So, you want to write your own language?

Below are my notes from a really interesting article about the creation of programming languages by Walter Bright published on January 21, 2014 in the Dr. Dobbs Journal.


Tons of work ... years of work ... need intrinsic motivation. Not a major cash investment


Syntax matters a lot. It needs to be something that appeals to your target audience. A mix of familiar syntax + aesthetic beauty.

These should NOT be considerations:

  • Minimizing keystrokes
  • Easy parsing. not hard to write parsers with arbitrary lookahead
  • Minimizing the number of keywords

These things are TRULY GOOD:

  • Context-Free Grammar. code is parsable without having to look up in a symbol table
  • Redundancy. the grammar should be redundant to get good error messages
  • Tried and True. Stick with tried and true grammatical forms. cuts the learning curve. e.g. people expect + and * to follow a certain precedence rule.

After syntax, the important thing is semantic processing... meaning is assigned here to syntax structure. This is where you spend most of the design and implementation time. There is no glory in the semantics, but it is the whole point of the language.

After the semantice phase, the compiler does optimizations and code generation This is collectively called the back-end. Very challenging and complicated these 2 phases. Try using an existing back end such as one of JVM, CLR, GCC, LLVM.


Regex is the wrong tool for lexing and parsing.

Don't bother wasting time with lexer and parser generators or other so-called compiler compilers. They are a waste of time. Writing the lexer and the parser is a tiny percentage of the job of writing a compiler.

Error messages are a big factor in the quality of implementation of the language. Use the following guidelines:

  • print the first error message and quit
  • guess what a programmer intended, repair the AST and continue
  • The poisoning approach. any operation with a NaN results in a NaN silently.

Compiler speed matters a lot... Most compilers are pigs. The secret to making a compiler fast is to use a profiler.

You must/have to be using these tools in order to be successful:

  • valgrind. saved C and C++ from oblivion
  • git / github like public repo. trasnformative tools. collaboration. track the origin of every line of code
  • Automated testing framework + Coverage analyzer
  • Automated documentation generator
  • Bugtracker + Wiki + Blog + Google Groups + Mailing List + IRC Channel + Twitter + Facebook


A semantic technique. It consists of, internally, rewrting more complex semantic constructs in terms of simpler ones. e.g. while loops and foreach loops can be rewritten in terms of for loops. Then the rest of the code only has to deal with for loops. If there are special-case rules in the language that prevent lowering rewriting, then revisit the design of the language.

Runtime Library

Critical is the need to write a runtime library. This is a major project. It serves as the demostration of how the language features work. It better be good.

Get these right:

  • I/O performance. Slow IO will make that language look bad. the benchmark is C stdio
  • Memory allocation. Most of the time programs spend doing this
  • Transcendental functions... What are these? Find a library that already implements these functions ... Floating point stuff

What should go in a library

  • File IO
  • Network IO
  • String
  • Algorithms
  • Data Structures
  • OS Interaction
  • Unicode - UTF-8
  • Date / Time
  • Memory Management
  • Process Control
  • Signals
  • Math
  • Data Types
  • Crypto
  • Reflection

After the Prototype

  • Presentations
  • Articles
  • Tutorials
  • Books
  • Programmer Meetings
  • Conferences
  • Companies

Go anywhere they will have you and show it off. Get used to public speaking. Get as much feedback as you can.


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