Lisp Is Just Syntax

Lisp programming is often associated with functional programming, interpreters, and using lists for everything. This is a long way from the truth: Scheme programmers of use mutable variables, some Common Lisp implementations offer compilation, and all non-trivial lisp languages offer a variety of data types.

Saying ‘lisp language’ is analagous to saying ‘curly-brace language’ or ‘significant whitespace language’ – lisp is just a language family with common syntax. Lisp means that all function definitions, function calls, variable definitions etc are written as nested lists.

With this separation of syntax and semantics in mind, I realised that CoffeeScript is a very thin veneer on top of JavaScript. CoffeeScript’s semantics (the value of this, arrays behaving like objects, etc) are very similar to JavaScript’s. It’s no surprise then that the output of the CoffeeScript compiler is often readable JavaScript.

To illustrate this distinction, I decided to build a Lisp compiler that targeted Python (sometimes called a ‘transpiler’), a language whose semantics I was very familiar with. To make things interesting, I decided the compiler should be self-hosting, so my ‘Lython’ compiler should be able to compile itself.

I built a bootstrap compiler in Python, then wrote a Lython version of the same code. This is an entertaining recursive development process, because adding a feature to Lython would make the compiler more complex, thus requiring more features to be added. It’s challenging to design a language dialect at the same time as coding in it.

Here’s a sample from the Lython bootstrap compiler (link to source):

def compile_function_call(s_exp, indent):
    function_value = compile_sexp(s_exp[0], 0)

    arguments = []
    for raw_argument in s_exp[1:]:
        arguments.append(compile_sexp(raw_argument, 0))

    python_string = "%s(%s)" % (function_value, ", ".join(arguments))
    return emit_python(python_string, indent)

The Lython code is a straightforward translation (link to source):

(def compile_function_call (s_exp indent)
     (= function_value (compile_sexp (array_access s_exp 0) 0))

     (= arguments (list))
     (for raw_argument (slice s_exp 1)
          (.append arguments (compile_sexp raw_argument 0)))

     (= python_string (% "%s(%s)" (make_tuple function_value (.join ", " arguments))))
     (return (emit_python python_string indent)))

This compiles to the following:

def compile_function_call(s_exp, indent):
    function_value = compile_sexp(s_exp[0], 0)
    arguments = list()
    for raw_argument in s_exp[1:]:
        (arguments).append(compile_sexp(raw_argument, 0))
    python_string = "%s(%s)" % (function_value, (", ").join(arguments),)
    return emit_python(python_string, indent)

Readability is slightly hurt in compilation: comments are removed, we don’t have the blank lines of the source, and there are a few redundant parentheses. Nonetheless, it’s functionally equivalent and even PEP 8 compliant!

Critiquing Lython

So, is Lython a programming language you’d want to use? Probably not. As a proof-of-concept it succeeds, but it lacks crucial features of a useful language: error checking, unit tests, documentation, and a reason for being.

As a Python dialect, it shows some parts of Python are not well suited for lisp syntax. Lisp syntax favours ‘everything is a value’, which is not true in Python. For example, Python’s two if statements (if foo: bar and bar if foo else baz) stand out like a sore thumb in Lython.

Python has a variety of infix operators (+, %) and postfix operators (array access, slicing) that also become less elegant with a uniform prefix syntax. For example, I would find (format "hello %s" name) more readable than Lython’s (% "hello %s" name).

Finally, the major advantage of using s-expression syntax is macros, and Lython doesn’t offer them. Adding them would be straightforward, but otherwise there is very little benefit in Lython’s syntax.


Although this project was only ever written for learning and entertainment, I have actually discovered serious projects with similar goals. There’s Hy, which is a Lisp to Python transpiler (although it’s not self-hosting) intended for more serious use. There’s also MacroPy, an implementation of Lisp macros in Python.

Lython was a fun hack. You can check out the project on GitHub, and I hope it makes you think again about language syntax.

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