Language Design Notes 1: A Precise Typeclass Scheme

This is the second post in my Language Design Notes series.

This instalment is a bit particular, as it outlines pretty precisely (though not formally) a way to implement typeclasses in an imaginary (and for the most part, unspecified) language. Nothing much is assumed about the language — it isn't assumed to be purely functional for instance. The syntax is taken to look a bit like Python (using significant indentation).

Some context about why I wrote this, lifted from the the series index:

As I started thinking about typeclasses more, I found the need to write down some form of specification of the system I was imagining, so that I could refer to other parts of the design, and see if it was consistent.

I found the need to be fairly precise. Or maybe I just got carried away... but I think the precision really helps throw in relief the small details that threaten the consistency and elegance of the whole. Anyhow, this ended up looking more like a specification than a nice explanative article, although I tried to include enough examples.

It's not perfect, but as discussed earlier, I want thing to move forward, so here it is!

And that being said, let's dive right in!

Declaring Typeclasses and Instances

This is how you declare a single-parameter typeclass:

class Serializable $T
    fun serialize (it: $T): String
    fun deserialize (str: String): $T

$T is a generic type. Generic types all start with a dollar sign. This makes them easy to pick out and avoids namespace clashes with regular types. It also dispenses us from declaring which types are generic separately. This is not a problem for typeclass declarations, but it is for function declaration, where generic types may be mingled with normal types.

For instance, java lists the generic types before the function signature:

<T> String serialize (T it);

Haskell uses the scheme we propose, but with lowercase letters for generic types. We'd like to keep lowercase letters for things in the domain of values, while things in the domain of types are capitalized. (That being said, types will also be first-class values in our language.)

This is how you create an instance of a single-parameter typeclass for a type called Point:

instance Serializable Point
    fun serialize (it: Point): String
        return it.x + "," + it.y
    fun deserialize (str: String): Point
        val strs = str.split(",")
        return Point(parse_int(strs[0]), parse_int(strs[1]))

Here is how you declare a multiple-parameter typeclass:


class Orderable $X $Y
    fun order (x: $X, y: $Y): Order

Here is how you create an instance of a multiple-parameter typeclass for types String and Char:

instance Orderable String Char
    fun order (x: String, y: Char): Order
        if x.size == 0
            return SMALLER
        if x[0] == y
            return x.size == 1 ? EQUAL : BIGGER
            return x[0] > y ? BIGGER : SMALLER

Note that both type parameters of Orderable can be the same type:

instance Orderable Int Int
    fun order (x: Int, y: Int): Order
        if (x > y) return BIGGER
        if (x < y) return SMALLER
        return EQUAL

Instances Names

Every instance must have a name. A subsequent section (Picking Instances) will explain why names are needed, but for the moment bear with me.

If a name is not given explicitly, it will be generated automatically. For instance, our Serializable instance for Point will be called Serializable_Point.

We can also give a name explicitly. Imagine we want to serialize points using slashes (/) because of an obscure data format we use:

instance PointSlash: Serializable Point
    fun serialize (it: Point): String
        return it.x + "/" + it.y
    fun deserialize (str: String): Point
        val strs = str.split("/")
        return Point(parse_int(strs[0]), parse_int(strs[1]))

(The definition is the same as Serializable_Point, except the comma has been replaced by a slash.)

This instance will be called PointSlash. It will not receive an automatically generated name.

The scheme to build automatic names for multiple-parameter typeclasses is what you'd expect , e.g. Orderable_Int_Int.

Deriving Typeclasses Automatically

We can derive a typeclass instance from the existence of another typeclass as follows:

derive instance Orderable $X $Y
        from Reverse: Orderable $Y $X
    fun order (x: $X, y: $Y): Order
        val rev = Reverse.order(y, x)
        if (rev == BIGGER)  return SMALLER
        if (rev == SMALLER) return BIGGER
        return EQUAL

We call this declaration an instance derivation. The instance that will fullfill the from-clause is called the source instance. The instance derived from a specific source instance is simply known as a derived instance.

Instance selection will always prefer an explicit instance rather than a derived instance when both are in the same scope. So our derived Orderable instance does not cause issues when $X and $Y are the same type. We'll talk about this more in the Type Derivations and Instance Selection section.

Just like instances, instance derivations have names. Similarly, they can have explicit names:

derive instance Reversed: Orderable $X $Y
        from Reverse: Orderable $Y $X
    // ...

But otherwise an automatic name is attributed. For our example, the name would be Orderable_$X_$Y_from_Orderable_$Y_$X.

A single derivation can yield many different instances. There will of course be instances with different type arguments, but also instances using a different source instance.

Source instances can be given a name (Reverse in our example) or have a name assigned automatically — it would be Orderable_$X_$Y in our example). This, however, is not the true name of the source instance — which is simply the name of whatever instance is selected to fullfill the role of the source instance. Rather it's an alias that can be used within the definition of the type derivation. It may happens that this name clashes with previously declared names. In this case, this name shadows the previous declaration, for the duration of the type derivation definition. It will be possible to access file-levels and imported names by prefixing them with a module name — see next section.

While we don't declare derived instances explicitly, they also have names! These are derived by treating the name of the derivation as a function of the source instance, e.g. Reversed(Orderable_Int_Int)

Importing Typeclasses and Instances

In this imaginary language, I've decided not to specify explicitly how things can become imported.

Having nevertheless given it some thought, it appears clear that importing all instances explicitly would be cumbersome. One could therefore suppose that typeclass instances will get imported implicitly.

For instance, we could imagine that if we import a set of types from a file, then all typeclass instances in the file for that set of types would get imported implicitly.

An instance is said to be in scope of some code if they're declared in the same file, or if they've been imported (explicitly or implicitly).

I imagine that this system will rely on a notion of module.

As such, it will be possible to prefix of an instance or type derivation by the name of its defining module — with the special keyword self designating the current module. e.g. self.Serializable_Point or my_module.Serializable_Point.

Default Functions

Typeclass definitions are free to provide default implementations for the functions they declare. Such a default definition can always be overidden in the typeclass instances — otherwise it should just be a normal function and not a typeclass function!

For instance, the following class includes a default implementation for receive_all in terms of its other function receive.

class Receiver $T $X
    fun receive (it: $T, item: $X)
    fun receive_all (it: $T, items: List[$T])
        for item in items:
            receive(it, item)

It's even possible to have two functions in terms of one another — the user implementing the instance will have to override at least one of them.

(It would be possible to add language-level support to defining such sets of functions, at least one of which needs to be overriden, but I'm not sure the benefits are worth the conceptual overhead.)

There are essentially two ways to implement default methods. The first is for them to be some kind of template, specialized for and copied into each instance that does not override them. The second is to use a late binding mechanism, which can be especially interesting if the implementation targets supports it (e.g. the JVM).

Typeclass Constraints

There are two places where it's possible to constrain types based on whether they possess a typeclass instance: method definition and typeclass declarations.

Here is a method with a typeclass constraint:

fun foo (it: $T) where Serializable $T

And here is a typeclass with a constraint:

class Reducible $T $X
        where Sequential: Sequence $T $X
    fun reduce (it: $T): $X

The function's constraint prevents us from calling foo with a type $T that does not have a corresponding Serializable $T instance.

Similarly, the typeclass' constraint prevents us from instanciating Reducible for pair of types that do not have a corresponding Sequence $T $X instance.

We call instances that satisfy a function's constraints the call instances, and the instances that satisfy a typeclass's constraint the required instances.

Sometimes, a typeclass with a type constraint can be very close to a type derivation, especially when the typeclass defines default implementations for all its functions. The big difference is that a class must still be implemented explicitly — an implementation has to be requested even if no functions have to be implemented. A derivation, on the other hand, is always "active".

Just like for source instances in type derivations (cf. the Deriving Typeclasses Automatically section), the required instances may be named and have otherwise an automatically generated name. This is not the "true" instance name, but a local alias that may shadow previous declarations.

The other big difference between typeclass declarations with type constraints and type derivations is when instance selection occurs. We'll come back to it in the Type Constraints vs Type Derivations section.

Picking Instances

During the execution of our program, there are a couple times when instances will need to be picked.

Fortunately, all types of instance selections are similar, and follow the same rules. In each case, we know the typeclass we want to provide an instance for, and we have to select that instance from those that are in scope and fit the bill (or emit an error if no instance will do).

If there is only one instance that works, the language will know to pick it. But if there are ambiguities, it needs to decide on a particular instance, based on hints supplied by the programmer.

We'll explain the instance selection rules using direct instance selection, and add precisions for other types of selections later, as required.

Direct Instance Selection

Imagine that we import Serializable_Point and PointSlash from before, two instances of Serializable Point.

Small aside: it would be more proper to say "two instances of Serializable for the type Point" — but that's tedious. And what category does Serializable Point even belong to? It's not a typeclass (Serializable is) nor an instance (Serializable_Point is). If we really need a name, we could could this a typeclass specification.

fun foo (it: Point)

Which instance should this code use?

We can select the proper instance in two ways:

  1. Specify the instance to use at the instance selection site:
fun foo (it: Point)
  1. Specify the instance to use in a certain scope (e.g. file or function) with an use declaration.
fun foo (it: Point)
    use PointSlash

Of course, you could do PointSlash.serialize(it) and use Serializable_Point as well.

When your two instances have automatically generated names which therefore clash (i.e. both are named Serializable_Point), you can prefix with module names to disambiguate them (e.g. self.Serializable_Point or my_module.Serializable_Point) — see the Importing Typeclasses and Instances section.

Regarding use, the current plan is that it will be possible to override an use declaration with another, even in the same scope. For instance:

fun foo (it: Point)
    use PointSlash
    use Serializable_Point

Nevertheless, use remains a declaration whose scope is purely static. It is not a statement (and so cannot be guarded by an if statement, etc).

Type Derivations and Instance Selection

Derived instances do complicate the instance selection mechanism somewhat.

The basic issue is relatively simple. If there is a conflict between two instances, and both of these instances can serve as base for the creation of derived instance, then you'll have a conflict there as well.

Consider the following example:

class Named $T
    fun name (it: $T): String
instance UserFirst: Named User
    fun name (it: User): String
        return it.first_name
instance UserLast: Named User
    fun name (it: User): String
        return it.last_name
class Stringifiable $T
    fun to_string (it: $T): String
derive instance Stringifiable $T from Named $T
    fun to_string (it: $T): String
        return name(it)
fun foo (usr: User)

Should foo output the users's first or last name? Say we want the last name.

There is an easy ways to fix that conflict, should write use UserLast. This will have the effect of disambiguating the source instance selection of the type derivation, hence foo will use the Stringifiable instance derived from UserLast.

But what if we add the following?

derive instance ThingNamed: Stringifiable $T
        from Named $T
    fun to_string (it: $T): String
        return "the thing named '" + name(it) + "'"

Now we also need to specify which derivation we want. We can do this in a couple ways:

  1. use ThingNamed — always use the ThingNamed derivation to supply a Stringifiable when a Named instance exists.
  2. ThingNamed.to_string(usr) — specifying the derivation to use explicitly at the use site.
  3. use ThingNamed(UserLast)
  4. ThingNamed(UserLast).to_string(usr)

The first solution is a new form of use which does not specify an instance but an instance derivation!

The second solution is symmetric to the first, we use the derivation instead of an instance at the instance selection site.

The third and fourth solution have nothing novel: we just specify the full instance explicitly.

The first two solutions, however, do require us to have specified use UserLast before! Otherwise, we know to use ThingNamed, but should it use the the UserFirst or UserLast instance?

Using an instance derivation demands source instance selection. This selection may be done manually (as in use ThingNamed(UserLast)) or automatically — if there is no ambiguity or the proper use statements have been made.

Automatic source instance selection may entail a recursion problem when an instance derivation creates a instance of the same kind as its pre-requisite. We already saw a derivation like that:

instance Orderable Int Int
    // ...

// assume we imported this
derive instance Reversed: Orderable $X $Y
        from Reverse: Orderable $Y $X
    // ...

I said earlier:

Instance selection will always prefer an explicit instance rather than a derived instance when both are in the same scope.

That's because I assume that within a single file, you're aware when an explicit and derived instance clash.

But it doesn't work like that when importing one of the two instances. In that case, the policy is to let them clash to bring awareness to the conflict.

If you want the base behaviour, you can do use Orderable_Int_Int and all is well. But if you want the derived behaviour, you can't do use Reversed. Because that would mean the derivation would use itself as Reverse — an infinite recursion. It is therefore a compile-time error.

The solution in this case is simply to do manual source instance selection, i.e. specify the full instance name: use Reversed(Orderable_Int_Int).

Implicit use

We need to add an important precision to what precedes.

Whenever there is a typeclass constraint, the constraint acts like an implicit use statement!

So the following pair of functions are always equivalent:

fun foo1 (it: $T) where Serializable $T

fun foo2 (it: $T) where Serializable $T
    use Serializable_$T

The same principle applies for typeclass' constraints.

Type Constraints vs Type Derivations

When we introduced typeclass' constraints in the Typeclass Constraints section, we said that a big difference between typeclasses with constraints on the one hand, and type derivations on the other hand, was that one must always request a typeclass instances, whereas type derivation are always "active" to generate instances on a by-need basis.

Now we can introduce another big difference that directly falls out from that first difference, namely when instance selection occurs.

Instances that implement a typeclass with type constraints cause the required instances to be captured. This means they're essentially stored inside the instance, and their usage is not dependent on the context in which the instance functions are used.

For type derivations, it's some other instance selection that triggers the source instance selection!

Just like other forms of instance selection, required instance selection is affected by use statements. Manual disambiguation is also possible with the using clause.

class Foo $T requires Named $T
    // ...
instance FooUser User using LastName
    // ...

On occasions, the capture of required instances, might lead to situations that are very slightly unintuitive:

class Reducible $T $X
        where Sequential: Sequence $T $X
    fun reduce (it: $T): $X

// ...

fun foo (seq: $T) where Reducible $T Point, Sequence $T Point

In the above example, there is not guarantee that the instance selected for the function's Sequence $T Point constraint will be the same as the instance selected for the typeclass' constraint!

The first one is selected when the instance satisfying Reducible $T Point is defined, whereas the second is selected when the function foo is called.

Shortcut Notation For Parameter Types

We admit a shortcut notation for uses of unary typeclasses, so thoses two snippets are equivalent:

fun foo (mk_string: $A) where Stringifiable $A
    // ...
fun foo (mk_string: Stringifiable)
    // ...

The second one sure looks nicer!

There are a few reason not to use the shorthand though:

For instance, these two snippets are equivalent:

fun foo (mk_string1: $A, mk_string2 $B)
        where Stringifiable $A, Stringifiable $B
    // ...
fun foo (mk_string1: Stringifiable, mk_string2: Stringifiable)
    // ...

In practice, names will likely need to be attributed to the underlying generic type when using the shortcut notation. The current plan is to use simple sequential identifiers preceded by a reserved string (something like __$A, __$B, ...).

The shortcut notation can also be used for multi-parameter typeclasses, for instance the two following snippets are equivalent:

fun foo (seq: $A) where Sequence $A String
    // ...
fun foo (seq: Sequence[String])
    // ...

If there are more than two parameters to the typeclass, supplemental parameters are separated by a comma:

fun foo (graph: Graph[Node, Edge]) // Graph $A Node Edge
    // ...

This is an example notation anyway, but I'm wondering if using Sequence String and Graph Node Edge wouldn't be more pleasant? If I don't type need type-level operators, maybe I'll do just that.

Empty Typeclasses

One may imagine that we will end up with a lot of typeclasses that define fine-grained behaviours. Some of those will be related by type constraints. It's probably a good idea to make it possible to access required instances from the instance that requires them.

Sometimes, we would like to bundle a couple of instances together, to compose a more precise behaviour contract (which is what a typeclass essentially is) from a bunch of smaller ones.

In that case, a common pattern would be to use an empty typeclass with a list of requirements:

class List $T $X where
    Sequential $T $X,
    Indexable $T $X,
    Iterable $T $X

Assuming we have an instance of this class, we can access the required instances by dot references: ListInstance.Sequential_$T_$X.

We can also bring required instances in scope via some local import statement: import ListInstance.Sequential_$T_$X. Or if we want all of them: import ListInstance.*.

Note that importing the instances brings them in scope. It pointedly does not resolve ambiguities. It is not an use statement! (But you can also supply required instances to use, of course.)


What if you import an instance and the original author hasn't given it a nice name? Fortunately for you, the alias declaration has you covered:

alias PointComma = Serializable_Point

alias work for any kind of names: typeclass derivations, constructed instance names, ...

alias Reversed = Orderable_$X_$Y_from_Orderable_$Y_$X
alias ReversedIntComp = Orderable_$X_$Y_from_Orderable_$Y_$X(Orderable_Int_Int)
// or, using the first allias:
alias ReversedIntComp = Reversed(Orderable_Int_Int)

An alias makes its left and right part interchangeable for code in which the alias is in scope. It's not the same as giving a name to the instance when it's declared: in that case, no automatically generated name is attributed!

What Remains to be Done

This post is long enough as it is (and a dry read besides), so I thought it wise to stop myself here.

There are however a few topics that still need consideration to make for a truly great typeclass system.

First, what in Haskell are called existentials, basically a way to have a type R exists Serializable R meaning that there exists some type X such that an instance of Serializable X exists, but X is not fixed, so that variables of type R can take values with different underlying types.

A value of such a type is a pair of a value and a typeclass (or potentially, a tuple of multiple values and typeclass instances).

Most notably, existentials are necessary to implemented heterogeneous collections as you can be had in most language, e.g. List<Serializable> in Java. Without existentials, it's impossible to specify a list of values with different types who happen to have a corresponding Serializable instance.

The second important thing is to add some mechanism that help with code reuse. In particular, some form of delegation or late binding (e.g. Scala traits) would be neat. Some would advocate that a benefit of type classes is to get rid of that aspect of OO, but I disagree. The problem in OO in general is that permissions are too open by default: non-final clases and methods in Java for instance. As Joshua Bloch puts it in Effective Java:

Design and document for inheritance or else prohibit it.

Well done late binding is effectively a clean way to specify callbacks, potentially with a default behaviour in place. These callbacks may themselves call inside the late bound entity (class or typeclass). Effectively, this saves a lot of plumbing headaches.

There are a couple more things that could go in, but they aren't as essential.

One particular nicety I can think of is a mechanism for type unions. Not only boring unions (like int | String to specify you expect either an integer or a string), but also being able to specify a type R such that there is either an instance of Serializable R or an instance of Stringifyable R (or both!). Similar types intersection are already possible, just by putting multiple constraints on a type.

These type unions make some ad-hoc polymorphism possible, and would be further well served by some form of pattern matching and flow typing.

But all this will have to wait for another day!