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One day I wanted to see what I can do with 1k lines of C and decided to write a Lisp interpreter. That turned to be a fun weekend project, and the outcome is a mini lisp implementation that supports

  • integers, symbols, cons cells,
  • global variables,
  • lexically-scoped local variables,
  • closures,
  • if conditional,
  • primitive functions, such as +, =, <, or list,
  • user-defined functions,
  • a macro system,
  • and a copying garbage collector.

All those in 1000 lines of C. I didn't sacrifice readability for size. The code is in my opinion heavily commented to help the reader understand how all these features work.


$ make

MiniLisp has been tested on Linux x86/x86-64 and 64 bit Mac OS. The code is not very architecture dependent, so you should be able to compile and run on other Unix-like operating systems.


MiniLisp comes with a comprehensive test suite. In order to run the tests, give "test" argument to make.

$ make test

Language features

MiniLisp is a traditional Lisp interpreter. It reads one expression at a time from the standard input, evaluates it, and then prints out the return value of the expression. Here is an example of a valid input.

(+ 1 2)

The above expression prints "3".


MiniLisp supports integer literals, (), t, symbols, and list literals.

  • Integer literals are positive or negative integers.
  • () is the only false value. It also represents the empty list.
  • t is a predefined variable evaluated to itself. It's a preferred way to represent a true value, while any non-() value is considered to be true.
  • Symbols are objects with unique name. They are used to represent identifiers. Because MiniLisp does not have string type, symbols are sometimes used as a substitute for strings too.
  • List literals are cons cells. It's either a regular list whose last element's cdr is () or an dotted list ending with any non-() value. A dotted list is written as (a . b).

List operators

cons takes two arguments and returns a new cons cell, making the first argument the car, and the second the cdr.

(cons 'a 'b)   ; -> (a . b)
(cons 'a '(b)) ; -> (a b)

car and cdr are accessors for cons cells. car returns the car, and cdr returns the cdr.

(car '(a . b)) ; -> a
(cdr '(a . b)) ; -> b

setcar mutates a cons cell. setcar takes two arguments, assuming the first argument is a cons cell. It sets the second argument's value to the cons cell's car.

(define cell (cons 'a 'b))
cell  ; -> (a . b)
(setcar cell 'x)
cell  ; -> (x . b)

Numeric operators

+ returns the sum of the arguments.

(+ 1)      ; -> 1
(+ 1 2)    ; -> 3
(+ 1 2 3)  ; -> 6

- negates the value of the argument if only one argument is given.

(- 3)      ; -> -3
(- -5)     ; -> 5

If multiple arguments are given, - subtracts each argument from the first one.

(- 5 2)    ; -> 3
(- 5 2 7)  ; -> -4

= takes two arguments and returns t if the two are the same integer.

(= 11 11)  ; -> t
(= 11 6)   ; -> ()

< takes two arguments and returns t if the first argument is smaller than the second.

(< 2 3)    ; -> t
(< 3 3)    ; -> ()
(< 4 3)    ; -> ()


(if cond then else) is the only conditional in the language. It first evaluates cond. If the result is a true value, then is evaluated. Otherwise else is evaluated.


(while cond expr ...) executes expr ... until cond is evaluated to (). This is the only loop supported by MiniLisp.

If you are familiar with Scheme, you might be wondering if you could write a loop by tail recursion in MiniLisp. The answer is no. Tail calls consume stack space in MiniLisp, so a loop written as recursion will fail with the memory exhaustion error.

Equivalence test operators

eq takes two arguments and returns t if the objects are the same. What eq really does is a pointer comparison, so two objects happened to have the same contents but actually different are considered to not be the same by eq.

Output operators

println prints a given object to the standard output.

(println 3)               ; prints "3"
(println '(hello world))  ; prints "(hello world)"


MiniLisp supports variables and functions. They can be defined using define.

(define a (+ 1 2))
(+ a a)   ; -> 6

There are two ways to define a function. One way is to use a special form lambda. (lambda (args ...) expr ...) returns a function object which you can assign to a variable using define.

(define double (lambda (x) (+ x x)))
(double 6)                ; -> 12
((lambda (x) (+ x x)) 6)  ; do the same thing without assignment

The other way is defun. (defun fn (args ...) expr ...) is short for (define fn (lambda (args ...) expr ...).

;; Define "double" using defun
(defun double (x) (+ x x))

You can write a function that takes variable number of arguments. If the parameter list is a dotted list, the remaining arguments are bound to the last parameter as a list.

(defun fn (expr . rest) rest)
(fn 1)     ; -> ()
(fn 1 2 3) ; -> (2 3)

Variables are lexically scoped and have indefinite extent. References to "outer" variables remain valid even after the function that created the variables returns.

;; A countup function. We use lambda to introduce local variables because we
;; do not have "let" and the like.
(define counter
  ((lambda (count)
     (lambda ()
       (setq count (+ count 1))

(counter)  ; -> 1
(counter)  ; -> 2

;; This will not return 12345 but 3. Variable "count" in counter function
;; is resolved based on its lexical context rather than dynamic context.
((lambda (count) (counter)) 12345)  ; -> 3

setq sets a new value to an existing variable. It's an error if the variable is not defined.

(define val (+ 3 5))
(setq val (+ val 1))  ; increment "val"


Macros look similar to functions, but they are different that macros take an expression as input and returns a new expression as output. (defmacro macro-name (args ...) body ...) defines a macro. Here is an example.

(defmacro unless (condition expr)
  (list 'if condition () expr))

The above defmacro defines a new macro unless. unless is a new conditional which evaluates expr unless condition is a true value. You cannot do the same thing with a function because all the arguments would be evaluated before the control is passed to the function.

(define x 0)
(unless (= x 0) '(x is not 0))  ; -> ()
(unless (= x 1) '(x is not 1))  ; -> (x is not 1)

macroexpand is a convenient special form to see the expanded form of a macro.

(macroexpand (unless (= x 1) '(x is not 1)))
;; -> (if (= x 1) () (quote (x is not 1)))

gensym creates a new symbol which will never be eq to any other symbol other than itself. Useful for writing a macro that introduces new identifiers.

(gensym)   ; -> a new symbol


As in the traditional Lisp syntax, ; (semicolon) starts a single line comment. The comment continues to the end of line.

No GC Branch

There is a MiniLisp branch from which the code for garbage collection has been stripped. The accepted language is the same, but the code is simpler than the master branch's one. The reader might want to read the nogc branch first, then proceed to the master branch, to understand the code step by step.

The nogc branch is available at nogc. The original is available at master.


A readable lisp in less than 1k lines of C






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