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Introduction

The λ-calculus, in its pure form does not have constants or primitive operators like those used in arithmetic operations (this includes numbers). The way you compute one term with another is by applying a function to its argument(s), and an argument is always just another function.

In this post, I focus on some of the λ-calculus syntax with coding examples in Javascript and Python.

Basic λ Syntax

λ’s syntax is very simple consisting of only three kinds of terms: variable, abstraction, and application. * variable x is a term * abstraction λx.t is a term called a lambda abstraction * application t s is a term, where t,s are terms

Abstract Syntax

Abstract syntax refers the the robust and provable representation of syntax known as an Abstract Syntax Tree (AST) – the same structure used by compilers and interpreters. These are similar structures to the Context Free Grammar trees from two of my previous posts, for example: λx. (λy. ((x y) x)) would create the following AST:

λx
|
λy
|
apply
/   \
apply    x
/   \
x     y

This can also be written as λx. λy. x y x, since application associates to the left and bodies of abstractions are extended as far to the left as possible.

Scope

Scope in the λ-calculus is fairly straight-forward. You have three main parts to scope: bound variables, binders and free variables. * a variable is bound when it is within the body of term t of an abstraction of the form λx.t * λx is a binder with scope t * a variable x is free if its position is not bound by an enclosing abstraction

Examples

Occurrences of x in xy and λy.xy are free, whereas λx.x and λz.λx.λy.x(yz) are bound. For separate occurences of x, there can be a mix of bound and free states such as in (λx.x)x where the first x is bound to λx and the second is free.

Here is an example of λx. λy. x y in Javascript:

function(x) {
return function(y) {
return x(y);
}
}

Or in Python:

lambda x: lambda y: x(y)

Running this program setting x to the print() function and y to the string "hello":

>>> (lambda x: lambda y: x(y))(print)("hello")
hello

The AST created is simple:

λx
|
λy
|
apply
/   \
x     y

Scope Changes with Parenthesis

Changing this expression slightly to λx. (λy. x) y changes the syntax tree and the code.

λx
|
apply
/   \
λy    y
|
x

Producing the following code in Javascript:

function(x) {
var funY = function(y) {
return x;
}
return funY(y);
}

And Python:

(lambda x: (lambda y: x))

Let’s run that Python code a few times and see what prints out:

>>> (lambda x: (lambda y: x)(4))(5)
5
>>> (lambda x: (lambda y: x)(2))(8)
8
>>> (lambda x: (lambda y: x)(123))(2)
2

So, for every input x,y, we always return x. That has the same behavior as the identity function: λx.x, where the only thing it does is return its argument. So, how does λx. (λy. x) y have the same behavior as λx.x? It is because it is a reducible expression (redex) that reduces to the identity function.

Reducible Expressions

There are many ways to reduce λ-expressions and different languages use different strategies. The most general purpose strategy is full beta-reduction, where you can reduce any redex at any time. To reduce λx. (λy. x)y we do the following reduction in one step:

λx. (λy. x)y
λx. x

There are other reduction strategies employed by various languages (some use more than one) such as: * Call-by-name/need: Haskell * Call-by-reference: Perl, PHP, C++ * Call-by-value: C, Scheme, OCaml