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Getting Started with the Parrot Compiler Tools


This document can be considered your Number One entry point for starting to use the Parrot Compiler Tools (PCT). There will be a whole lot of acronyms flying around. Consult Parrot's glossary about them. This document will get you up and running within 10 minutes (that excludes building Parrot). Once you begin, it's a matter of getting your hands dirty and get experienced using the tools. Feel free to ask questions in the #parrot channel on .


Getting started using the PCT is easy. The steps are:

  • download and build Parrot

  • generate a language stub

  • customize your language

The acronyms you will encounter, are:

  • PASM

    Stands for Parrot Assembly language, and is a textual form of the bytecodes that Parrot is running. PASM's syntax is very primitive, which is a pain to write, which is why Parrot has something called PIR.

  • PIR

    Stands for Parrot Intermediate Representation. This is a fancy layer of syntactic sugar on top of PASM. If you program Parrot natively, you write in PIR. Other documents discuss PIR syntax, for instance

  • PGE

    Stands for Parrot Grammar Engine, and is the regular expression engine of Parrot. It is written in PIR. Regular expressions in Perl 6 are more powerful than Perl 5's regexes, as you can write language grammars more easily. These regular expressions are written in Perl 6 rules. See Perl 6 synopsis 5 (S05, at for the syntax of Perl 6 rules. A grammar is processed by PGE to create a language parser. The grammar can contain special tokens that look like {*} and invoke a subroutine by the same name as the current rule. These invoked subroutines are commonly called actions.

  • NQP

    Stands for Not Quite Perl, and is a subset of Perl 6. Yeah, that's right, you can already program in Perl 6 today (well, if you're happy with a simpler version of the language). NQP is implemented in PIR. The reason for building NQP was that it makes writing the parse actions (see PGE) a whole lot easier. Although PIR is a neat language, it's still quite primitive.

  • PAST

    PAST stands for Parrot Abstract Syntax Tree, and is a library of classes that define the nodes for abstract syntax trees. Typical node types are PAST::Val representing literal values (such as 42, "Hello World", etc.) and PAST::Var which represents variables (for instance when writing my $var; in Perl 6). The parse actions discussed earlier can construct these PAST nodes, so that at the end of the parse, you have a complete abstract syntax tree representing the program you compiled.

  • POST

    Stands for Parrot Opcode Syntax Tree, and is another library of classes that define the nodes for so-called opcode syntax trees. For this beginner's guide you can forget about it, but at some point you'll see the term POST. Just forget about it for now.

Now we discussed the most important acronyms, it's time to get up and running.

Download and Build Parrot

Get Parrot from and build it. If you're lucky and you have a fast computer, it should be done within 5 minutes. It's always useful to run the test suite by typing:

$ make test

Generate a Language Stub

There's a special script for newcomers: tools/dev/ Invoke it from Parrot's root directory:

$ perl tools/dev/mk_language_shell language location

For instance, if you want to create a language called Foo in the directory languages/foo, type:

$ perl tools/dev/mk_language_shell Foo languages/foo

This will create a complete language that compiles out of the box. You first need to run the Configure.PL Perl script to generate the Makefile. Then you can run make and make test.

$ cd languages/foo
$ perl
$ make
$ make test

Yes, that's right, there's even a test file already created for you. This makes setting up the tests for your language very easy!

The generated directories and files have the following structure:

   /                # configuration script
   /config/makefiles/    # input for the Makefile generator
                                # as long as you don't add source files,
                                # there's no need to update this file.
              /       # the language's grammar rules; a file
              /       # containing the parse actions;
              /  # file containing a default operator table.

                /say.pir        # a file containing a built-in function

                /foo.pmc        # file defining vtable functions 

                /foo.ops        # file defining opcodes 
                                # TODO: add more "standard library" routines here
     /00-sanity.t               # a test file
     /harness                   # file to set up the test framework
                                # more tests can be added here

   /foo.pir                     # file containing the main routine
   /README                      # an almost empty readme file
   /STATUS                      # an almost empty status file
   /MAINTAINER                  # a file for you to add your details to

When you want to run a script through your language's compiler, (assuming you're in your language's directory, in this case languages/foo) type:

$ ../../parrot foo.pbc

You can give an command line option to your compiler which specifies what kind of output you want. This is the target option:

$ ../../parrot foo.pbc --target=pir

this will print the generated PIR instructions to stdout. Other options for the target option are parse, past, and post.

Customize Your Language

You probably have some language syntax in mind to implement. Note that the grammar defined in the file languages/foo/src/parser/ and the parse actions in the file languages/foo/src/parser/ are closely related (especially note the names of the action methods). It's very important to update the methods accordingly if you change the grammar rules.


This section describes some common error messages and how to resolve them. This is a work in progress, so you might not find your issue/solution here. If you have anything new to add, please send a patch (or an email) to

  • no result object

    This is the case when you try to retrieve the result object from a subrule, but the subrule's action didn't set a result object using the make command. Check whether there's an action invocation token {*} in the subrule and whether that subrule's action has a make command.



The following documents might be useful to learn more:

Other Languages

You can also have a look at some existing languages that are being developed using the PCT, all located in the languages subdirectory of Parrot. These are: perl6 (commonly referred to as Rakudo), lua (see the "pct" in lua directory), ecmascript (a standardized JavaScript), punie (Perl 1 on Parrot), pynie (Python on Parrot), and cardinal (Ruby on Parrot).


Everyday, a bunch of Parrot enthusiasts can be found on #parrot on You're welcome to ask questions.


If you have suggestions, improvements, tips or complaints about this document, please send an email to