elucent (46)

The Basil Programming Language

Hello! Basil is our (@basilTeam: @elucent, @minchingtonak) entry to the language jam.

Unique Compilation

The goal of Basil is to try to have it all - high-level language features like macros, dynamic code evaluation, minimal type annotations - without any of the runtime costs normally associated with high-level languages - large runtime systems, slow performance, high memory use.

To accomplish this, Basil makes use of a novel system to compile its code. The main innovation is that the Basil compiler is actually an interpreter, able to interpret any Basil expression. When it gets to an expression it wants to save for runtime, it wraps it up and saves it to the end of the program. These runtime values propagate and result in an expression tree of all code reachable at runtime - notably without unnecessary operations between constants or dead code. Basil also statically type-checks this tree, so none of the code it ultimately compiles incurs a dynamic typing or boxing overhead.

Expressive Freedom

The primary goal of Basil as a language, however, isn't just speed. Basil exists to help programmers express complex problems in natural ways. While keeping Basil totally compiled and statically-typed, we've managed to implement the following features to enable uniquely customizable syntax:

  1. Simple, homoiconic code! Basil is a Lisp dialect at its core, and has extremely simple base syntax with no reserved words and few special symbols.

  2. Extremely simple macros! Only one primitive for code interpolation/evaluation, as opposed to the three or so usually present in Lisp dialects.

  3. User-defined infix functions and macros! Can have any arity (unary, binary, or more!) and custom precedence.

  4. Mixfix function syntax! Functions can be defined with keywords in their argument lists, to help break up high-arity function calls into natural-language phrases.

Implementation Details

The Basil compiler was implemented entirely within the language jam, almost entirely from scratch in C++. Only two libraries were used (both created before the jam):

  1. Jasmine, a runtime x86_64 assembler and object format.

  2. Collections, an alternative C++ standard library.

Everything else is totally original, created since August 10th.

The Basil compiler has no runtime dependencies other than libc, and the entire compiler and runtime fit comfortably in under 400 kB.

The code is first tree-walk interpreted by the compiler, using dynamically-typed Basil values to represent code. This is then lowered for runtime values to typed nodes, which are then lowered to a simple IR and then to x86_64 machine code. This code is then linked, loaded and executed just-in-time by the Basil environment.

Try It Out!

The best way to give Basil a try is to work through the interactive tour! It walks you through every core Basil feature, from the basic syntax to infix macros.

You can also try running the Basil REPL. You can reach it by exiting the tour on the project page, and then running ./basil in command line. The REPL mode features a number of commands to view compiler intermediates or generated assembly, so if you're curious how that all fits together give it a shot!

If you're curious how some part of the project works, or are looking for a list of all the language's features, take a look at our README for a somewhat informal language specification.

Support the Project

If you liked the project, consider giving us a star on GitHub, or following the devs (@elucentdev, @minchyAK) on Twitter!

If you'd like to get in touch (with a question, suggestion, etc), the best way to reach us is on Twitter or Discord (our handles are elucent#1839 and minchy#2474).

Thanks so much for taking a look at our project! It was a lot of fun making it, and we're going to be continuing work on it past the jam - so stay tuned! :)

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elucent (46)

@xxpertHacker I hadn't checked Repl in a while, so I'm sorry it took a while, but I figured it'd be good to conclusively respond to your point.

In short, yes, from an evaluation perspective you can think of Basil as constexpr-by-default. The difference between Basil and C++ (or just about any other language) is that Basil specifically leverages this for lots of other compile-time features. New types, generic functions, metaprogramming - in a language like C++ these each require separate support in the language, generally involving dedicated grammar. In a language like Scheme or Python, you can use existing procedural abstractions to manage these things to an extent, but only with a substantial runtime cost. In Basil, these kind of fall out of the woodwork - types and quoted code are just values, and you can manipulate them with expressions and functions like anything else. But because they're evaluated constexpr-by-default, like everything else, there's no runtime cost incurred. Overall, the fundamental pieces of Basil's evaluation system definitely aren't that new, but besides Basil I'm not aware of any other language that combines them in quite the same way.

For the record I actually think C++ is one of the languages that comes closest to what Basil offers, what with constexpr and templates and such. I think the two main drawbacks (which also apply to languages with similar offerings like Haskell) are:

  • Inflexible grammar. Templates are pretty clunky and unreadable, especially if you go "all-out" with them. Basil of course uses plain old functions in places you'd otherwise need a template, and additionally supports infix functions and keywords, so the user has almost total control over how their function can be used.

  • Inability to manipulate code. Pretty straightforward, the C preprocessor is obviously a pretty weak and unsafe form of code manipulation, and this limits the programmer's ability to simplify their APIs and avoid repeated work. I work primarily in C++ and I find myself running up against this wall quite frequently. So Basil providing code manipulation and evaluation features in the same way it supports all other computations is something I'm quite happy with.