [a] [b c]


For Symbols to be of any use at all, we need at least one operation we can perform on them. The single operation in the language is eq which compares two Symbols (or Lists) and evaluates one or another expression as a result. It takes four arguments, compares the first two and evaluates the third or fourth. For example:

foo foo [yes] [no] eq yields yes
foo bar [yes] [no] eq yields no

The equality comparison walks the complete structure in the case of Lists. For example:

[foo bar [baz]] [foo bar [baz]] [yes] [no] eq yields yes


The final missing piece is a means of abstraction. This is the most fundamental part of any useful language. We need to be able to introduce new “words” to the language and then use them as if they were primitives. For this, we have let.

Let can be used to define new primitives by assigning a name to a List. For example, we could define a new “triple cons” operation such as:

[cons cons cons] tcons let

And now can, for example, use our new “word” to cons three Symbols onto an empty list:

a b c [] tcons yields [a b c]


We do have to have slightly special semantics for let. It does not apply to the top stack node as most “words” do. To ensure that Symbols used as identifiers are not evaluated, we do a single ‘look ahead’ while interpreting the code specifically require that the pattern a let means “bind the top stack node to the Symbol a.”

Crazy-tiny Interpreter

The interpreter is ridiculously small; less than 50 lines of code!

let interpret input ast =

  let rec interpret' ast stack env =

    match ast with

    | Symbol(n) :: Symbol("let") :: tl ->

      match stack with

      | x :: s -> interpret' tl s (Map.add n x env)

      | _ -> failwith "Invalid stack state for 'let'."

    | Symbol(x) :: tl ->

      match Map.tryfind x env with

      | Some(List(f)) ->

        let r = match f with

                | [Symbol(y)] ->

                  if y = x then (Symbol(y) :: stack)

                  else interpret' f stack env

                | _ -> interpret' f stack env

        interpret' tl r env

      | Some(m) ->

        interpret' tl (m :: stack) env

      | None ->

        match x with

        | "cons" ->

          match stack with

          | List(t) :: h :: s -> interpret' tl (List(h :: t) :: s) env

          | _ -> failwith "Invalid stack state for 'cons'."

        | "uncons" ->

          match stack with

          | List(h :: t) :: s -> interpret' tl (h :: List(t) :: s) env

          | _ -> failwith "Invalid stack state for 'uncons'"

        | "let" -> failwith "Malformed 'let'."

        | "eq" ->

          match stack with

          | n :: y :: a :: b :: s ->

            let yn = if a = b then y else n

            match yn with

            | List(yn) ->

              let r = interpret' yn s env

          interpret' tl r env

            | _ -> interpret' tl (yn :: s) env

          | _ -> failwith "Not enough args on the stack!"

        | _ -> interpret' tl (Symbol(x) :: stack) env

    | x :: tl ->

      interpret' tl (x :: stack) env

    | [] -> stack

  interpret' ast input Map.empty

Of course, if you want to use it you’ll also want a lexer and parser to convert source code to a node tree:

type token = WhiteSpace

           | CombinationStart

           | CombinationEnd

     | Word of string

let lexer source =

  let rec lexer' source token result =

    let emit t tail =

      if List.length token > 0

      then lexer' tail [] (t :: Word(new string(List.to_array (List.rev token))) :: result)

     else lexer' tail [] (t :: result)

    match source with

    | w :: t when (Char.IsWhiteSpace(w)) -> emit WhiteSpace t

    | '[' :: t -> emit CombinationEnd t

    | ']' :: t -> emit CombinationStart t

    | h :: t -> lexer' t (h :: token) result

    | [] -> result

  lexer' ((List.of_seq source) @ [' ']) [] []

let parser tokens =

  let rec parser' tokens result =

    match tokens with

    | Word(s) :: t ->

      symbolCount := symbolCount.Value + 1

      parser' t (Symbol(s) :: result)

  | CombinationStart :: t ->

  listCount := listCount.Value + 1

  let n, t = parser' t []

  parser' t (n :: result)

  | CombinationEnd :: t -> List(result), t

  | WhiteSpace :: t -> parser' t result

  | [] -> List(result), []

  let result, _ = parser' tokens []


And you may want a way of “pretty printing” the program output:

let output ast =

  let rec output' ast result =

    match ast with

    | Symbol(s) :: tl -> output' tl (result + " " + s)

    | List(l) :: tl -> output' tl (result + " [" + (output' l "") + " ]")

    | [] -> result

  output' ast ""

First “Joy”ful Steps

Now back to the so-called primitives who’s existence I found annoying in Joy and Cat. These can now be implemented in terms of the core four (cons, uncons, eq, let):

[x let] pop let // throw away top stack node
[a let a] apply let // evaluate top stack List
[[] cons] quote let // wrap top stack node into a List
[quote a let a a] dup let // duplicate top stack node
[quote a let quote b let a apply b] dip let // apply 2nd stack node
[quote a let quote e let a e] swap let // apply 2nd stack node

I like this much better than adding them to the core language!

You may have also noticed that the standard Lisp-esque car and cdr (or Haskell-esque head and tail) are missing from the language. They can be defined in terms of uncons:

[uncons swap pop] head let

[uncons pop] tail let

Boolean Logic

There is no Boolean type in the language. There is not even an if word! Let’s implement them!

Using the symbols #t and #f to mean True and False (in Scheme-esque fashion), we can implement if in terms of eq:

[[#t swap] dip eq] if let

And we can start implementing the standard Boolean logic operators (not, and, or, xor) in terms of this:

[#f #t if] not? let

[[] [pop #f] if] and? let

[[pop #t] [#t #t #f eq] if] or? let

[#t [not?] [] eq] xor? let

Also useful will be to create function that check equality to well known values and return #t or #f for use with other Boolean operators:

[#t #f eq] equal? let

[[] equal?] empty? let

[0 equal?] zero? let

[] true? let // wow, easy!

[not?] false? Let

What now?

Well, now I’m going to add higher-order functions such as map, filter, fold, … and then add some basic arithmetic (using lists of decimal digits to represent numbers).

Wow, a language with just Symbols and Lists for structure, just four operators and a 50-line interpreter. How fun! Is it just a “toy”? I’ll see how far I can take it… lots of ideas!