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http://www.opengroup.org/onlinepubs/9699919799/ Open Group Base Specifications Issue 7 http://www.opengroup.org/onlinepubs/9699919799/utilities/V3_chap01.html Shell & Utilities It says that any of the standard utilities may be implemented as a regular shell built-in. It gives a list of utilities which are usually implemented that way (and some of them can only be implemented as built-ins, like "alias"): alias bg cd command false fc fg getopts jobs kill newgrp pwd read true umask unalias wait http://www.opengroup.org/onlinepubs/9699919799/utilities/V3_chap02.html Shell Command Language It says that shell must implement special built-ins. Special built-ins differ from regular ones by the fact that variable assignments done on special builtin are *PRESERVED*. That is, VAR=VAL special_builtin; echo $VAR should print VAL. (Another distinction is that an error in special built-in should abort the shell, but this is not such a critical difference, and moreover, at least bash's "set" does not follow this rule, which is even codified in autoconf configure logic now...) List of special builtins: . file : [argument...] break [n] continue [n] eval [argument...] exec [command [argument...]] exit [n] export name[=word]... export -p readonly name[=word]... readonly -p return [n] set [-abCefhmnuvx] [-o option] [argument...] set [+abCefhmnuvx] [+o option] [argument...] set -- [argument...] set -o set +o shift [n] times trap n [condition...] trap [action condition...] unset [-fv] name... In practice, no one uses this obscure feature - none of these builtins gives any special reasons to play such dirty tricks. However. This section also says that *function invocation* should act similar to special built-in. That is, variable assignments done on function invocation should be preserved after function invocation. This is significant: it is not unthinkable to want to run a function with some variables set to special values. But because of the above, it does not work: variable will "leak" out of the function.