Up to Interpretation

The Next Browser Language

Let’s say you’re writing some front-end code. How many options are there for programming languages? I’d say there’s three camps. There’s plain old JavaScript, there’s languages that compile to WebAssembly, and there’s languages that compile to JavaScript.

Plain old JavaScript requires the least tooling, at the cost of being rather frustrating to debug and even more annoying to read. It can be a great, low friction option to start, but beyond some obsession around “minimalism”1, I don’t see many benefits.

Languages that compile to WebAssembly, while growing, are still very new. They often come with massive binary sizes since most languages need to ship an additional runtime. Interop is still a pipe dream. Just because two languages compile to WebAssembly doesn’t mean they can necessarily talk to each other. And the languages still need to catch up on decades of JavaScript libraries for the DOM. There’s nothing like React or Svelte for WebAssembly. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a time and a place for WebAssembly. If you want to run compute heavy native code in the browser, WebAssembly is perfect. Otherwise, I can’t say I’d recommend it for everyday front-end development.

Which leaves the languages that compile to JavaScript. Barring the one elephant in the room, which I’ll address shortly, they’ve become a little unsung. Languages such as ClojureScript, Elm, ReScript, Dart, etc. all have respectable communities but I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily expanding in market share2. This is a shame, as languages that compile to JavaScript are probably the most effective way to get a good programming language experience in the browser. They allow you to access all the nice features that JavaScript doesn’t have like static types, strong typing, immutability, macros, etc. They still give you access to JS and the extensive JS ecosystem, hopefully through bindings. And they don’t require shipping a large runtime.

Because of WebAssembly, I suspect there’s a reticence to compile to JS, since Wasm is the anointed compilation target for the browser. I disagree with this sentiment. We need more languages that compile to JavaScript. In this post, I’d like to outline what I want out of these future languages.


But first, we need to discuss the elephant in the room of languages that compile to JS. The elephant, of course, is TypeScript. TypeScript is a wonderful language that has significantly improved developer experience. It adds a layer of safety, facilitates better tooling, and at minimal buy-in cost. The TypeScript team has accomplished a remarkable feat considering the state of the ecosystem and the challenges associated with type-checking JavaScript.

However, there are some fair criticisms of TypeScript. Usually they boil down to performance and soundness. What’s important to note is that both of these criticisms are not unknown to the TypeScript team. These issues are due to explicit trade-offs that the TypeScript team made when they began development. In my view, these trade-offs were the correct ones to make at the time to effectively execute.

With that said, performance is arguably the most commonly cited issue with TypeScript. TypeScript is implemented in itself and that implementation is quite complex. The type system at this point is practically a mini programming language. This leads to quite slow type-checking times.

The second issue is soundness. This is less of a commonly cited issue and more something grumbled about by programming language nerds. Basically, because TypeScript has various escape hatches like the allowJs config option, the any type, and intersection types, the type system cannot ensure that the code is type-safe. Put bluntly, you can write TypeScript and get runtime bugs. On top of this, TypeScript lacks type inference beyond very simple cases. You have to explicitly annotate types in a lot of places.

Again, both of these were the result of calculated trade-offs. Bootstrapping the compiler was essential for dogfooding TypeScript. The developers had to understand how TypeScript felt as a language. More specifically, they had to experience writing a large JavaScript codebase, then incrementally adopting types within this codebase. And rejecting soundness meant that developers could incrementally adopt TypeScript in existing JS codebases. It also meant that developers could escape the frustration of types with a single any type.

This is worth an entire essay of its own, but TypeScript is probably the first language to be purely about developer-experience and not about semantics. The language did not add any runtime constructs. It did not affect performance. Instead it added a type system, and more importantly, it taught a community that did not use types, that did not have high quality tooling3, that did not have a culture of correctness, to adopt these values. That is an incredible feat.

The Next Browser Language

All of this is to say that TypeScript made some trade-offs 10 years ago that had a massive effect on the language. And now, with that time passed, I think it’s time for new languages with a new set of trade-offs. Specifically, I want a language that has soundness, that has type inference, and that has quick compilation speeds.

That’s great and all, but what are the corresponding trade-offs that come with these choices? Well, to have soundness, the language will not try to type check the various JavaScript patterns, but instead be a separate language that compiles to JavaScript with a simpler type system. It will treat existing JavaScript code as foreign code to interoperate with. It will have explicit runtime type checks for JavaScript code. And it will be implemented in a different, native language.

Why do I want this? Well first, I want this because I like writing languages that have sound and relatively simple type systems4. I want a language that works well in the browser and works within the existing web ecosystem. Too often languages that compile to WebAssembly attempt to ignore the rest of the web ecosystem. They want to build pixel based native UI in the browser. I think that’s a wonderful goal, but it is not my goal. I want to use this language to build normal, everyday websites. I don’t want a pure functional language and I do want a language that has conventional C-style syntax (sorry Elm!). And I want a language that exemplifies my ideas in tooling for tooling.

And why do I think this is the right time for it? There’s the obvious answer of the present being the second-best time to start a language, the first-best being 10 years ago. But also I think the JavaScript community has evolved a lot in the last ten years. People learned TypeScript and with it they started to get comfortable listening to the compiler and modeling their data in types. They started playing around with languages like Rust and Swift and Kotlin. They started to appreciate good tooling. Not to say that people would have rejected a type-safe language ten years ago, but it would have been a lot harder to gain adoption.


Some of you may be thinking that this language sounds awfully like ReScript/ReasonML. And yes, there is some overlap. However, my language would ideally have explicit runtime type checks for JS code, and traits. Runtime type checks would make the interop story very nice. You could use any JavaScript library with relative ease. Likewise, I believe traits are a better fit for users. They map onto other language features like Java interfaces and C++ concepts. They facilitate features like easy printing of any type via a Display trait. This may seem superficial, but it eliminates preventable usability quirks like “how do I print this???” or “why is + used for integer addition and +. used for float addition?” that put people off from languages. Furthermore, I’d like to remove some extra stuff like objects, linked lists, polymorphic variants, etc. I was also not impressed with ReScript’s developer experience and error messages when I tried it last.

That said, I’m not ruling out the possibility that ReScript is the correct path forward. I need to give it another shot, as my experiences are a few years out of date. Perhaps with the split from OCaml, the language has sufficiently evolved into a good front-end option.

Type Safety

With this language, I would like a more systematic approach towards type safety. Specifically, I would like to take Rust’s approach of unsafe blocks for the JavaScript interop. Basically, to call JavaScript, you need to wrap the code in an unsafe block. This acts as an explicit signifier that this code needs to be read more carefully. The goal then would be to implement bindings on top of these unsafe accesses for JavaScript libraries. At first, this process would be manual, but hopefully the equivalent of bindgen and cxx would come into existence.

Using the concept of unsafe blocks in JavaScript may seem like an odd choice. JavaScript is not exactly unsafe in the same way C is unsafe. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that safety extends beyond security. Safety is the ability to use a value without worrying if it’s actually null. Safety is the ability to model the domains of your values as types and know that they will be correct. Safety is the ability to have mutability without introducing bugs or confusion. JavaScript, due to its dynamic features, is fundamentally unsafe. Rust’s concept of unsafe blocks allows users to have their safe zone, but also interact with the large corpus of unsafe code. The same should be true with browser based languages.

As for runtime checks, I believe they would worth the overhead. We already do plenty of schema validation in JavaScript. It’s just done with ad-hoc mechanisms like zod. They will probably either take the form of being able to derive an automatic conversion to a language type that errors at runtime, or the ability to pattern match on a JavaScript value.


With WebAssembly, I am still very optimistic about its future. Proposals have taken a while to be released, but hopefully that is just an indication of the quality of the work. However, I don’t necessarily see WebAssembly taking over as the general purpose runtime of the browser. Perhaps this will change, but the way I see WebAssembly is actually more of a hardware accelerator. When the user needs powerful compute with hardware-friendly characteristics like fixed width integers and static function calls, they use WebAssembly, much like when a user needs parallel computation, they go to the GPU. In this model, I see a potential for a language that embraces hetereogenous compilation, where some of the code is compiled to JavaScript, and some is compiled to WebAssembly. This could be done explicitly by the user, automatically via profiling, or even just-in-time. Hopefully by controlling both the JS and the Wasm code, the compiler can minimize trips over the boundary and therefore increase performance. There could even be a mechanism to send some code to WebGPU.

Hopefully with this model, computationally intensive programs like machine learning models, video games, and rendering software can be written with relative ease.

This concept of compiling for both WebAssembly and for JavaScript can be made visible in the language. I’d want explicit integer and float types, and perhaps an explicit indexing type like Rust’s usize. That way if the code were to be compiled to WebAssembly, it could take advantage of WebAssembly’s fixed width integers. Perhaps another possibility is to create a subset of the language that compiles nicely down to Wasm, that restricts dynamic features such as closures or garbage collection. To interact with that subset, you’d need another unsafe-style block, perhaps a strict block, or alternatively the subset could interact with the outer code with a dynamic block. These are all hypotheticals but I believe they’re worth exploring.


The language will probably be implemented in Rust. This is mostly because I’m a fan of Rust and I believe the combination of algebraic data types, relatively fast code, limited but available mutability, and decent libraries is a good fit for a compiler.

If WebAssembly evolves sufficiently such that the performance is close to native, I would consider bootstrapping the compiler with a subset of the language that compiles to fast WebAssembly. But a Rust compiler would probably be more than sufficient for quite a few years.


If you’ve noticed, the Type Safety and WebAssembly sections are essentially taking ideas from systems languages such as unsafety and hardware acceleration, and applying them to a browser based language. This is by design. Some of the most interesting programming languages work is being done at the systems level. All I wish is that these ideas make it into the browser.

I’ve titled this post “The Next Browser Language”, but I want to be clear, it’s not a singular language. My hope is that there will be multiple languages that attempt these ideas and more. My goal here is more to inspire some people to keep innovating in the browser languages space. As for my personal attempt, I’m still sketching out this language. I’ve been playing around with an implementation called vicuna, but it’s still very very early.

Feel free to email me at nick@nicholasyang.com with any thoughts or feedback!

  1. Which I know is popular among various groups online, but I need more than a vague notion of minimalism as a reason. ↩︎

  2. Nor does that seem to be their goal, in fairness. ↩︎

  3. Recall that TypeScript came out in 2012. Babel and Webpack came out in 2014. ↩︎

  4. Okay type systems are almost never simple, but at least simpler than TypeScript’s type system. ↩︎