I’m working on a compiler for a concatenative language and would like to add type inference support. I understand Hindley–Milner, but I’ve been learning the type theory as I go, so I’m unsure of how to adapt it. Is the following system sound and decidably inferable?

A term is a literal, a composition of terms, a quotation of a term, or a primitive.

$$ e ::= x \:\big|\: e\:e \:\big|\: [e] \:\big|\: \dots $$

All terms denote functions. For two functions $e_1$ and $e_2$, $e_1\:e_2 = e_2 \circ e_1$, that is, juxtaposition denotes reverse composition. Literals denote niladic functions.

The terms other than composition have basic type rules:

$$ \dfrac{}{x : \iota}\text{[Lit]} \\ \dfrac{\Gamma\vdash e : \sigma}{\Gamma\vdash [e] : \forall\alpha.\:\alpha\to\sigma\times\alpha}\text{[Quot]}, \alpha \text{ not free in } \Gamma $$

Notably absent are rules for application, since concatenative languages lack it.

A type is either a literal, a type variable, or a function from stacks to stacks, where a stack is defined as a right-nested tuple. All functions are implicitly polymorphic with respect to the “rest of the stack”.

$$ \begin{aligned} \tau & ::= \iota \:\big|\: \alpha \:\big|\: \rho\to\rho \\ \rho & ::= () \:\big|\: \tau\times\rho \\ \sigma & ::= \tau \:\big|\: \forall\alpha.\:\sigma \end{aligned} $$

This is the first thing that seems suspect, but I don’t know exactly what’s wrong with it.

To help readability and cut down on parentheses, I’ll assume that $a\:b = b \times (a)$ in type schemes. I’ll also use a capital letter for a variable denoting a stack, rather than a single value.

There are six primitives. The first five are pretty innocuous. dup takes the topmost value and produces two copies of it. swap changes the order of the top two values. pop discards the top value. quote takes a value and produces a quotation (function) that returns it. apply applies a quotation to the stack.

$$ \begin{aligned} \mathtt{dup} & :: \forall A b.\: A\:b \to A\:b\:b \\ \mathtt{swap} & :: \forall A b c.\: A\:b\:c \to A\:c\:b \\ \mathtt{pop} & :: \forall A b.\: A\:b \to A \\ \mathtt{quote} & :: \forall A b.\: A\:b \to A\:(\forall C. C \to C\:b) \\ \mathtt{apply} & :: \forall A B.\: A\:(A \to B) \to B \\ \end{aligned} $$

The last combinator, compose, ought to take two quotations and return the type of their concatenation, that is, $[e_1]\:[e_2]\:\mathtt{compose} = [e_1\:e_2]$. In the statically typed concatenative language Cat, the type of compose is very straightforward.

$$ \mathtt{compose} :: \forall A B C D.\: A\:(B \to C)\:(C \to D) \to A\:(B \to D) $$

However, this type is too restrictive: it requires that the production of the first function exactly match the consumption of the second. In reality, you have to assume distinct types, then unify them. But how would you write that type?

$$ \mathtt{compose} :: \forall A B C D E. A\:(B \to C)\:(D \to E) \to A \dots $$

If you let $\setminus$ denote a difference of two types, then I think you can write the type of compose correctly.

$$ \mathtt{compose} :: \forall A B C D E.\: A\:(B \to C)\:(D \to E) \to A\:((D \setminus C)\:B \to ((C \setminus D)\:E)) $$

This is still relatively straightforward: compose takes a function $f_1 : B \to C$ and one $f_2 : D \to E$. Its result consumes $B$ atop the consumption of $f_2$ not produced by $f_1$, and produces $D$ atop the production of $f_1$ not consumed by $f_2$. This gives the rule for ordinary composition.

$$ \dfrac{\Gamma\vdash e_1 : \forall A B.\: A \to B \quad \Gamma\vdash e_2 : \forall C D. C \to D}{\Gamma\vdash e_1 e_2 : ((C \setminus B)\:A \to ((B \setminus C)\:D))}\text{[Comp]} $$

However, I don’t know that this hypothetical $\setminus$ actually corresponds to anything, and I’ve been chasing it around in circles for long enough that I think I took a wrong turn. Could it be a simple difference of tuples?

$$ \begin{align} \forall A. () \setminus A & = () \\ \forall A. A \setminus () & = A \\ \forall A B C D. A B \setminus C D & = B \setminus D \textit{ iff } A = C \\ \text{otherwise} & = \textit{undefined} \end{align} $$

Is there something horribly broken about this that I’m not seeing, or am I on something like the right track? (I’ve probably quantified some of this stuff wrongly and would appreciate fixes in that area as well.)

  • $\begingroup$ How do you use variables in your grammar? This question should help you in handling the "subtyping" you seem to need. $\endgroup$
    – jmad
    Jun 11, 2012 at 7:07
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @jmad: I’m not sure I understand the question. Type variables are just there for the sake of formally defining type schemes, and the language itself doesn’t have variables at all, just definitions, which can be [mutually] recursive. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Purdy
    Jun 11, 2012 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ Fair enough. Can you say why (perhaps with an example) the rule for compose is too restrictive? I have the impression that this is fine like this. (e.g. the restriction $C=D$ could be handled by unification like for application in like in the λ-calculus) $\endgroup$
    – jmad
    Jun 11, 2012 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ @jmad: Sure. Consider twice defined as dup compose apply, which takes a quotation and applies it twice. [1 +] twice is fine: you’re composing two functions of type $\iota\to\iota$. But [pop] twice is not: if $\forall A b.\:f_1, f_2 : A\:b\to A$, the problem is that $A \neq A\:b$, so the expression is disallowed even though it ought to be valid and have type $\forall A b.\:A\:b\:b\to A$. The solution is of course to put the qualifier in the right place, but I’m mainly wondering how to actually write the type of compose without some circular definition. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Purdy
    Jun 12, 2012 at 16:09

1 Answer 1


The following rank-2 type $$\text{compose}:\forall ABC\delta. \delta\ (\forall \alpha.\alpha\ A\to \alpha B)\ (\forall \beta.\beta\ B\to \beta C) \to \delta\ (\forall \gamma.\gamma\ A\to \gamma C)$$ seems to be sufficiently general. It is much more polymorphic than the type proposed in the question. Here variable quantify over contiguous chunks of stack, which captures multi-argument functions.

Greek letters are used for the rest-of-the-stack variables for clarity only.

It expresses the constraints that the output stack of the first element on the stack needs to be the same as the input stack of the second element. Appropriately instantiating the variable $B$ for the two actually arguments is the way of getting the constraints to work properly, rather than defining a new operation, as you propose in the question.

Type checking rank-2 types is undecidable in general, I believe, though some work has been done that gives good results in practice (for Haskell):

  • Simon L. Peyton Jones, Dimitrios Vytiniotis, Stephanie Weirich, Mark Shields: Practical type inference for arbitrary-rank types. J. Funct. Program. 17(1): 1-82 (2007)

The type rule for composition is simply:

$$ \dfrac{\Gamma\vdash e_1:\forall \alpha. \alpha\ A\to \alpha\ B\qquad \Gamma\vdash e_1:\forall \alpha. \alpha\ B\to \alpha\ C} {\Gamma\vdash e_1\ e_2:\forall \alpha.\alpha\ A\to\alpha\ C} $$

To get the type system to work in general, you need the following specialisation rule:

$$ \dfrac{\Gamma\vdash e:\forall \alpha. \alpha\ A \to \alpha\ B} {\Gamma\vdash e:\forall \alpha.C\ A\to \alpha\ C\ B} $$

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, this was very helpful. This type is correct for functions of a single argument, but it doesn’t support multiple arguments. For instance, dup + should have type $\iota\to\iota$ because + has type $\iota\:\iota\to\iota$. But type inference in the absence of annotations is an absolute requirement, so clearly I need to go back to the drawing board. I have an idea for another approach to pursue, though, and will blog about it if it works out. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Purdy
    Jun 13, 2012 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ The stack types quantify over stack fragments, so there is no problem dealing with two argument functions. I'm not sure how this applies to dup +, as that does not use compose, as you defined it above. $\endgroup$ Jun 13, 2012 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ Er, right, I meant [dup] [+] compose. But I read $\alpha\:B$ as $B\times\alpha$; say $B=\iota\times\iota$; then you have $(\iota\times\iota)\times\alpha$ and not $\iota\times(\iota\times\alpha)$. The nesting isn’t right, unless you flip the stack around so that the top is the last (deepest nested) element. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Purdy
    Jun 13, 2012 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ I may be building my stack in the wrong direction. I don't think the nesting matters, so long as the pairs building up the stack do not appear in the programming language. (I'm planning to update my answer, but need to do a little research first.) $\endgroup$ Jun 13, 2012 at 18:18
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, nesting is pretty much an implementation detail. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Purdy
    Jun 13, 2012 at 19:23

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