Functional programming with fewer indirections
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Sixten is an experimental functional programming language where all data is unboxed by default. Functional programming with fewer indirections!

Below follow some of Sixten's features that work now.

Unboxed stack- or heap-allocated data types

We can define a new type of tuples of two given types as:

type Pair a b = MkPair a b

We can then use the constructor MkPair to construct a pair. As an example, MkPair 610 "Sixten" has type Pair Int String.

The size in memory of Pair a b is the size of a plus the size of b, and the pair is passed in registers or on the stack when used in a function.

On a 64-bit machine, sizeOf Int = 8 and sizeOf (Pair Int Int) = 16.

Nested pairs are also laid out flat in memory: sizeOf (Pair Int (Pair Int Int)) = 24.

With this in mind we can define stack-allocated, flat, unboxed vectors of a given number of elements as:

Vector : Nat -> Type -> Type
Vector Zero _ = Unit
Vector (Succ n) a = Pair a (Vector n a)

Here, Unit is the zero-size type with one inhabitant, and Pair A B the type of unboxed pairs of A and B.

Here's a function that sums a vector of ints:

sum : (n : Nat) -> Vector n Int -> Int
sum Zero MkUnit = 0
sum (Succ n) (MkPair x xs) = addInt x (sum n xs)

The type of heap-allocated vectors is then Ptr (Vector n a), where Ptr is a built-in type of type Type -> Type which returns a boxed version of the argument. For any type t, sizeOf (Ptr t) = 8 on a 64-bit machine. Using Ptr we can define (immutable) arrays, where the length is not visible in the type, as:

type Array a where
  MkArray : (n : Nat) -> Ptr (Vector n a) -> Array a

Another example where Ptr is used is in the type of linked lists:

type List a = Nil | Cons a (Ptr (List a))

Here Ptr makes it explicit that a Cons cell has a pointer to a list. Note that the a is unpacked in Cons (unless it's a Ptr something), so it's an intrusive linked list where the tail pointer is next to the a element in memory.

Algebraic data types and pattern matching

There are two ways to define algebraic data types:

  • ADT-style:
type Maybe a = Nothing | Just a
  • GADT-style:
type Maybe a where
  Nothing : Maybe a
  Just : a -> Maybe a

Pattern matching can be done in clauses and case expressions:

fromMaybe : forall a. a -> Maybe a -> a
fromMaybe def Nothing = def
fromMaybe _ (Just x) = x
fromMaybe' : forall a. a -> Maybe a -> a
fromMaybe' def mx = case mx of
  Nothing -> def
  Just x -> x

In memory, algebraic data types are represented by an integer tag next to a chunk of memory big enough to hold the contents of any of the constructors. If the type has fewer than two constructors it's represented without a tag.

This means that type Unit = MkUnit has size zero, and Maybe A has size tagSize + sizeOf A.

Implicit parameters

The forall keyword introduces implicit parameters in a type:

id : forall a. a -> a
id x = x

Implicit arguments are inferred by usage, so a = Int in id 610. They can also be explicitly specified using @: id @Int 610.

Pi types

The arguments in function types can be named and used in the return type:

sum : (n : Nat) -> Vector n Int -> Int

Type inference

Sixten's type inference is inspired by Practical type inference for arbitrary-rank types.


These are similar to Haskell's type classes.

As an example, here's how to define a Functor class:

class Functor f where
  map : forall a b. (a -> b) -> f a -> f b

type Maybe a = Nothing | Just a

instance Functor Maybe where
  map _ Nothing = Nothing
  map f (Just x) = Just (f x)

Extern C code/FFI

Extern C code can be written in (C| ... |) blocks. Sixten expressions can be spliced into the code with $expr. For example, here's how addition on the built-in type Int can be defined:

addInt : Int -> Int -> Int
addInt x y = (C|
  return $x + $y;

Extern C code blocks are compiled to C functions which are compiled separately. LLVM link-time optimisation is used to minimise function-call overheads.

Compilation to LLVM

This currently uses the Boehm–Demers–Weiser garbage collector for garbage-collecting heap-allocated data.

Planned features

  • Inductive families/indexed types
  • Editor integration (there's already Vim syntax highlighting though!!)
  • Records
  • Effects and IO
  • Standard library
  • Infix and/or mixfix definitions
  • Dedicated garbage collector

See the issues list for more details about what's planned.

Compared to other languages

Sixten is very related to other functional languages such as Haskell, Agda, and Idris. The biggest difference between other languages and Sixten is the way that Sixten allows us to control the memory layout of data.

Most high-level languages with parametrically polymorphic (or generic) data types and functions, even if it is offered under a different name like templates, fall into one of the following two categories:

  1. They use a uniform representation for polymorphic data, which is usually word-sized. If the data is bigger than a word it's represented as a pointer to the data.

  2. They use monomorphisation or template instantiation, meaning that new code is generated statically whenever a polymorphic function is used at a new type.

Neither of these approaches is perfect: With the uniform representation approach we lose control over how our data is laid out in memory, and with the template instantiation approach we lose modularity and polymorphic recursion:

With a uniform representation we cannot for example define polymorphic intrusive linked lists, where the node data is stored next to the list's "next pointer". Given the (Haskell) list definition

data List a = Nil | Cons a (List a)

The representation in memory of the list Cons x (Cons y Nil) in languages with a uniform representation is something like:

     [x]           [y]
      ^             ^
      |             |
[Cons * *]--->[Cons * *]--->[Nil]

We cannot define a polymorphic list whose representation is intrusive:

[Cons x *]--->[Cons y *]--->[Nil]

What we gain from using a uniform representation is modularity: A polymorphic function, say map : forall a b. (a -> b) -> List a -> List b, can be compiled once and used for any types a and b.

With monomorphisation, we are able to define intrusive lists, like in the following C++-like code:

template<typename A>
class List
  A element;
  List<A>* next;

However, unless we know all the types that A will be instantiated with in advance, we have to generate new code for every instantiation of the function, meaning that we have partly lost modular compilation. We also can't have polymorphic recursion since that would require an unbounded number of instantiations. Template instantiation also leads to bigger code since it generates multiple versions of the same function.

What is gained is the ability to more finely express how our data is laid out in memory, which for instance means that we can write code that is cache-aware and which uses fewer memory allocations.

Sixten gives us both: it allows us to control the memory layout of our data all the while retaining modularity.

The definition of the list type in Sixten is

type List a = Nil | Cons a (Ptr (List a))

The difference between Sixten and (for instance) Haskell is that everything is unboxed by default, meaning that the a field in the Cons constructor is not represented by a pointer to an a, but it is an a. This also means that we have to mark where we actually want pointers with the Ptr type constructor. The Cons constructor has to hold a pointer to the tail of the list because we would otherwise create an infinite-size datatype, which is not allowed in Sixten.

The novel feature that allows this is type representation polymorphism. Types are compiled to their representation in Sixten. In the current implementation of Sixten the representation consists only of the type's size in memory, so e.g. Int is compiled to the integer 8 on a 64-bit system. A polymorphic function like map : forall a b. (a -> b) -> List a -> List b implicitly takes the types a and b as arguments at runtime, and its compiled form makes use of the type representation information to calculate the memory offsets and sizes of its arguments and results that are needed to be representation polymorphic.

This kind of polymorphism is potentially slower than specialised functions since it passes around additional implicit arguments and does more calculation at runtime. Some of this inefficiency should be offset by having better memory layout than systems using uniform representations, meaning better cache behaviour. Also note that type representation polymorphism does not preclude creating specialised versions of functions known to be performance-critical, meaning that we can choose to use monomorphisation when we want to.

Sixten's type representation polymorphism is closely related to research on intensional polymorphism. What sets Sixten apart is the way type representations are used in the compiled code. Sixten doesn't need to use type representations to perform code selection, but rather compiles polymorphic functions to single implementations that leverage the information in the type representation to be general enough to work for all types. Type representations are also not structural in Sixten, but consist simply of the size of the type.


To build Sixten from source, clone this repository and build it using Stack:

 git clone
 cd sixten
 stack build

To install the sixten binary, run:

 stack install

This will install sixten locally, which usually means ~/.local/bin. This path can be added to your PATH environment variable if desired.

To run tests, run:

 stack test

Sixten compilation dependencies

To build Sixten programs, you'll need:

  • LLVM and Clang 6. The --llvm-config flag can be used to tell sixten where to look for these.
  • The Boehm–Demers–Weiser garbage collector library.
  • pkg-config (used to find the Boehm–Demers–Weiser GC library).

Bash command completion

With sixten in your PATH, add the following to your .bashrc to get completion for the sixten command:

source <(sixten --bash-completion-script `which sixten`)


Does this sound interesting to you? Get involved and help shape the Sixten language! Contributions are always welcome.

If want to get in touch, create a Github issue or join the Gitter chat.

Please read the code of conduct.


Olle Fredriksson

Victor Borja

Varun Gandhi

Brandon Hamilton

He Tao

Dan Rosén