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Would you call this a compiler, an interpreter, a virtual machine, a scripting engine, or a combination of those?



It compiles a c subset to byte code, then executes in a virtual machine. I think generally an intepreter can refer to either a byte code interpreter (ie virtual machine) or an AST walking interpreter. I didn't see a way to embed c4 into a host language, so maybe not a scripting language?

IMO the real value of exhibits like this are boiling the problem (lexing, parsing, compiler, interpreting) down to their most basic parts. One could easily imagine this same language being implemented over 10's or 100's of class files in a more verbose language.


I think generally an intepreter can refer to either a byte code interpreter (ie virtual machine) or an AST walking interpreter.

This brings to mind how fuzzy "interpreter" is as terminology. What is a virtual machine that JIT compiles the byte code or the AST? Is it a JIT implementation of an interpreter? What of implementations that only JIT the most frequently used functions? Wouldn't those be half interpreter and half virtual machine?

When it comes down to it, they're all really virtual machines. The real distinction is how we've come to think of different implementations and the representations sub-culturally. For some reason, it makes us feel better when we call certain things interpreters, because of some meaningless (and sometimes factually challenged) competitive instincts concerning implementation speed. (Also, we arbitrarily feel that byte code is somehow more "machine-y" than an AST.)

So do I have a problem with "interpreter"? Only when people correct others, as if they're making a correction about something fundamental and factual. In reality, the distinction is between machines that are intended to have the same runtime semantics and really the distinction is only around what optimizations are present in their implementations. Furthermore, if you look at those optimizations in detail, the distinction gets even hazier.


Most interpreters (not all, but most) are actually a compiler and a VM, yes. The difference between a "compiler" and an "interpreter", in practise, seems to be that "compilers" lack a built-in interpreter.


Most static language compilers include an interpreter for constant expressions at a minimum, because otherwise statically allocating things like arrays is a bit tricky. Handily, this interpreter can be reused for constant folding.

C++ compilers nowadays necessarily include a Turing complete interpreter.


C has one in the preprocessor, to do platform-independent conditionals.


That's another very good point. One can just as well think of the VisualWorks Smalltalk VM as a compiler (which is actually implemented in Smalltalk) with an interpreter+JIT which also functions as a linker. This means, one can also think of Smalltalk as a compiled language with lots of late binding that makes for a more complicated linker. (JIT) Then the part that's a byte code interpreter can be thought of as an "optimization" on the compiler+linker combination. In fact, if you don't want to bother with flexible debugging, you could implement Smalltalk as a compiled language with "fancy linking" and no interpretation at all.

Any interpreter vs. VM distinction is mostly a social construct. Looked at technically, it's a mishmash.


Also, a linker is very similar to a simple garbage collector: it follows code references, marking blocks as it goes (physically allocated in the final output), and adding the references in those blocks to its current list of references to resolve, until it runs out of references to resolve (done) or fails to resolve a reference (link error). All the references then need to be patched up according to their final address, very similar to a GC fixing up memory references.




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