The Design Of F

September 2018

The last couple of weeks I thought a lot about this language idea. Now it evolved far enough to show you my F language. I called it F because that's the worst possible name I could think of quickly: Single letter, ungoogleable, already taken. This name allows me to focus on the important issues of language design and not on bike-shedding. Hopefully you will find the language inspiring in some way, otherwise just enjoy your read!

In F there are no special forms like loops or conditionals. All control flow happens via function application. The syntax for applying a function is very simple, although slightly irregular: A function with some arguments is just called as func arg1 ... argN; a function with zero arguments is called as func () with an empty pair of parentheses. The reason for this is that functions are first-class values too, so writing func without an empty pair of parentheses just represents the value func.

functionWithArguments argument1 argument2 argument3;
functionWithoutArguments ();

The only two other elements of core syntax are variable definition and blocks.

A variable is defined as a value using the notation variable := value. A block, lambda, anonymous function is enclosed by square brackets and can either ignore its argument list or start with a block signature.

identityFunction := [|x| x ];
secondArg := [|x y| y ];
helloWorld := [ print "hello"; print "world" ];

For convenience, this introduction assumes literal syntax for lists ({a b c}), strings ("hello world"), and numbers (12.3).

Some operators are also assumed, like + addition, but they are basically just functions too. This means the expressions 2 + 3 and (+) 2 3 have the exact same meaning. Like all other functions operators can also be variadic.

// Add two numbers with infix syntax
3 + 4;         // => 7

// Add two numbers without infix syntax
(+) 4 4;       // => 8

// Add more numbers without infix syntax
(+) 1 3 5;     // => 9

Special language level support for boolean logic are actually not needed. not is just a function that inverts its argument, true is a variable holding a true value by default, false is a variable holding a false value by default, and the variadic functions any and all respectively.

all true true false;  // => false
any true true false;  // => true
any false;            // => false
all true (not false); // => true
any ();               // => false
all ();               // => true

Any dyadic function can be used as infix by writing it between its arguments with a colon after its name.

true and: true;       // => true
false and: not true;  // => false
or false false;       // => false
(1 = 1) or: (2 > 3);  // => true

The functions and and or do the exact same thing all and any do, with the exception that they only take two arguments. Also, the and and or functions apply blocks they receive to zero arguments and treat the result as a boolean value. That way short circuiting works.

true and: [ print "hello world"; false ];
  // => false (and does print)
false and: [ print "hello world"; false ];
  // => false (and does not print)

Control flow is also done using functions. Take a look at the following code example.

factorial := [|n|
    if [n = 0] [
    ] else [
        n * factorial (n - 1)

The conditional is just passing the if function 4 arguments: the [n = 0] function, the [1] function, the else function, and the [n * factorial (n - 1)] function.

If the first block evaluates to true, the if function just calls the second block with no arguments, otherwise it applies the third block (else) to all of the remaining arguments ({[n * factorial (n - 1)]}).

This means even more complex control flow is possible, as the following example shows.

fibonacci := [|n|
    if [n = 1] [
    ] else if [n = 2] [
    ] else [
        fibonacci (n - 1) + fibonacci (n - 2)

Assuming a simple conditional function either a b c that just returns b if a is true and c otherwise, the if function could be implemented as follows. (Note: the do function applies its first argument to the rest and is equivalent to Lisp's funcall)

if := [|condition action ...|
    do (either (condition ()) action [do ...])

else := [|...|
    do ...

Since F is a mostly functional language, immutable variables are the default and actually the only thing provided. This doesn't mean that it isn't possible to write imperative code though: Like ML style languages F supports explicit references if that's desired, so the factorial example from above can also be written as follows.

factorial := [|n|
    total := reference 1;
    i := reference n;
    while [!i > 0] [
        total <- !total * !i;
        i <- !i - 1

Note that reference, (!), and (<-) are also just functions and so is while.

The advantage of this style is an extreme amount of extensibility at no cost.

Say you'd rather phrase the factorial code above using an until-loop, but your F system does not provide one. This is actually a non-issue, as you can define it as a function yourself.

factorial := [|n|
    total := reference 1;
    i := reference n;
    until [!i = 0] [
        total <- !total * !i;
        i <- !i - 1

until := [|condition action|
    while [not (condition ())] [
        do action

This is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to extensibility. You can even add do-while loops and more to the language. Say we want to be able to write such a loop as repeat/while, you can add the repeat feature in such a way, that repeat/until becomes automatically available too.

repeat := [|action conditional ...|
    do action;
    do conditional ... action

// count down
count := reference 10;
repeat [
    print (!count);
    count <- !count - 1
] while [!count >= 0];

// count up
count := reference 0;
repeat [
    count <- !count + 1;
    print (!count)
] until [!count = 10];

Since references in F are first-class it is actually possible to write post-increment and such as functions too.

postModifier := [|fun|
        value := !ref;
        ref <- fun (!ref);
        value ]

incr := postModifier [|x| x + 1];

// usage example
i := reference 5;
print (!i) (incr i) (!i); // prints 5 5 6

With your current knowledge of F, a lot of things are imaginable doing, but some are still inconvenient. For example for/in loops are only hardly expressible using the syntax we know so far.

foreach [|x| x + 1] xs;

This syntax is perfect for functional maps, but most of the time you just want to place the function signature in the actual argument position of the block and append the block to the end of the whole function call. And in fact you can do exactly that.

foreach |x| xs [
    x + 1

// == foreach [|x| x + 1 ] xs

This syntax is also useful for expressing the whole with- family of Lisp macros.

withOpenFile |file| "my-file.txt" "w" [
    file writeLine: "First line...";
    file writeLine: "Some more lines...";
    file writeLine: "Last line."

An extension of this notation allows you to pass more arguments to the outer function from within the argument list of the block by putting them in parentheses.

foreach |x ({1 2 3}) y ({4 5 6})| [
    print x y    // prints 1 4; 2 5; 3 6

// == foreach [|x y| print x y ] {1 2 3} {4 5 6}

This syntax can be used to express the let family of Lisp macros.

do |x (5) y (10)| [ x + y ] // => 15
// == do [|x y| x + y ] 5 10

My intention for this design is to create a practical and minimal programming language.

I am looking forward to write more about F in the future, but I probably won't implement it (not that good of a programmer actually), however if you want to write an interpreter or compiler for an F dialect, feel free to do so, just let me know!