I have this rather weird CPU architecture for which currently only an assembler exists. I won't go into too much details about this architecture as it is not publicly available. However, some quirks of it are:

  • It can only address full 32 bit words in memory
  • No shift operations
  • No internal registers. It fully operates on the system memory for each access.
  • No multiplication / division in hardware
  • No indirect jumps
  • No calls (subroutines with returns to the jumped of address) at all.

The question of writing a C compiler for this thing came up.

As far as I see, the first point of only being able to access full 32 bit words shouldn't be a problem because I could simply define a 'char' as 32 bits wide, which should be valid, weird but valid.

Missing multiplication / division / shift operations can be constructed from additions and subtractions. So this seems possible as well.

So this actually got me thinking: "What are the requirements to an architecture so that it is actually possible to write a C compiler for it?"

I'm an electrical engineer with a strong background on CPU architectures and C programming. However, I'm not too much into theoretical CS. So an easy formulated answer is highly appreciated (if possible).

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Computer Science! Your question can be interpreted in multiple ways. The boring computer science answer is that any ISA which is Turing-complete can implement any language, but I feel like that's not the answer that you want. If your question is about what requirements the C standard specifically imposes, your question might be on-topic on Stack Overflow. Alternatively, if your question is how you might practically implement a C compiler for such an architecture, you could ask that on Programming Language Design and Implementation. $\endgroup$
    – Pseudonym
    Jul 5, 2023 at 0:54
  • $\begingroup$ So I guess an "easy" way of determining, if a c compile can be built, is to map the architecture to another simple existing architecture for which turing completeness is proven / a compiler exists. My question was indeed more leaned towards the actual implementability of a standard conform c compiler instead of proving turing completeness. $\endgroup$
    – GNA
    Jul 5, 2023 at 8:15
  • $\begingroup$ No calls will compel you to inline all functions ! This seems terrible ! $\endgroup$
    – user16034
    Jul 5, 2023 at 8:21
  • $\begingroup$ I mean... I'm not an expert in compiler building. But I know how typical ISAs look like. I'm just curious, what the minumum is. Because, actually, there is a company that said "Sure. We can build a compiler for that" And I was holding back laughter in that meeting. I know that the ISA of this core will not allow any efficient output. But it should be possible in theory, right? $\endgroup$
    – GNA
    Jul 5, 2023 at 8:23
  • $\begingroup$ Without calls, you can forget recursion to arbitrary depth. This is a severe limitation. $\endgroup$
    – user16034
    Jul 5, 2023 at 8:31

1 Answer 1


I cannot provide an authoritative answer, but, besides key arithmetic support missing, this machine is lacking a stack mechanism, which precludes the implementation of function calls. These can be emulated by inlining, to a very limited extent, but that cannot decently be called C anymore.


The missing arithmetic operations can be implemented with decent efficiency using addition, subtraction and bitwise masking. Even floating-point can be implemented.

As said in the comments below, indirect addressing can be used to implement a stack, and indirect jumps to labels can be emulated efficiently.

So the set of missing features is vanishing...

  • $\begingroup$ I suppose we could emulate a stack manually, and since we lack indirect jumps, put a big "dispatcher" somewhere that has thousands of cases of "if target == labelX: jmp labelX" (to emulate return, pop a value and then jump into the dispatcher) $\endgroup$
    – user555045
    Jul 5, 2023 at 9:51
  • $\begingroup$ @harold: you are right, indirect addressing allows to manage a stack, which can hold the return addresses. The dispatcher can be made efficient by structuring the tests as a binary search tree. $\endgroup$
    – user16034
    Jul 5, 2023 at 10:01
  • $\begingroup$ This hypothetical dispatcher would presumably have to be generated at link-time. (There are precedents for this, e.g. MIPS link-time optimisation.) Fair warning, though, a binary search tree implemented in code can play havoc with CPU branch prediction. $\endgroup$
    – Pseudonym
    Jul 6, 2023 at 0:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Pseudonym: I don't mind trading 1000 well-predicted branches for 10 mis-predicted ones. $\endgroup$
    – user16034
    Jul 6, 2023 at 6:52
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    $\begingroup$ @YvesDaoust I think efficiency of implementation kind of went out the window some time ago, but yes. $\endgroup$
    – Pseudonym
    Jul 6, 2023 at 7:14

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