Up to Interpretation

Saber Notes: Name Table, Parameters & Local Variables

I’ve been working on my language, Saber a lot recently. I figured I should keep some notes on implementation in case someone finds them useful, even if that’s only future-me. Saber is a scripting language intended to be a lightweight row-polymorphic psuedo-functional language that compiles to WebAssembly. Think OCaml meets the best parts of ES6. Of course right now I’m just trying to get basic functionality finished. The compiler is written in Rust.

Before this recent spurt of work in Saber, I had successfully gotten compilation of basic functions with arithmetic from Saber code to WebAssembly. That may not seem like much but it required getting the whole typed AST to WASM intermediate representation pipeline working, as well as an emitter. Emitting was especially daunting, as it involved basically staring at raw bytecode and debugging it. Eventually I realized that it isn’t so bad. Although that’s probably the Stockholm Syndrome talking.

I came back to the compiler after taking a long break, due to working on two compilers: a ChocoPy to RISC-V compiler written in Java for my compilers class, and a separate ChocoPy one in Rust just for fun. I haven’t finished those, but I learned some neat little tricks in the process that I decided to transfer to Saber.

Name Table

I started with creating a name table, basically a table that stores names such as “int” or “foo”, swapping them out for an id. I used one in my Rust ChocoPy compiler and really liked how it made wrangling with ASTs a lot easier. Instead of worrying about the lifetimes of the strings, I was able to deal with nice, simple usize’s. I could have in theory used Arc’s as well, like Saber does for types, but there’s something about using ids that’s cleaner for this1. Some people call this table a symbol table, but as you’ll see in a future post, that means something else in Saber.

The name table implementation was pretty straightforward: Create a map from names to ids and a counter; as the lexer gets names/identifiers, put them into the table if they don’t exist already; spit out a token with the id. The only issue I encountered was that I really needed a bidirectional map. Luckily, Rust has a crate for that2.

There was some minor code involved moving the table from lexer to parser to typechecker but nothing crazy.

Multiple Parameters

I designed Saber to have a slightly unconventional attitude towards parameters. Basically, functions in Saber only take one parameter. However tuples and records are first class values and easily destructurable using patterns, patterns being stuff like (a, b, c) or { field1, field2 }. Therefore you can do stuff like:

let add = \(a, b) => a + b
let args = (10, 11);


add(10, 11);

The (a, b) in add’s definition is a pattern which destructures the args.

Function calls still have parens around them but that’s mostly because I don’t want to deal with parsing a Ruby-esque foo a, b just yet.

Anyways turns out this is terrible for implementing. Either I need to implement boxing for records/tuples, then pass in a pointer (or however close to that I can get in WASM), or I have to find a way to destructure. I haven’t figured out a total solution for implementing, but what I came up with was essentially desugaring to regular multiple parameters.

I’ve been using desugaring a lot in Saber. What that means is that I’ll take a complicated feature like destructuring and convert it into a simpler feature such as assignments and field accesses. Where I’ve been desugaring has been in the typechecker. This is a pretty natural place to do it, as I’m already exchanging one AST for another (untyped to typed) and I have enough contextual information to say, generate new variable names without worrying about shadowing.

This is a long winded way of saying that I’ve been working on desugaring patterns into simpler, easier to compile code. For assignment statements, this involves introducing multiple bindings. For functions, this just means taking the pattern and flattening it into a list of regular old parameters. This:

({ a, b }, c) => ....


(a, b, c) => ...

I still need to work on getting arguments in function calls to be wrangled accordingly, but the flattening and function calls with regular tuples works.

As for code generating parameters, I added two fields to the CodeGenerator struct: var_indices and local_variables. var_indices is a HashMap from var names to local indices, while local_variables is a vector of WasmType, my enum for WebAssembly types. WebAssembly treats arguments as local variables that happen to be set on function call (well, kinda, we’ll get into this later), hence the naming. If you’re wondering about scope, I decided to ignore that concern at that time.

As the code generator read through the function params, now desugared to a list of names with their corresponding types, we’d add them to these data structures. Then on var usage, we’d put the index in an OpCode::GetLocal(index).

Type Promotions

Next up was type promotions. Saber has ints and floats, mostly because I like having a data type that obeys some algebraic laws (cough associativity cough). However I don’t want Saber to nag people about adding an int and a float. Unfortunately WebAssembly does nag people about this, so we need to add a specific conversion function.

Pop quiz, which type would you expect f32.convert_s/i32 to take in and which type would you expect to have it spit out? If you answered take in 32-bit float, spit out 32-bit int, you’d be wrong. Takes in signed 32-bit int, spits out float. Kinda confusing3, huh?

Anyways yadda yadda, on code generating binary operations I check if the type of the binary operation is not the type of one side of the operation, and if so I pop on a conversion operation. This works cause I already have type promotion in the typechecker, i.e. 10 + 1.2 already gets typed as float even if 10 is technically an int.

If Stmts

In a “wtf past me” moment, I realized I never bothered to write the parsing for if statements. Fortunately it’s dumb easy. I decided to go with the Rust version of non mandatory parentheses around the condition, mandatory brackets around the branches. I.e. you can do:

if blah {
} else {

But not

if (foo)

I don’t use the single line no-block if statements that much anyways.

I also added the special case in call expressions where a single argument gets passed to the function as itself, not as a one element tuple.

Typechecking Recursive Functions

Another thing I implemented in my ChocoPy compiler and earmarked for Saber: recursive functions! Typing functions is a lot of set up, as you need to create the new environment, add in the parameters with their types to this env, set up the return type so that if you come across a return statement you can accurately typecheck it, and finally, something I forgot to do previously, you need to add the function itself to the environment. Otherwise typechecking recursive functions becomes impossible.

Digression On Saber Functions

Saber, like any self respecting language these days, has anonymous functions. What’s unique about Saber is that it only has anonymous functions. If you want a named function, you simply bind it with a let. Therefore this is the only way to define a function in Saber:

let foo = \() => {

This stems from my noticing that every language eventually adds anonymous functions, so why bother having two ways of creating a function? Plus I hate the whole fn/fun/func/function debate. I’m waiting for a language to use fu.

What I realized while code generating however was that while I had only one type of function from a user facing perspective, I really wanted to treat function bindings, e.g. let foo = \() => { ... } differently from anonymous functions like map(\a => a + 1), especially come code gen time. Well, I say that but really I still don’t know how I’m going to treat anonymous functions. Probably indices into a WASM table. But I digress4. Function bindings are a lot simpler. Code generate the function, then when referenced in the right scope, call it directly. It’s kinda the classic virtual versus static dispatch problem that you run into with object oriented languages; you have function calls where you know which function will be called at compile time, and you have function calls where the destination is unknown.

Long story short, I took my Expr::Function and split it into Expr::Function5 and Stmt::Function.

Back To Recursion

Anyways I wanted one function for typechecking both Expr::Function and Stmt::Function. However that’s tricky as in the function binding case, we have to add the function name into the scope before typechecking the body. Easy! You just add the function name into the scope, then call the shared function for typechecking functions. Buuuut, to get the types for the function so that you can insert it into the scope, you need to typecheck the parameters, convert the return type annotation into an actual type, etc. Which kinda defeats the purpose of having a shared function, if you’re just gonna do all the work outside of it.

So what did I do? Did I come up with some brilliant solution that was tasteful, magically clean and elegant? Nope. I just wrote the setup code before calling the shared function. Sometimes you just gotta write the damn code and move on.

In the future this might be easier as I’m planning to allow anonymous functions to call themselves with this.

Also on second thought I need to add functions to environments in their own pass already as Saber functions will probably be hoisted in their scope. That way you can do:

let bar = \() => foo()
let foo = \() => { ... }

Which is expected of every language created post-1970.

Local Variables

Since I got parameters working, local variables seemed like a cinch. After all, aren’t parameters just fancy local variables? Turns out that’s not entirely the case.

WebAssembly is described as a stack based VM and that is accurate to how it evaluates code, but I’d argue that a better description is an index based VM. Everything from local variables to functions to tables are described by indices. WASM documentation defines what are called “index spaces”, essentially the various indices you’ll need to remember in order to write WebAssembly.

My first thought upon reading about index spaces was basically, “oh, okay, so each section has an array of items into which I can index. That’s my index space. Cool!” Thus the function section contains the function indices, the global section contains the global indices, etc. But where’s the local variables index?

Reading through the documentation, I found the answer: it’s in code. Huh, a little weird, but it makes sense. The code section declares function bodies, inside which there is a list of local variables. Now since I was thinking about things in terms of index spaces, my natural inclination was that this section that contains local variables contains the entire local variables index. This means parameters as well. As I’ve mentioned before, parameters are just fancy local variables that get set on function call. To access or mutate them, you use get_local and set_local , just like locals.

You can probably guess that this was not the case. This mistake was pretty nefarious, as I only realized it when also testing my conversion/type promotion code. After all, adding my parameters into the locals section in code body just meant that my function had more local variables than necessary. But if my local variables were all the same type, no errors would pop up (WASM doesn’t care if you use all of your locals). Only when I started having locals that were floats with my parameters as ints did the error show up. And they’d show up as errors where my local variables were mysteriously the wrong type.

Debugging this error was pretty painful. There’s two main sources of errors: misimplementation and misinterpretation. Misimplementation errors mean you messed up some implementation detail but you have the right mental model. Misinterpretation is the precise opposite: you have everything right, you’re just thinking about it wrong. Misinterpretation errors are pretty hard to fix, as you need to get a whiff of the right mental model. Luckily I had some help in the form of wat2wasm. You see, WASM has a text format, WAT using s-expressions. It has some nice features like named local variables. This is pretty handy for testing as you can write a sample WAT program, compile it to WASM and compare the binary format.

I compiled it, stared at some bytecode (hexl-mode in emacs helps a lot with that) and eventually figured out that the locals entry in the code body should only contain, well, locals. That may seem obvious but honestly I don’t blame myself for assuming that everything in an index space would be in the same place.

What’s also kind of weird is that these local entries consist of a count and type, so you can have two integers in a row that are stored in one entry. I guess it makes sense but it makes counting indices a lot harder. Ah well, WASM isn’t meant to be read anyways.


That’s all for now. I’ll start again with tweaking my return stmt code generation, control flow and function calls, culminating in successfully compiling factorial!

  1. Some may argue that this is a hack to get around Rust’s strict lifetime rules. Sure, but it’s a nice hack. ↩︎

  2. I know, I could have implemented it myself, but momentum is the name of the game with side projects) ↩︎

  3. Quite possible you don’t find this confusing. But I do, since it contradicts left-to-right ordering.. ↩︎

  4. In my digression nonetheless. ↩︎

  5. Probably should be renamed to Expr::Lambda ↩︎