Little Languages and their Programming Environments

John Clements, Paul T. Graunke, Shriram Krishnamurthi, Matthias Felleisen

Monterey Workshop on Engineering Automation for Software Intensive System Integration, 2001


Programmers constantly design, implement, and program in little languages. Two different approaches to the implementation of little languages have evolved. One emphasizes the design of little languages from scratch, using conventional technology to implement interpreters and compilers. The other advances the idea of extending a general-purpose host language; that is, the little language shares the host language’ss features (variables, data, loops, functions) where possible; its interpreters and compilers; and even its type soundness theorem. The second approach is often called a language embedding.

This paper directs the attention of little language designers to a badly neglected area: the programming environments of little languages. We argue that an embedded little language should inherit not only the host language’s syntactic and semantic structure, but also its programming environment.

We illustrate the idea with our DrScheme programming environment and S-XML, a little transformation language for XML trees. DrScheme provides a host of tools for Scheme: a syntax analysis tool, a static debugger, an algebraic stepper, a portable plugin system, and an interactive evaluator. S-XML supports the definition of XML languages using a simple form of schemas, the convenient creation of XML data, and the definition of XML transformations.

The S-XML embedding consists of two parts: a library of functions and a set of syntactic extensions. The elaboration of a syntactic extension into core Scheme preserves the information necessary to report the results of an analysis or of a program evaluation at the source level. As a result, all of DrScheme’s tools are naturally extended to the embedded language. The process of embedding the S-XML language into Scheme directly creates a full-fledged S-XML environment.

We believe that this method of language implementation may be generalized to other languages and other environments, and represents a substantial improvement upon current practice.


A pair of articles in March 2004 and April 2004 of Dr. Dobb's update the information presented here.



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