hisham hm

🔗 Compiler versus Transpiler: what is a compiler, anyway?

Teal was featured on HN today, and one of the comments was questioning the fact that the documentation states that it “compiles Teal into Lua”:

We need better and more rigorous terms in computing science. This use of the compiler word blurs the meaning of interpreted vs compiled languages.

I was under the assumption that it would generate executable machine code, not Lua source code.

I thought that was worth replying to because it allowed to dispel two misconceptions at once.

First, if we want to be rigorous about computer science terms, calling it “interpreted vs compiled languages” is a misnomer, because being interpreted or compiled is not a property of the language, but of the implementation. There have been things such as a C interpreter and an ahead-of-time compiler for PHP which generates machine code.

But then, we get to the main course, the use of “compiler”.

The definition of compiler has never assumed generating executable machine code. Already in the 1970s, Pascal compilers have generated P-code (a form of “bytecode” in Java parlance), which was then interpreted. In the 1980s, Turbo Pascal produced machine code directly.

I’ve seen the neologism “transpiler” being very frowned upon by the academic programming language community precisely because a compiler is a compiler, no matter the output language — my use of “compiler” there was precisely because of my academic background.

I remember people joking around on Academic PL Twitter jokingly calling it the “t-word” even. I just did a quick Twitter search to see if I could find it, and I found a bunch of references dating from 2014 (though I won’t go linking people’s tweets here). But that shows how out-of-date this blog post is! Academia has pretty much settled on not using the “compiler” vs. “transpiler” definition at all by now.

I don’t mind the term “transpiler” myself if it helps non-academics understand it’s a source-to-source compiler, but then, you don’t see people calling the Nim compiler, which generates C code then compiles it into machine code, a “transpiler”, even though it is a source-to-source compiler.

In the end, “compiler” is the all-encompassing term for a program that takes code in one language and produces code in another, be it high-level or machine language — and yes, that means that pedentically an assembler is a compiler as well (but we don’t want to be pedantic, right? RIGHT?). And since we’re talking assembler, most C compilers do not generate executable machine code either: gcc produces assembly, which is then turned into machine code by gas. So gcc is a source-to-source compiler? Is Turbo Pascal more of a compiler than gcc? I could just as well add an output step in the Teal compiler to produce an executable in the output using the same techniques of the Pascal compilers of the 70s. I don’t think that would make it more or less of a compiler.

As you can see, the distinction of “what is a transpiler” reduces to “what is source code” or “what is a high-level language”, the latter especially having a very fuzzy definition, so in the end my sociological observation on the uses of “transpiler” vs. “compiler” tends to boil down to people’s prejudices of “what makes it a Real, Hardcore Compiler”. But being a “transpiler” or not doesn’t say anything about the project’s “hardcoreness” either — I’m sure the TypeScript compiler which generates JavaScript is a lot more complex than a lot of compilers out there which generate machine code.


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