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Writing a simple TCL interpreter in golang

21 June 2022 13:00

Recently I was reading Antirez's piece TCL the Misunderstood again, which is a nice defense of the utility and value of the TCL language.

TCL is one of those scripting languages which used to be used a hell of a lot in the past, for scripting routers, creating GUIs, and more. These days it quietly lives on, but doesn't get much love. That said it's a remarkably simple language to learn, and experiment with.

Using TCL always reminds me of FORTH, in the sense that the syntax consists of "words" with "arguments", and everything is a string (well, not really, but almost. Some things are lists too of course).

A simple overview of TCL would probably begin by saying that everything is a command, and that the syntax is very free. There are just a couple of clever rules which are applied consistently to give you a remarkably flexible environment.

To get started we'll set a string value to a variable:

  set name "Steve Kemp"
  => "Steve Kemp"

Now you can output that variable:

  puts "Hello, my name is $name"
  => "Hello, my name is Steve Kemp"

OK, it looks a little verbose due to the use of set, and puts is less pleasant than print or echo, but it works. It is readable.

Next up? Interpolation. We saw how $name expanded to "Steve Kemp" within the string. That's true more generally, so we can do this:

 set print pu
 set me    ts

 $print$me "Hello, World"
 => "Hello, World"

There "$print" and "$me" expanded to "pu" and "ts" respectively. Resulting in:

 puts "Hello, World"

That expansion happened before the input was executed, and works as you'd expect. There's another form of expansion too, which involves the [ and ] characters. Anything within the square-brackets is replaced with the contents of evaluating that body. So we can do this:

 puts "1 + 1 = [expr 1 + 1]"
 => "1 + 1 = 2"

Perhaps enough detail there, except to say that we can use { and } to enclose things that are NOT expanded, or executed, at parse time. This facility lets us evaluate those blocks later, so you can write a while-loop like so:

 set cur 1
 set max 10

 while { expr $cur <= $max } {
       puts "Loop $cur of $max"
       incr cur
 }

Anyway that's enough detail. Much like writing a FORTH interpreter the key to implementing something like this is to provide the bare minimum of primitives, then write the rest of the language in itself.

You can get a usable scripting language with only a small number of the primitives, and then evolve the rest yourself. Antirez also did this, he put together a small TCL interpreter in C named picol:

Other people have done similar things, recently I saw this writeup which follows the same approach:

So of course I had to do the same thing, in golang:

My code runs the original code from Antirez with only minor changes, and was a fair bit of fun to put together.

Because the syntax is so fluid there's no complicated parsing involved, and the core interpreter was written in only a few hours then improved step by step.

Of course to make a language more useful you need I/O, beyond just writing to the console - and being able to run the list-operations would make it much more useful to TCL users, but that said I had fun writing it, it seems to work, and once again I added fuzz-testers to the lexer and parser to satisfy myself it was at least somewhat robust.

Feedback welcome, but even in quiet isolation it's fun to look back at these "legacy" languages and recognize their simplicity lead to a lot of flexibility.

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