Programming with type functions in Ceylon

I’ve recently been working on some experimental new features of Ceylon’s already extremely powerful type system. What I’m going to explain in this post is known, technically, as:

  • higher order generic types (or type constructor polymorphism, or higher kinds), and
  • higher rank generic types (or rank-N polymorphism).

Please don’t worry about this jargon salad. (And please don’t try to google any of those terms, because the explanations you’ll find will only make these pretty straightforward notions seem confusing.) Stick with me, and I’ll do my best to explain the concepts in intuitive terms, without needing any of the above terminology.

But first, let’s start with pair of examples that illustrate a motivating problem.

This function simply returns its argument:

Object pipeObject(Object something) => something;

This function adds Floats:

Float addFloats(Float x, Float y) => x+y;

Modern programming language let us treat either of these functions as a value and pass it around the system. For example, I can write:

Object(Object) pipeObjectFun = pipeObject;


Float(Float,Float) addFloatsFun = addFloats;

Where Object(Object) and Float(Float,Float) represent the types of the functions, and pipeObject and addFloats are a references to the functions. So far so good.

But sometimes it’s useful to have a function that abstracts away from the concrete data type using generics. We introduce a type variable, to represent the “unknown” type of thing we’re dealing with:

Any pipe<Any>(Any anything) => anything;


Number add<Number>(Number x, Number y)
            given Number satisfies Summable<Number>
        => x+y;

Sometimes, as in add(), the unknown type is constrained in some way. We express this using a type constraint:

given Number satisfies Summable<Number>

This is Ceylon’s way of denoting that Number may only be a type which is a subtype of the upper bound Summable<Number>, i.e. that it is a type to which we can apply the addition operator +.

Now, what if I want to pass around a reference to this function. Well, one thing I can typically do is nail down the unknown type to a concrete value:

Object(Object) pipeObjectFun = pipe<Object>;


Float(Float,Float) addFloatsFun = add<Float>;

But that’s a bit disappointing—we’ve lost the fact that add() was generic. Now, in object-oriented languages it’s possible to define the generic function as a member of a class, and pass an instance of the class around the system. This is called the strategy pattern. But it’s inconvenient to have to write a whole class just to encapsulate a function reference.

It would be nicer to be able to write:

TypeOfPipe pipeFun = pipe;


TypeOfAdd addFun = add; 

Where TypeOfPipe and TypeOfAdd are the types of the generic functions. The problem is that there’s no way to represent these types within the type system of most languages. Let’s see how we can do that in Ceylon 1.2.

Introducing type functions

I promised to avoid jargon, and avoid jargon I will. The only bit of terminology we’ll need is the idea of a type function. A type function, as its name implies, is a function that accepts zero or more types, and produces a type. Type functions might seem exotic and abstract at first, but there’s one thing that will help you understand them:

You already know almost everything you need to know about type functions, because almost everything you know about ordinary (value) functions is also true of type functions.

If you stay grounded in the analogy to ordinary functions, you’ll have no problems with the rest of this post, I promise.

So, we all know what an ordinary function looks like:

function addFloats(Float x, Float y) => x+y;

Let’s break that down, we have:

  • the function name, and list of parameters, to the left of a fat arrow, and
  • an expression on the right of the fat arrow.

A type function doesn’t look very different. It has a name and (type) parameters on the left of a fat arrow, and a (type) expression on the right. It looks like this:

alias Pair<Value> => [Value,Value];

Aha! This is something we’ve already seen! So a type function is nothing more than a generic type alias! This particular type function accepts a type, and produces a tuple type, a pair, whose elements are of the given type.

Actually not every type function is a type alias. A generic class or interface is a type function. For example:

interface List<Element> { ... }

This interface declaration accepts a type Element, and produces a type List<Element>, so it’s a type function.

I can call a function by providing values as arguments:

add(1.0, 2.0)

These expressions produce the values "hello" and 3.0.

I can apply a type function by providing types as arguments:


This type expression produces the type [Float,Float], by applying the type function Pair to the type argument Float.

Similarly, I can apply the type function List:


This type expression just literally produces the type List<String>, by applying the type function List to the type argument String.

On the other hand, I can take a reference to a value function by just writing its name, without any arguments, for example, pipe, or add. I can do the same with type functions, writing Pair or List.

Back in the quotidian world of ordinary values, I can write down an anonymous function:

(Float x, Float y) => x+y

In the platonic world of types, I can do that too:

<Value> => [Value,Value]

Finally, an ordinary value function can constrain its arguments using a type annotation like Float x. A type function can do the same thing, albeit with a more cumbersome syntax:

interface List<Element> 
        given Element satisfies Object 
    //define the type list

Even an anonymous type function may have constraints:

<Value> given Value satisfies Object 
        => [Value,Value]

Jargon watch: most people, including me, use the term type constructor instead of “type function”.

Type functions are types

Now we’re going to make a key conceptual leap. Recall that in modern languages, functions are treated as values. I can

  1. take a function, and assign it to a variable, and then
  2. call that variable within the body of the function.

For example:

void secondOrder(Float(Float,Float) fun) {
    print(fun(1.0, 2.0));

//apply to a function reference

//apply to an anonymous function
secondOrder((Float x, Float y) => x+y);

We call functions which accept functions higher order functions.

Similarly, we’re going to declare that type functions are types. That is, I can:

  1. take a type function and assign it to a type variable, and then
  2. apply that type variable in the body of the declaration it parameterizes.

For example:

interface SecondOrder<Box> given Box<Value> {
    shared formal Box<Float> createBox(Float float);

//apply to a generic type alias
SecondOrder<Pair> something;

//apply to a generic interface
SecondOrder<List> somethingElse;

//apply to an anonymous type function
SecondOrder<<Value> => [Value,Value]> somethingScaryLookin;

The type constraint given Box<Value> indicates that the type variable Box accepts type functions with one type argument.

Now, there’s one thing to take note of here. At this point, the notion that type functions are types is a purely formal statement. An axiom that defines what kinds of types I can write down and expect the typechecker of my programming language to be able to reason about. I have not—yet—said that there are any actual values of these types!

Jargon watch: the ability to treat a type function as a type is called higher order generics.

The type of a generic function is a type function

Let’s come back to our motivating examples:

Any pipe<Any>(Any anything) => anything;

Number add<Number>(Number x, Number y)
            given Number satisfies Summable<Number>
        => x+y;

If you squint, you’ll see that these are actually functions with two parameter lists. The first parameter lists are:



<Number> given Number satisfies Summable<Number>

Which both accept a type. The second parameter lists are:

(Any anything)


(Number x, Number y)

Therefore, we can view each generic function as a function that accepts a type and produces an ordinary value function. The resulting functions are of type Any(Any) and Value(Value,Value) respectively.

Thus, we could write down the type of our first generic function pipe() like this:

<Any> => Any(Any)

And the type of add() is:

<Number> given Number satisfies Summable<Number>
        => Number(Number,Number)

Phew. That looks a bit scary. But mainly because of the type constraint. Because generic function types like this are pretty verbose, we can assign them aliases:

alias AdditionLikeOperation
        => <Number> given Number satisfies Summable<Number>
                => Number(Number,Number);

Or, equivalently, but more simply:

alias AdditionLikeOperation<Number> 
        given Number satisfies Summable<Number>
                => Number(Number,Number);

That was the hard part—we’re almost done.

References to generic functions

Now we can use these types as the types of references to generic functions:

<Any> => Any(Any) pipeFun = pipe;

AdditionLikeOperation addFun = add;

And we can apply these function references by providing type arguments:

String(String) pipeString = pipeFun<String>;
Object(Object) pipeObject = pipeFun<Object>;

Float(Float,Float) addFloats = addFun<Float>;
Integer(Integer,Integer) addInts = addFun<Integer>;

Or, alternatively, we can just immediately apply the generic function references to value arguments, and let Ceylon infer the type arguments, just as it usually does when you call a function directly:

String hi = pipeFun("hello");
Integer zero = pipeFun(0);

Float three = addFun(1.0, 2.0);
String helloWorld = addFun("Hello", "World");

And now we’ve solved the problem posed at the beginning!

Now for the kicker: the types <Any> => Any(Any) and AdditionLikeOperation are both type functions. Indeed, the type of any generic function is a type function of this general form:

<TypeParameters> => ReturnType(ParameterTypes)

Similarly, every type function of this general form is the type of some generic function.

So we’ve now shown that some type functions are not only types, they’re the types of values—the values are references to generic functions like pipe and add.

Jargon watch: the ability to treat a generic function as a value is called higher rank generics.

Abstraction over generic functions

Finally, we can use all this for something useful. Let’s consider a scanner library that is abstracted away from all of:

  • the character type,
  • the token type,
  • the kind of container that tokens occur in.

Then we might have a scan() function with this sort of signature:

"Tokenize a stream of characters, producing
 a stream of tokens."
Stream<Token> scan<Char,Token,Stream>
        (grammar, characterStream, newToken, newStream)
            //Note: Stream is a reference to a type function!
            given Stream<Element> satisfies {Element*} {


    "The token grammar."
    Grammar grammar;

    "The character stream to tokenize."
    Stream<Char> characterStream;

    "Constructor for tokens, accepting a
     substream of characters."
    Token newToken(Stream<Char> chars);

    "Generic function to construct a stream
     of characters or tokens."
     //Note: newStream is a reference to a generic function!
     Stream<Elem> newStream<Elem>({Elem*} elements);


    Stream<Token> tokenStream;

    //do all the hard work

    return tokenStream;


  • Char is the unknown character type,
  • Token is the unknown token type,
  • Stream is a type function representing an unknown container type that can contain either characters or tokens,
  • newToken is a function that accepts a substream of characters and creates a Token,
  • characterStream is a stream of characters, and, most significantly,
  • newStream is a generic function that constructs streams of any element type, used internally to create streams of characters as well as tokens.

We could use this function like this:

//Let's use String as the token type, Character as the
//character type, and Iterable as the stream type.

//input a stream of characters
{Character*} input = ... ;

//and some token grammar
Grammar grammar = ... ;

//get back a stream of Strings
{String*} tokens =
        scan<Character, String, Iterable>
            (grammar, input, String,
                    //Note: a generic anonymous function! 
                    <Elem>({Elem*} elems) => elems);

Or like this:

//use LinkedList as the stream type
import ceylon.collection { LinkedList }

//we don't need Unicode support, so let's use
//Ceylon's 8-bit Byte as our character type
alias Char => Byte;

//define our own token type
class BasicToken(LinkedList<Char> charList) {
    string => String { for (b in charList) 
                       b.unsigned.character };

//input a linked list of characters
LinkedList<Char> input = ... ;

//and some token grammar
Grammar grammar = ... ;

//get back a linked list of BasicTokens
LinkedList<BasicToken> tokens =
        scan<Char, BasicToken, LinkedList>
            (grammar, input, BasicToken,
                    //Note: a generic function ref! 

As you can see, our parsing algorithm is now almost completely abstracted away from the concrete types we want to use!

Compiling this code

In Ceylon 1.2, programming with type functions is an experimental feature that only works in conjunction with the JavaScript backend. So you can run code that uses type functions on a JavaScript virtual machine, but not on the JVM. This is something we’re inviting you to play with to see if the whole community agrees it is useful. But right now it’s not covered in the language specification, and it’s not supported by the Java backend.

The typechecker itself supports extremely sophisticated reasoning about higher order and higher rank types. Type functions are fully integrated with Ceylon’s powerful system of subtype polymorphism, including with union and intersection types, and with type inference and type argument inference. There’s even limited support for type function inference! And there’s no arbitrary upper limits here; not only rank-2 but arbitrary rank types are supported.

If there’s enough interest, I’ll cover that material in a future post.

Reference: Programming with type functions in Ceylon from our JCG partner Gavin King at the Ceylon Team blog blog.
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