How to Write a Programming Language: Part 1, The Lexer

How to Write a Programming Language: Part 1, The Lexer

By Andy Balaam

Overload, 26(145):4-5, June 2018

Writing a programming language might sound very difficult. Andy Balaam starts his series with a lexer.

A programming language is a program that converts text (source code) into behaviour. Because it’s a program that works with other programs, it can sound complicated – even something that shouldn’t be attempted by mere mortals – but really, programming languages are relatively simple programs, often much simpler than the programs they are used to write.

In this series we will be writing an interpreter for our own programming language, called Cell. Cell is a proper language, with strings and numbers, if statements, for loops, functions and things that work like objects. If you follow this series you will get a feel for what a programming language is, and be ready to start designing your own!

Most programming languages are designed to make life easy for someone: usually that person is the programmer who will be writing programs in the language. Different languages have different designs based on the needs of that person – for example, Python is designed (among other things [ Peters04 ]) to make code easy to read, and Rust is designed (among other things [ Rust ]) to make it easy to avoid certain kinds of mistakes.

Cell is unusual because it is designed to make life easy for us: the people who are writing it. Lots of things about its design mean that we can write less code when we are implementing it. Sometimes, this will make life a bit more difficult for the person writing programs in Cell. We will have to live with that: Cell is a toy language, not a hardened tool.

First, let’s look at an example of a program written in Cell.

A Cell program

This program shows how to make variables and call functions in Cell:

  x = 3;
  y = x + 2;

When you run it, this program will print out the value of y, which is 5.

Cell programs should be relatively familiar to people who have used a curly-brace language like C, C++ or Java, and also takes inspiration from dynamic languages like Python and Ruby. (In fact, under the covers, the language Cell looks most like is Lisp, but its syntax is different.)

The Cell interpreter we will be writing is written in Python, which was chosen because Python programs tend to be short and easy to read.

How does a programming language work?

Most programming languages are built from several parts: the lexer takes in the source code and converts it into tokens, the parser understands the structure described by the tokens and builds them into a syntax tree, and then the evaluator uses the syntax tree to decide what to do. (Of course, real languages have other parts including things like compilation, optimisation, and bytecode generation.)

The Lexer

In this article we will look at the lexer – the first part of our program. The lexer takes in text (source code) and transforms it into tokens. Tokens are things like a number, a string, or a name.

In Cell , the types of tokens are:

  • Numbers, e.g 12 or 4.2
  • Strings, e.g. "foo" or 'bar'
  • Symbols, e.g. baz or qux_Quux
  • Operators, e.g. + or
  • Special punctuation, including (, } and ;

So, the lexer is really just a function that takes in a string (some Cell source code) and returns all the tokens it finds in that string. The main function is shown in listing 1.

def lex(chars_iter):
  chars = PeekableStream(chars_iter)
  while is not None:
    c = chars.move_next()
    if c in " \n": pass
      # Ignore white space
    elif c in "(){},;=:": yield (c, "")  
      # Special characters
    elif c in "+-*/":  yield ("operation", c)
    elif c in ("'", '"'): yield ("string",
      _scan_string(c, chars))
    elif re.match("[.0-9]", c): yield ("number",
      _scan(c, chars, "[.0-9]"))
    elif re.match("[_a-zA-Z]", c):
      yield ("symbol", _scan(c, chars, 
    elif c == "\t": raise Exception(
      "Tabs are not allowed in Cell.")
    else: raise Exception(
      "Unexpected character: '" + c + "'.")
Listing 1

The lex function takes in an argument called chars_iter that provides the characters of the code we are lexing. This can be anything that gives us single characters if we loop through it, for example an ordinary string. We immediately wrap chars_iter in a PeekableStream , which is a little class (shown in listing 2) that allows us to check one character ahead in the stream of characters we are receiving.

class PeekableStream:
  def __init__(self, iterator):
    self.iterator = iter(iterator)
  def _fill(self):
    try: = next(self.iterator)
    except StopIteration: = None
  def move_next(self):
    ret =
    return ret
Listing 2

The lex function returns a stream of tokens using Python’s yield keyword to provide them one by one. Each token is a Python tuple containing two things: a type, which tells us what kind of token we are dealing with, and the value, which is the contents of the token (for example, a number, a string, or the name of a variable).

The main body of the lex function is a while loop stepping through the characters one by one, and for each one doing something based on what type of character it is. When we are in this part of the code, we know we are looking for the beginning of a new token, and the first character of that token will help us decide what type of token it is.

The first line of the if allows us to skip over any white space (spaces or newlines) we find. The second line identifies any special characters. The values yielded by the lex function are pairs that look like (TYPE, VALUE), for example ( "string", "Hello" ) would represent a string token that contains the word ‘Hello’. The special characters are slightly different – we treat each character as a unique type, so when we find a ; character, we yield ( ";", "" ). This means the parser (which we will see in the next article in this series) can treat each special character differently. Because in Cell special characters are always exactly one character long, we can immediately yield a token when we find one.

The next part ( elif c in "+-*/" ) identifies arithmetic operations. Again, these tokens are always one character long, so we can immediately yield a token with type "operation" , and value the actual symbol the user typed.

Now we move on to more interesting tokens. If the first character of a token is a single or double quote, we know we are dealing with a string. We must scan forwards through the characters until we find a matching close quote, and then yield a token with type string. To scan forwards we call the function _scan_string , which is shown in listing 3.

def _scan_string(delim, chars):
  ret = ""
  while != delim:
    c = chars.move_next()
    if c is None:
      raise Exception( \
      "A string ran off the end of the program.")
    ret += c
  return ret
Listing 3

_scan_string moves through the characters of the string, and stops when it reaches a matching quote. The characters between the quotes are returned, and this is the value of the token that is yielded from the lex function. Unlike most programming languages, Cell does not provide a way of ‘escaping’ a quote symbol by writing \" or similar. This is a limitation we have chosen to accept to keep our lexer simple.

Continuing through the big if / elif block in the lex function (listing 1), next we come to numbers. The first character in a number will always be a number or a decimal point, so when we see one of those we call the _scan function, telling it to keep consuming characters while it can see numbers or decimal points. The _scan function is shown in listing 4.

def _scan(first_char, chars, allowed):
  ret = first_char
  p =
  while p is not None and re.match(allowed, p):
    ret += chars.move_next()
    p =
  return ret
Listing 4

_scan is similar to _scan_string , but instead of continuing until it reaches a closing quote, it continues reading characters until it finds one that is not allowed. It uses a regular expression to handle this, and for a number, the regular expression is [.0-9], which just means only numbers and decimal points are allowed. Notice that "0.4.3" would count as a number here, or even "...." . It would certainly be nice to tell the programmer that they made a mistake like this, but we don’t necessarily need to do this in the lexer – we might choose to check this in the parser, or in a later validation stage.

The next elif in the lex function (listing 1) checks for a symbol like a variable name. These must start with a letter or an underscore. Once we have found a letter or an underscore, we call the _scan function again, and the characters that are allowed include numbers as well as letters and underscores. Notice that at this point, the lexer does not care at all whether this is a variable name, a function name, or something else. In fact it doesn’t even care whether you are allowed to write a symbol at this point in the program – all it cares about is that the characters it found make a symbol. It’s the parser’s job to care about what is allowed where.

It is common in lots of programming languages to allow numbers in symbols, but not for the first character. If you ever wondered why that is, this might help to explain – by disallowing numbers as the first character, we make it easy for the lexer to tell the difference between numbers and symbols, without having to scan through the whole token first.

The last two branches of the if / elif structure in the lex function handle tab characters (which are simply never allowed in Cell programs) and anything else that was unexpected. Both of these produce (fairly unhelpful) error messages.

We have now talked about the entire source code of Cell’s lexer – that is all there is, so if you understand it, you have a good chance of understanding the lexer in your favourite programming language, or of writing your own.

You can find the whole source code for Cell at along with articles and videos explaining more about how it works.


Lexers do a very simple job: read in the text version of a program, and break up the parts of it into separate tokens that make sense to the next part: the parser.

Next time, we’ll look at Cell’s parser, and how it takes in tokens and arranges them into a tree shape reflecting the actual structure of the instructions we are giving to the computer. After that we’ll look at how the evaluator turns that tree into actual behaviour, making a real, working programming language.


[Peters04] Tim Peters (2004) ‘PEP 20 – The Zen of Python’, , posted 19 August 2004

[Rust] The Rust Programming Language , available at

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