Dependable Types 1: Full-STλC Development

Hello again! Been a while, right? Sorry for being AWOL the best part of six months; I got my dream job writing Haskell and PureScript with some brilliant minds over at Habito, and I’ve had a lot to learn! Anyway, one such mind is Liam, (who’ll be a familiar face to anyone getting stuck in with PureScript), and we have been spending our lunch times on various little projects. So, I thought it’d be cool to share one of these projects with you!

Spoiler: the project we’ll be going through is up on GitHub, and you can download the code for this series if you want to play about with it. Head over to the Idris site if you need any help getting set up.

This “series” is probably going to end up as four-or-five posts, easing into GADTs, dependent types, and beyond, so buckle up! Before we get into that, though, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page, and have a quick refresher on the lambda calculus. If you’re already familiar with the lambda calculus (untyped and simply-typed), this post isn’t going to be super interesting for you, but I’ll hopefully see you later on!

The Untyped Lambda Calculus

The lambda calculus is a Turing-complete language made up of only 3 constructs: variables, abstractions, and applications. First, a cheat sheet:

Concept λ Haskell JavaScript
Variable x x x
Abstraction λx. M \x -> M x => M
Application M N M N M(N)

That’s it! I’ve included the examples in Haskell and JavaScript syntax, too, so hopefully one of those is familiar to you. Let’s go through these in a little more detail:

  • Application. Given some expression M that evaluates to a function, and some expression N that evaluates to a value, apply N to M to get some result.

  • Abstraction. We can define a function that takes an argument, x, and returns the result of running M. M can be an expression that refers to x, just as functions in any other language can use the value we provide.

  • Variable. This is how we refer to variables introduced in abstractions. We can’t talk about variables that haven’t been introduced (think of these as undefined variables in other languages), so every variable must refer to an argument supplied in an abstraction.

Hopefully, that made some sense. Just in case, though, let’s run through a few examples of some functions written using our calculus.


λ λx.x
Haskell \x -> x
JavaScript x => x

Probably the simplest program we could write, id just takes the argument we give it and hands it back to us. We have an abstraction, λx.__, with a variable reference, x, inside.


λ λx.(λy.x) or just λx.λy.x
Haskell \x -> \y -> x
JavaScript x => y => x

Here, we take two arguments, and just return the first one (effectively ignoring the second). Nothing too complicated, and still looks a lot like the languages we’re familiar with. Notice that, when we want multiple arguments, we nest abstractions and get the arguments once at a time.


λ λf.λy.λx.fxy
Haskell \f -> \y -> \x -> f x y
JavaScript f => y => x => f (x) (y)

This time, we take a function and two arguments, but apply the arguments in the opposite order. More nesting, but still hopefully not doing anything too unfamiliar!

Hopefully, this gives us some idea about how this language works, and how we’d use these three constructs together to build up programs. There’s one last thing I wanted to talk about in this post, though: De Bruijn Indices.

Our syntax is great and all, but there is room for error. We could give two abstraction parameters the same name, which would add confusion, especially when we come to substitution in later posts. Ideally, we want a way to refer to abstraction parameters unambiguously, and that’s where our man Nicolaas comes in. In every abstraction, a new variable is introduced. De Bruijn indices count the number of nested abstractions between a variable’s introduction and its use.

Let’s start with id, which is λx.x. This variable is used immediately inside the abstraction that introduces it, so we can rewrite this as λ1. We read this as, “Return the variable introduced in the latest abstraction”.

What about const? Well, with λx.λy.x, x is again the variable in use, but this time, there is a new variable introduced between the x and its original mention. Because of this, we use 2 to mean, “The variable from the last-but-one abstraction”, and hence rewrite const as λλ2.

As a last example, we can rewrite flip as λλλ312. This is because we apply the last-but-two variable, f, to the last variable, x, and then apply the result to the last-but-one variable, y.

Confusing, right? Don’t worry: I promise there’s a point to this. When we come to building the data type for lambda calculus expressions, using a form of De Bruijn indices will make it much easier for us to guarantee correctness. It’s all very exciting. If you want a little exercise to try out, see if you can encode the following with De Bruijn indices:


It’s a bit of a tricky one, but hopefully manageable. If you’re curious, this function is called on in Haskell’s Data.Function, and is useful for all sorts of things!

All Together Now

This has been a bit of a whirlwind tour of lambda calculus, so I hope I haven’t frightened anyone off. To be honest with you, it feels rather odd to be writing again! Anyway, there are plenty of resources for learning more if you’re interested, but I’ll shine a special spotlight on Steven Syrek’s Lambda Calculus for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Learn It, which will take you from first principles right up to the purest evil you’ve ever seen in JavaScript.

One last note: the Idris project we’ll be going through is an implementation of the simply-typed lambda calculus. What’s the difference between that and what we’ve already seen? Simply that the variables, applications, and abstractions all have types (like Int and Int -> Int - that sort of thing). In practice, this is the same thing as any other programming language with a simple type system, and we’ll track these through our program to make sure that non-functions don’t end up being used as functions, or to avoid invalid parameter usage.

Anyway, that’s all for now! It’s been lovely to talk to you again, and I hope I’ll be seeing you some time next week. Until then, take care ♥