Back to Synopsis of Joy, a functional language Overview of the language JOY

Overview of the language JOY

Joy is a functional programming language which is significantly different from other programming languages of that kind. This paper provides an overview of most of its practical and theoretical aspects.

To add two integers, say 2 and 3, and to write their sum, you type the program

        2  3  +
This is how it works internally: the first numeral causes the integer 2 to be pushed onto a stack. The second numeral causes the integer 3 to be pushed on top of that. Then the addition operator pops the two integers off the stack and pushes their sum, 5. The system reads inputs like the above and executes them when they are terminated by a period ".", like this:
        2  3  + .
In the default mode there is no need for an explicit output instruction, so the numeral 5 is now written to the output file which normally is the screen. So, in the default mode the terminating "." may be taken to be an instruction to write the top element of the stack. In what follows the terminating period will not be shown any further.

To compute the square of an integer, it has to be multiplied by itself. To compute the square of the sum of two integers, the sum has to be multiplied by itself. Preferably this should be done without computing the sum twice. The following is a program to compute the square of the sum of 2 and 3:

        2  3  +  dup  *
After the sum of 2 and 3 has been computed, the stack just contains the integer 5. The dup operator then pushes another copy of the 5 onto the stack. Then the multiplication operator replaces the two integers by their product, which is the square of 5. The square is then written out as 25. Apart from the dup operator there are several others for re-arranging the top of the stack. The pop operator removes the top element, and the swap operator interchanges the top two elements.

A list of integers is written inside square brackets. Just as integers can be added and otherwise manipulated, so lists can be manipulated in various ways. The following concatenates two lists:

        [1 2 3]  [4 5 6 7]  concat
The two lists are first pushed onto the stack. Then the concat operator pops them off the stack and pushes the list [1 2 3 4 5 6 7] onto the stack. There it may be further manipulated or it may be written to the output file.

Joy makes extensive use of combinators. These are like operators in that they expect something specific on top of the stack. But unlike operators they execute what they find on top of the stack, and this has to be the quotation of a program, enclosed in square brackets. One of these is a combinator for mapping elements of one list via a function to another list. Consider the program

        [1 2 3 4]  [dup *]  map
It first pushes the list of integers and then the quoted program onto the stack. The map combinator then removes the list and the quotation and constructs another list by applying the program to each member of the given list. The result is the list [1 4 9 16] which is left on top of the stack.

In definitions of new functions no formal parameters are used, and hence there is no substitution of actual parameters for formal parameters. After the following definition

        square   ==   dup  *
the symbol square can be used in place of dup * .

As in other programming languages, definitions may be recursive, for example in the definition of the factorial function. That definition uses a certain recursive pattern that is useful elsewhere. In Joy there is a combinator for primitive recursion which has this pattern built in and thus avoids the need for a definition. The primrec combinator expects two quoted programs in addition to a data parameter. For an integer data parameter it works like this: If the data parameter is zero, then the first quotation has to produce the value to be returned. If the data parameter is positive then the second has to combine the data parameter with the result of applying the function to its predecessor. For the factorial function the required quoted programs are very simple:

        [1]  [*]  primrec
computes the factorial recursively. There is no need for any definition. For example, the following program computes the factorial of 5:
        5  [1]  [*]  primrec
It first pushes the number 5 and then it pushes the two short quoted programs. At this point the stack contains three elements. Then the primrec combinator is executed. It pops the two quotations off the stack and saves them elsewhere. Then primrec tests whether the top element on the stack (initially the 5) is equal to zero. If it is, it pops it off and executes one of the quotations, the [1] which leaves 1 on the stack as the result. Otherwise it pushes a decremented copy of the top element and recurses. On the way back from the recursion it uses the other quotation, [*], to multiply what is now a factorial on top of the stack by the second element on the stack. When all is done, the stack contains 120, the factorial of 5.

As may be seen from this program, the usual branching of recursive definitions is built into the combinator. The primrec combinator can be used with many other quotation parameters to compute quite different functions. It can also be used with data types other than integers. Joy has many more combinators which can be used to calculate many functions without forcing the user to give recursive or non-recursive definitions. Some of the combinators are more data-specific than primrec, and others are far more general.

Joy programs are built from smaller programs by just two operations: concatenation and quotation. Concatenation is a binary operation, and since it is associative it is best written in infix notation and hence no parentheses are required. Since concatenation is the only binary operation of its kind, in Joy it is best written without an explicit symbol. Quotation is a unary operation which takes as its operand a program. In Joy the quotation of a program is written by enclosing it in square brackets. Ultimately all programs are built from atomic programs which do not have any parts. The semantics of Joy has to explain what the atomic programs mean, how the meaning of a concatenated program depends on the meaning of its parts, and what the meaning of a quoted program is. Moreover, it has to explain under what conditions it is possible to replace a part by an equivalent part while retaining the meaning of the whole program.

Joy programs denote functions which take one argument and yield one value. The argument and the value are states consisting of at least three components. The principal component is a stack, and the other components are not needed here. Much of the detail of the semantics of Joy depends on specific properties of programs. However, central to the semantics of Joy is the following: The concatenation of two programs denotes the composition of the functions denoted by the two programs. Function composition is associative, and hence denotation maps the associative syntactic operation of program concatenation onto the associative semantic operation of function composition. The quotation of a program denotes a function which takes any state as argument and yields as value the same state except that the quotation is pushed onto the stack. One part of a concatenation may be replaced by another part denoting the same function while retaining the denotation of the whole concatenation. One quoted program may be replaced by another denoting the same function only in a context where the quoted program will be dequoted by being executed. Such contexts are provided by the combinators of Joy. These denote functions which behave like higher order functions in other languages.

The above may be summarised as follows: Let P, Q1, Q2 and R be programs, and let C be a combinator. Then this principle holds:

        IF          Q1      ==      Q2
        THEN     P  Q1  R   ==   P  Q2  R
        AND        [Q1] C   ==     [Q2] C
The principle is the prime rule of inference for the algebra of Joy which deals with the equivalence of Joy programs, and hence with the identity of functions denoted by such programs. A few laws in the algebra can be expressed without combinators, but most require one or more combinators for their expression.

Joy programs denote functions which take states as arguments and as values. Programs are built from atomic programs which also denote functions which take states as arguments and as values. The meaning of compound programs has to be given in terms of the meanings of atomic programs. It is useful to classify atomic programs into categories depending on what kind of function they denote. A coarse classification distinguishes just three, called

  1. the literals,
  2. the operators and
  3. the combinators.

Firstly, the literal atomic programs are those which look like constants in conventional languages. They comprise literal numbers (or, more correctly, numerals) such as integers, and other literals of type character, string, truth value and set. Literals do not denote numbers, characters, strings and so on, but they denote functions which take one state as argument and yield as value another state which is like the argument state except that the value of the literal has been pushed onto the stack component.

Secondly, the operator atoms are those which look like n-ary operators in other languages. They include the operations such as for addition and the other arithmetical operations, and for the various operations on other types. Like all programs, operators denote functions from states to states, but the functions are not defined on all states. An n-ary operator (such as the binary addition operator) denotes a function which is defined only on states whose stack component has n items (such as two integers) on top. The function yields as value another state which is like the argument state except that the n items on the stack have been replaced by the result (such as the sum). Also included as operators are those atoms denoting mere structural functions of the stack component such as dup, swap and pop, and those that involve input and output such as get and put.

Thirdly, the combinator atoms are like operators in that they require the top of the stack to contain certain items. But unlike operators, they do not treat these items as passive data. Instead they execute these items - and hence those items must be quoted programs. So, combinators also denote functions which are defined only on states having the appropriate number of quoted programs on top of the stack. They yield as values another state which depends on the argument state, including the quoted programs, and on the combinator itself.

Literals, operators and combinators can be concatenated to form programs. These may then be enclosed in square brackets to form literal quotations. Such literals are not atomic, but if they occur in a program they are treated just like other literals: they cause the quoted program to be pushed onto the stack. So, literal quotations denote functions which take any stack as argument and yield as value another stack which is like the argument stack except that it has the quotation pushed on top. Quotations on top of the stack can be treated like other values, they can be manipulated, taken apart and combined, but they can also be executed by combinators. If a quotation contains only literals, then it is a list. The component literals do not have to be of the same type, and they may include further quotations. If a list is executed by a combinator, then its components are pushed onto the stack.

Concatenation of Joy programs denote the composition of the functions which the concatenated parts denote. Hence if Q1 and Q2 are programs which denote the same function and P and R are other programs, then the two concatenations P Q1 R and P Q2 R also denote the same function. In other words, programs Q1 and Q2 can replace each other in concatenations. This can serve as a rule of inference for rewriting. As premises one needs axioms such as in the first three lines below, and definitions such as in the fourth line:

(+)                2  3  +   ==   5
(dup)              5  dup   ==   5  5
(*)                5  5  *   ==   25
(def square)       square  ==  dup *
A derivation using the above axioms and the definition looks like this:
                   2  3  +  square
           ==      5  square                               (+)
           ==      5  dup  *                               (def square)
           ==      5  5  *                                 (dup)
           ==      25                                      (*)
The comments in the right margin explain how a line was obtained from the previous line. The derivation shows that the expressions in the first line and the last line denote the same function, or that the function in the first line is identical with the function in the last line.

Consider the following equations in infix notation:The first says that multiplying a number x by 2 gives the same result as adding it to itself. The second says that the size of a reversed list is the same as the size of the original list.

        2 * x  =  x + x                 size(reverse(x))  =  size(x)
In Joy the same equations would be written, without variables, like this:
        2  *   ==   dup  +              reverse  size   ==   size

Other equivalences express algebraic properties of various operations. For example, the predecessor pred of the successor succ of a number is just the number itself. The conjunction and of a truth value with itself gives just the truth value. The less than relation < is the converse of the greater than relation >. Inserting a number with cons into a list of numbers and then taking the sum of that gives the same result as first taking the sum of the list and then adding the other number. In conventional notation these are expressed by

        pred(succ(x))  =  x             x and x  =  x
        x < y  =  y > x                 sum(cons(x,y))  =  x + sum(y)
In Joy these are expressed without variables
        succ  pred   ==   id            dup  and   ==   id
        <   ==   swap >                 cons  sum   ==   sum  +
Some properties of operations have to be expressed by combinators. One of these is the dip combinator which expects a program on top of the stack and below that another value. It saves the value, executes the program on the remainder of the stack and then restores the saved value.

In the first example below, the dip combinator is used to express the associativity of addition. Another combinator is the app2 combinator which expects a program on top of the stack and below that two values. It applies the program to the two values.

In the second example below it expresses one of the De Morgan laws. In the third example it expresses that the size of two lists concatenated is the sum of the sizes of the two concatenands.

The last example uses both combinators to express that multiplication distributes (from the right) over addition. (Note that the program parameter for app2 is first constructed from the multiplicand and *.)

        [+]  dip  +   ==   +  +
        and  not   ==   [not]  app2  or
        concat  size   ==   [size]  app2  +
        [+]  dip  *   ==   [*]  cons  app2  +

A deep result in the theory of computability concerns the elimination of recursive definitions. To use the stock example, the factorial function can be defined recursively in Joy by

        factorial  ==
            [0 =] [pop 1] [dup 1 - factorial *] ifte
The definition is then used in programs like this:
Because in Joy programs can be manipulated as data, the factorial function can also be computed recursively without a recursive definition, as follows:
        [ [pop 0 =] [pop pop 1] [[dup 1 -] dip i *] ifte ]
        [dup cons] swap concat dup cons i
The second line in this program does much the same as the body of the definition of factorial, but it is a quoted program. The third line first transforms this into another longer quoted program which performs "anonymous" recursion, and then the final i combinator essentially dequotes this program causing its execution.

The third line implements Joy's counterpart of the Y combinator of the lambda calculus. Exactly the same line can be used to cause anonymous recursion of other functions which are normally defined recursively.

Joy has other combinators which make recursive execution of programs more succinct. (Of course it is also possible in Joy to compute the factorial function more efficiently with iteration instead of recursion.)

Since Joy is very different from familiar programming languages, it takes a while to become used to writing programs in Joy. One way to start the learning process is by way of writing some simple generally useful library programs. In an implementation these may be part of an actual library, or they may be built into the language.

Some general utility programs include operators for manipulating the Joy stack just below the top element, further operators for manipulating aggregate values, and a few output programs.

Generally useful are the stack type and the queue type. Values and operators of these two types are easily implemented as Joy lists and list operators.

Another collection of useful operators take an aggregate as parameter and produce a list of subaggregates. These operators are polymorphic in the sense that the aggregate parameter can be a (small) set, a string, or a list. One such operator can take a set as parameter and produces a list of its subsets. All of these operators are definable without recursion by using the linrec combinator.

Some arithmetic operators are often used to illustrate recursive definitions, although it is well known that iterative execution is more efficient. In particular the use of accumulating parameters can often replace recursion. This is easily done in Joy using various iteration combinators.

Values of sequence types, such as strings and lists, can be sorted, and sorted sequences can be merged. Programs for doing this are easily written in Joy without recursive definitions but using appropriate combinators instead.

Joy's inbuilt datatype of sets is implemented just as bitstrings, and hence it is limited to small sets of small numbers. The more useful big set type, which allows large sets of elements of any type, can be implemented in any language which has lists. It is simple to do in Joy, and the usual set-theoretic operations are easily provided. A similar implementation can be used for the dictionary type, which uses lookup tables for finite functions.

Also useful is the tree type, of lists, or lists of lists, or lists of lists of lists ... of elements other than lists.

A rewriting system consists of a set of syntactic rules for performing replacements on certain suitable entities. The best known such system is the one we learnt at school for evaluating arithmetic expressions. Any programming language can be given a rewriting system, but for Joy it is particularly simple. The basic binary rewriting relation will be written in infix notation as "->", pronounced "can be rewritten as". The following are some sample rules for the + and < operators and for the dip combinator.

        2  3  +   ->   5
        2  3  <   ->   true
        a  [P]  dip   ->   P  a
In the last example, P is any program and a is any literal (such as a number) or a program whose net effect is to push exactly one item onto the stack. The rewriting relation is extended to allow rewriting in appropriate contexts, further extended to accomodate several rewriting steps, and finally extended to become a congruence relation, an equivalence relation compatible with program concatenation. This congruence relation between programs is essentially the same as the identity relation in the algebra of of functions which the programs denote. Although Joy functions take a stack as argument and value, in the rewrite rules the stack is never mentioned.

The following are rewriting rules for arithmetic expressions in four different notations: infix, functional, prefix and postfix:

        2 + 3  ->  5                    +(2,3)  ->  5
        + 2 3  ->  5                    2 3 +  ->  5
In each case on the left the operands are 2 and 3, and the operator or constructor is +, so they all refer to the same arithmetic term. Since Joy uses postfix notation, it might be thought that one should attempt a term rewriting system with rules just like the second one in the last line. That would treat the short program 2 3 + as being composed of two operands and an operator or constructor. It would also treat the gap between 2 and 3 as quite different from the gap between 3 and +. The difference would be explained away as a syntactic coincidence due to the choice of notation. Apart from + there would be very many term constructors.

However, Joy has operators for manipulating the top few elements of the stack, such as swap, dup and pop. These are also found in the language Forth. These operators take a stack as argument and yield a stack as value, and their presence forces all other operators to be of the same type. For example, the following is a rewrite rule for swap:

        a  b  swap   ->   b  a
Unlike Forth, Joy also has quotations and combinators. These features also force the conclusion that the appropriate rewriting system is a string rewriting system. Consider the following four programs:
        [2] [3 +] b                     [2] [3 +] concat i
        [2 3] [+] b                     [2 3] [+] concat i
They all eventually have to reduce to 5, just like the earlier Joy program 2 3 +. It suggests that in the latter the gaps have to be treated in the same way, the program is a concatenation of three atomic symbols, and it denotes the composition of three functions. So, at least for Joy programs without quotations and combinators, the appropriate system is a string rewriting system. Such a system is equivalent to a term rewriting system with a concatenation constructor for programs as the only constructor. To handle combinators, a quotation constructor has to be introduced as a second constructor.

The best known functional languages are the lambda calculus and, based on it, the programming languages LISP and its descendants. All of them rely heavily on two operations, abstraction and application, which are in some sense inverses of each other. Abstraction binds free variables in an expression, and it yields a function which is a first class value.

The bound variables are the formal parameters of the function, and, importantly, they are named. Application of an abstracted function to some actual parameters can be understood as resulting in a substitution of actual for formal parameters and then evaluation of the modified expression. More efficiently application can be implemented using an environment of name-value pairs. The lambda calculus does not need definitions, but all functional programming languages allow them as a matter of convenience. Definitions also use named formal parameters, and in applications these have to be substituted or an environment has to be maintained.

Two other functional languages are the combinatory logic of Curry and the FP language of Backus. They are not based on the lambda calculus, they eliminate abstraction completely and hence do not have to deal with substitution and environments. As a result these languages can be manipulated using simple algebraic techniques. But like the lambda calculus and the languages derived from it, both are based on the application of functions to arguments. However, application does not have attractive algebraic properties, and hence there is no theoretical reason for preferring one concrete notation over another.

The languages of category theory comprises another group of functional languages. Whereas the other functional languages use function application, these use function composition. No high level programming language has been based on this formalism, but it has been used as a low level machine language as a target for compilation from a (typed) lambda calculus source. Joy is a high level programming language which resembles the categorical languages more than it resembles any of the other functional languages.

The prototype implementation is written in (K&R) C; it uses a simple stop-copy heap management.

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