Honza Pokorný

A personal blog

Building a Lisp to Javascript compiler

In this post, I’m going to show you how I made a Lisp to Javascript compiler. I really enjoy programming in Clojure but have often thought that the JVM isn’t always the best platform for scripts due to the slow JVM start-up. So, I decided to implement a simple version of Clojure that compiles to Javascript and can be run on top of nodejs.

Compilers are notoriously hard to understand and therefore make for great mind-bending exercises. Exactly my idea of weekend fun.

What we are going to do

There are tons of Lisp to Javascript compilers out there. What makes mine special? I’m using a PEG grammar to parse the source code. Once it’s parsed, I turn the result into a Parser API compatible AST. The AST is then passed to escodegen which turns it into well-formatted Javascript.

This is great because I don’t have to worry about the particulars of Javascript syntax. Escodegen takes care of inserting semicolons where appropriate, etc. and everything looks clean and consistent. It’s nice because the parsing is decoupled from the source code emission. You can completely remove the Javascript generation part and use some other software to do that.

Lisp basics

If you are familiar with Lisp, you can skip this section.

Lisp source code is made up of s-expressions. An s-expression is a list whose first element is a function and the rest are the arguments to that function.

(greet "honza")

This is a list with two items. greet is the name of the function and "honza" is the argument. In other languages, this might be represented as greet("honza").

Lisp uses s-expressions for everything, including function definitions, if statements, assignments, binary expressions, etc.

(def name "honza") ;; define a variable "name" and assign "honza" to it
(+ 1 2)            ;; add 1 and 2 and return the result

;; If the name variable is equal to "honza", print "hey honza", otherwise,
;; just print "hey stranger".

(if (= name "honza")
  (print "hey honza")
  (print "hey stranger"))

;; Function definition; it takes one parameter called "name".

(def greet
  (fn [name]
    (println "hello" name)))

In Lisp, a function body can have multiple s-expression but only the last one is returned. There is no return keyword in Lisp. Binary operators and things like the if keyword are actually functions that return values.

The mighty PEG

Every PEG grammar starts with the program directive. This is where the parser will start parsing.

  = s:sexp+ "\n"*  { return {
      type: 'Program',
      body: s

A Lisp program consists of one or more s-expressions, optionally followed by a newline. The list of one or more s-expressions is stored in the variable s. We then return a Javascript object with two properties: type and body. Since we are at the top level, we return it as a type of Program, and our body will be made up of the matched s-expressions. The syntax is a little weird at first but you get used to it. Fairly simple stuff.

If you tried to compile this grammar into a parser, it would fail because we didn’t tell it what an s-expression looks like.

  = _ a:atom _ { return a; }
  / _ l:list _ { return l; }
  / _ v:vector _ { return v; }
  / _ o:object _ { return o; }

OK, so an s-expression is either an atom, a list, a vector or an object. Each of these can be preceded and followed by any amount of whitespace. Cool, that’s simple enough. Except now we have to define what all those things are.

Let’s start with the atom:

  = d:[0-9]+ _ { return {type: 'Literal', value: numberify(d)}; }
  / '"' d:(!'"' sourcechar)* '"' _ { return {type: 'Literal', value: makeStr(d) }}
  / s:[-+/\*_<>=a-zA-Z\.!]+ _ { return {type: 'Identifier', name: s.join("")};}

So, an atom can be a list of one or more digits, a string or a valid identifier. In the digit directive, you will notice that we are assigning the number to the d variable. This will contain a list of all of the matched numbers. We then concatenate them and parse them into an integer. That’s what the numberify function does. A number or a string is a literal value so we return it as such. An identifier is a variable name, so we return it as such, too.

Next up, vectors and objects:

  = "[]" { return {type: 'ArrayExpression', elements: []}; }
  / _ "[" _ a:atom+ _ "]" _ { return {type: 'ArrayExpression', elements: a};}
  / _ "[" _ o:object+ _ "]" _ { return {type: 'ArrayExpression', elements: o};}

  = "{}" { return {type: 'ObjectExpression', properties: []}; }
  / _ "{" _ a:atom+ _ "}" _ { return makeObject(a); }

Continuing in the same vein, a vector is either an empty array, an array with at least one atom in it, or an array with at least one object in it.

The makeObject function will take a pair by pair from the array and take the first item in the pair and turn it into an object key and set as its value to the second item in the pair. If the number of elements in the array isn’t divisible by 2, it will yell at you.

Next up, lists. Now, lists are special because the first item is the name of a function. This gives us the opportunity to define some built-in functions that would otherwise be really tricky to define.

  = "()" { return []; }
  /  _ "(" _ s:sexp+ _ ")" _ {
    if (first(s).name === 'def') {
      return {
        type: 'VariableDeclaration',
        declarations: [{
          type: 'VariableDeclarator',
          id: s[1],
          init: s[2].expression? s[2].expression : s[2]
        kind: 'var'

    if (first(s).name === 'fn') {
      return {
        type: 'FunctionExpression',
        id: null,
        params: s[1].elements ? s[1].elements : s[1],
        body: {
          type: 'BlockStatement',
          body: init(rest(rest((s)))).concat(returnStatement(last(rest(s))))

    if (Object.keys(builtins).indexOf(first(s).name) > -1) {
      return builtins[first(s).name](rest(s));

    return processCallExpression(s);


OK, there is quite a bit here, so let’s step through it. A list can be

an empty list

a list of at least one s-expression

If it’s an empty list, we just return an empty array. If it’s a list of s-expressions, we check for other things. We look at the first element and see what its name is. It can be either:

def - variable declaration

fn - an anonymous function

a built-in function (if, +, list, etc.)

other function (user defined)

The only thing left is the definition of whitespace

  = [\n, ]*

Zero or more of the following characters: newline, comma and space.


When converting the parsed source code to the Parser API tree, I hit a few obstacles. It turns out that Lisp and Javascript don’t map perfectly to each other and therefore some post-processing is needed.

Statement vs expression

In Lisp, everything is an expression. In Javascript, there are both expressions and statements. The hardest part is the fact that a function call can be both a statement and an expression depending on how it’s used. So you can’t represent it the same way every time.

I wrote a function that takes a list which represents an s-expression (the first element is a function call, the rest are the parameters).

function processCallExpression(s) {
  var callee = first(s),
      args = rest(s)

  args = map(function(s) {
    if (s.expression && s.expression.type === 'CallExpression') {
      return s.expression;
    } else {
      return s;
  }, args);

  return {
    type: 'ExpressionStatement',
    expression: {
      type: 'CallExpression',
      callee: callee,
      'arguments': args


This will check if any of the arguments passed to the function are also function calls. If it’s a nested function call, it’s placed in the AST as a CallExpression, otherwise it’s a CallExpression inside a ExpressionStatement. The PEG parser can’t detect this because it’s context free - each node only knows about itself.

Implicit return

In Lisp, the last s-expression in a function’s body is implicitly returned. You don’t need to denote this with a return statement, it’s built-in. Again, we need to do some more processing. If we are processing a function declaration, we need to check its body and wrap the last expression in a ReturnStatement.

If is an expression in Lisp

The if statement in Lisp is an expression, just like a function call or anything else. This means that the expression in any of the two branches is effectively returned to the caller. This means that we need to add an extra wrapper around the statement and wrap each of the branch-expressions in a return statement.

Like this:

// this

if (n === 0) {
  return "it's zero";
} else {
  return "it's more than zero";

// becomes

(function() {
  if (n === 0) {
    return "it's zero";
  } else {
    return "it's more than zero";

Standard library

A lisp would be no fun without some fun functional programming functions. I have started working on a standard library for our lisp. It lives in a file called lib.js. This file includes functions that are accessible from any program that you write.

For example:

function nth(list, n) {
    if (list.length && list.length + 1 < n) {
        return null;

    return list[n];

function first(list) {
    return nth(list, 0);

And much more.

Putting it all together

Here is how it all comes together:

Use peg.js to compile the grammar into a parser

Take the parser and append to it the compiler program

The compiler program is the command line utility that decides how your program should be compiled, it parsers CLI flags, etc. It can return the AST instead of Javascript, it can uglify the resulting Javascript, etc.

You can use the result like so

$ ./inertia sample.clj

And it will print the resulting Javascript to stdout. What the compiler program will also do is prepend the compiled Javascript with the standard library. It simply reads the standard library code from the lib.js file and prepends it.


This has certainly been a fun exercise for me. You can check out the finished product on GitHub.

This article was first published on May 13, 2013. As you can see, there are no comments. I invite you to email me with your comments, criticisms, and other suggestions. Even better, write your own article as a response. Blogging is awesome.