CopperKitten is an exercise in programming language and runtime design and implementation. Check out the code here and read on for more explanation.

This project is far from complete. It will probably never be fully complete. I have a few features that I would like to implement before I put it aside. I am writing this post to introduce what I have done so far and invite comments and discussion.

CK is a simple functional language with Hindley Milner type inference. Its compiler and assembler are currently implemented in Kotlin. The compiler (ckc), for now, compiles a single ‘script’ file to its corresponding portable assembly listing, and then the assembler (cka) assembles that listing to a portable C99 program. An example of this can be seen in the makefile here. Using the makefile requires java and gcc. The script is intended to illustrate features of the language that have been implemented so far.

The Language

Built-in Types

There are three built in types in CK: Unit, Int, and Fun(A, ..., R). The first is the usual unit type with exactly one value. The second is a signed integer implemented by the C type intptr_t. The third type Fun(A, ..., R) is the function type where A, ... represents argument types and R is the return type. The function type can also be written as (A, ...) R.

User Defined Types

Users can define their own types using a type ... declaration at the beginning of a CK file. For example the declaration type List = (A) nil() | cons(A, List(A)) creates the type List(A) where A can be any type. User defined types are implemented as a number of compiler generated functions. Pattern matching, when implemented, will use these functions behind the scenes. Until then, the programmer can use them to construct and deconstruct values of user defined types.

CK Programs

For now a CK program consists of a single .ck file. A .ck file is zero or more declarations followed by an expression. In the grammar there are two types of declaration, but for now only typeDecl is implemented. The type declarations cause a number of functions to be implemented by the compiler for use in the following expression. Evaluation of the expression in the .ck file is evaluation of the CK program. In the future I would like to add support for multiple files.


The grammar of expressions includes

Note that type annotations are not required. For clarity the programmer can annotate the types of let bound variables, functions parameters, and function return types using the : T syntax. For example let id: (A) A = (a: A):A a. Type annotations are not yet fully implemented, but it should be an easy feature to finish. At the moment there are not any situations that require annotations. I would like to add record types and corresponding accessor syntax such as a.b which will, as far as I know, require limited type annotations.

C Language Bindings

Another type of function expression is cfun. These can be used any place an ordinary function expression can be used. cfun is used to create a binding to a function defined in C for doing IO and whatever else you would rather do in C. In the example there are two cfuns that are used to read and write characters on stdout/stdin. A cfun looks like cfun id Type where id is the identifier that matches the identifier of the function in C and Type is the type of that function. The native_read and native_write functions are implemented here. The file that defines the native functions must be compiled and linked with the output from ckc/cka (this is illustrated here).


The implementation of CK includes a compiler, assembler, and runtime.


The CK compiler (ckc) takes a single file ( and compiles it to a CK assembly file (program.cka). Compilation proceeds in a few steps:

  1. Parse using ANTLR4.

    ANTLR4 generates the classes required to parse a CK file based on the grammar ck.g4.

  2. Convert the ast that is produced by ANTLR to a simpler ast that is easier to work with.

    The class CkBaseVisitor (generated by ANTLR) is extended here to convert the ANTLR generated ast into a simpler representation. The CkBaseVisitor extensions are used to parse here and return the simpler ast.

  3. Type check the program.

    Type checking is implemented here. The type checker is based on the example implementation at the end of “Basic Polymorphic Typechecking” by Luca Cardelli.

  4. Compile the program.

    Compilation is done by the CompilationVisitor class. For now this amounts to visiting the ast and returning a list of assembler instructions.

The command line option parser is used when ckc is invoked on the command line. It parses command line options, reads the input file, performs the compilation steps above, and writes the output to the specified output file.


The CK assembler (cka) takes a single program.cka file and converts it to a C99 file. The main task of the assembler is to convert the abstract assembler syntax into a list of concrete bytecodes and literal values to be consumed by the runtime vm. Part of cka’s task is to generate layout functions to be used by the memory management scheme to identify pointers on the stack and in heap allocated objects. Another thing that the assembler does is combine the program bytecode array, generated functions, and other supporting pieces together into a .c file with a main function that initializes the CK runtime and starts execution.

I won’t go into too much detail on cka here unless there is interest. It’s pretty boring and mostly self explanatory.

The output of cka must be compiled and linked with any files containing definitions of cfuns and with the chosen garbage collection implementation file (one of copying_gc.c, incremental_gc.c, or mark_compact_gc.c). Again, the example makefile demonstrates this.


The CK runtime is a simple bytecode interpreter combined with one of three tracing garbage collection implementations. I could have implemented CK by compiling directly to C, rather than using a vm, but I wanted to be able to support tail call optimization and I couldn’t see how to do that in plain C.


The CK vm is implemented by vm.h. Opcodes are enumerated in the type enum vm_op_code and are reasonably well documented there. In addition to the usual arithmetic operations there are some for control flow, stack frame management, memory allocation, storing/loading values to/from indices into heap objects/stack frames/function arguments/function captures, and some other miscellaneous operations. Program execution is done by the function vm_execute which simply iterates over the given program array dispatching on each op code.

Memory Management

There are two copying collectors (one incremental) and one mark compact. I hope they can be used as examples for people who are curious about how garbage collection works. The garbage collectors all depend on gc_interface.h which declares a common set of functions with which the vm can interface with the heap memory. There are probably subtle bugs in the implementations of the garbage collectors. I am most confident in the correctness of the simple copying collector, least confident in the incremental copying collector, and the mark compact collector is somewhere in between.

Future Work

This is work that I would like to do on this project in the future.

Thanks for making it this far! Let me know what you think with a comment below.

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