Mark William Hopkins <>
Mon, 10 Sep 90 23:03:02 -0500

          From comp.compilers

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Multi-compilers (Mark William Hopkins) (1990-09-10)
Re: Multi-compilers (1990-09-18)
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Newsgroups: comp.compilers
From: Mark William Hopkins <>
Keywords: design, source
Organization: Compilers Central
Date: Mon, 10 Sep 90 23:03:02 -0500

      Recently, an interesting idea has come to mind for a new kind of compiler:
a Multi-Compiler. What makes it different from your typical compiler is that
it accepts code from more than one source language: many source languages in

      However, it's an idea that is easier said than conceived. What would it
look like? The whole issue seems to revolve around this concept (which I
borrow from linguistics) of 'code-switching'.

      Code-switching is where a multi-lingual speaker switches from one language
to another, often in mid-sentence. For instance, while waiting for a
departure from an airport in Budapest, I got in a conversation with an East
German traveller. However, my German was weak, his English was non-existant,
and our Hungarian was not very strong. So we found it necessary to literally
sprinkle our conversations with almost random switching between German and
Hungarian. Each language offered something which compensated for something
lacking in (our knowledge of) the other.

        A good programmer will also face the same kind of dilemma. Different
languages are designed to do different things better. An extreme example is
the case of writing a truly practical AI control program which would ideally
handle all the intelligent rule-based tasks in Prolog, and all the
event-driven tasks in assembly and C, and maybe even the recognition and
learning tasks in the assembly of a special purpose neural net chip.

      The question, naturally, is: when are you allowed to code-switch?
Depending on how you answer this, you either got a closely integrated set of
*distinct* compilers (like the Quick series marketed by MicroSoft), or a
truly integrated programmer's utility.

      If you force the "one-language-per-module" constraint, which a lot of
people I talked to about this seem to arrive at as a first idea, then you
have nothing more than a series of disjoint compilers integrated by a common
object code format and single linker. In this case, it's "all in the

      But in that situation, there would remain the question: when you define a
module in language A, and use it in language B, which language do you declare
it in? Declaring it in B, potentially means a lot of redundant header files,
and declaring it in A means having to resolve the issue of how to interface
data types of different languages. This could be very much complicated if
your languages vary between the highly imperative C, to the highly
declarative Prolog.

      If you allow for interlanguage mixing within modules, you will face a more
extreme version of the data-type interfacing problem, and possibly even a
control statement interfacing problem. Here, the ideal solution seem to be
the "one-language-per-function" rule. But in this case, it's "all in the
compiler", not the linker.

      Syntax is not an issue. We're not talking about actualy merging the
syntaxes of the source languages into one horrific construct (though that
would be an interesting problem to solve). When you want your compiler to do
C, you issue a #in c directive. When you want it to switch to Pascal, you
likewise issue a #in pascal directive, and so on...

      With this latter strategy (more than one language per file), the issue of
what language you issue external declarations becomes moot: since it's all
"going down the same stomach" anyhow, it doesn't matter.

      The best strategy to pursue to minimize these problems see to be to
simultaneously develop extensions of each language that are upwardly
compatible with the latest standard and which make these languages as much
alike as possible. This means adding C/Pascal-like data structures and
control structures to the likes of FORTRAN or BASIC, for instance.

      It seems to me, though, that the huge investment in this effort would be
very much worth it, since no matter where I talk and who I talk to about
this, the idea goes over extremely well: it seems that we're talking about
the ultimate programmer's workbench with this kind of utility.

      But there's this one nagging issue: what would this give us that using a
series of compilers, like MicroSoft's Quick series, with a good linker won't
already give you?

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