I'm Brandon Smith, a programmer in Austin, Texas. More about me.


The Bagel Language 🥯


I've started working on a programming language.

I'm calling it Bagel, and it's still in a stage where everything's changing, but I wanted to put the motivating ideas into words, to organize my thoughts and maybe get a little feedback.

The gist #

Over the years I've developed lots of ideas and opinions - some specific to web dev, and some not - and as those tend to do, they've solidified into a language that's taken up residence in my head. At the very least it will be an interesting way to explore them and see what happens when they're taken further than usual; if I'm lucky it might even be useful to somebody one day.

To get down to brass tacks: Bagel will be a statically-typed, JavaScript-targeted language. It will keep many of the same syntaxes and semantics as JavaScript/TypeScript, except where there's significant benefit to breaking away from them. It will involve lots of nice little refinements and additions to the JavaScript paradigm, but it's mainly driven by two key ideas, which are really what make the whole project worth doing in my opinion:

  1. A hard, enforced separation between stateless functional code and stateful procedural code
  2. Reactivity as a first-class citizen

I'm going to prioritize a first-class, batteries-included reactive web GUI experience similar in scope to what Elm or Imba offers, but I also want Bagel to be useful as a general-purpose language for writing server-side code, games, etc. I hope its compiler will one day be self-hosted. There will definitely be an opinionated all-in-one compiler/package manager/etc tool, and one or two editor extensions offering syntax highlighting. I'd like to do an LSP down the line too, but that will likely be pretty far away.

Dichotomy #

Bagel has its roots in a philosophy that I've become a strong believer in: all programs have a pure functional subset, and barring performance constraints, that subset should be pulled out and coded in as functional a way as possible.

However, most programs also have a stateful subset, and I believe a productive language needs to make it easy to do stateful things in a natural way too. But that stateful subset of a project's logic should be kept as small as possible, and should be isolated from the functional subset.

In my JavaScript code I do this mostly by convention. Pure functions get elevated to top-level declarations, and assuming there's no global state hanging around, this makes a pretty strong signifier that they're pure. Code that really needs to be stateful I like to encapsulate in classes (or more recently it's often in hooks, I guess...).

This works okay, but unfortunately it can't really be enforced. I don't actually know of a language that lets you have both things without compromises but also enforces a separation. Rust comes close with mutable vs immutable references, but it isn't the right tool for every task.

So here's what this separation looks like in Bagel (syntax is subject to change):

func add(a: number, b: number) => a + b

proc printSum(a: number, b: number) {
    log(add(a, b));

Functions and procedures are mutually-exclusive categories. No function is a procedure, and no procedure is a function. Functions cannot have side-effects. Procedures can't return values (!). If you want to re-use some logic that generates a value, you have to put in a pure function. If you want to re-use some logic that has side-effects, you have to put it in a procedure. Procedures can call functions of course, but functions cannot call procedures. Functions can work with procedures as values, or even create them - both functions and procedures are first-class values - they just can't call them.

It's going to be really interesting to write some real programs with these constraints and see how they scale, especially the no-returning-procedures one. I know it works well in general, but I've never had it as a strict requirement. I'm about 90% sure it will work out great; we'll see.

I have some interesting ideas about extra features that could take advantage of these qualities. Definitely some tree-shaking, etc like what Elm does. But maybe even some automatic build-time precomputing of constants, inlining, declarative memoization for arbitrary functions, re-ordering of operations, or even ways of transparently spinning off a given function into its own worker thread. I'm excited to explore the possibilities here.

Reactivity #

VDOMs and their cousins have had the spotlight in the front-end web for years and years now, but I believe there's a much bigger and harder problem that people often treat as secondary, and that is reactivity.

We've got some state, and we want to be able to change it, but if we can't push updates to the rest of the system any and every time it changes, we'll get inconsistency. The VDOM tackles the how of updating the DOM, but it says nothing about when to update it, much less when to do other things like make network requests.

It's my opinion that in an IO-heavy and/or retained-mode-GUI context - which is to say most of what JavaScript gets used for - this is the central question of any stateful system. State is nearly useless if it can't drive the rest of the system, and so observing its changes needs to be treated as a central concern.

Redux, setState, and hooks address this problem of "when" by forcing all state changes through a function call. "When" is "when the function gets called". There are some problems with this:

Other frameworks like Vue and Svelte take a different approach: changing state is more ergonomic, but it's also deeply intertwined with a particular UI framework. Lots of magic goes on under the hood to synchronize the two.

It's my belief that MobX is the only one so far to have solved this problem in the general case. I won't go too deep into its concepts, but I'll give a quick summary.

The idea is that you have:

  1. State: mutable, (mostly) plain JavaScript values
  2. Derivations: pure expressions incorporating those state values which will automatically cache and re-use their latest value until an incorporated piece of state changes
  3. Effects: side-effect-y functions that incorporate a combination of 1 and 2 and re-run when those dependencies change


Effects can then do anything, from updating the DOM to logging, based on this information.

How MobX works underneath is out of scope for this article, but it works really well. There are a couple of caveats, though, because of the limitations of doing this as a library:

In practice these aren't huge problems, but together they point to something that really feels like it should be a language-level primitive. I believe reactivity is an extremely powerful paradigm to use across all kinds of domains, not just GUIs. The rust-analyzer project even uses it for a compiler, via the salsa library.

And of course you can probably see how this dovetails very nicely with the func/proc distinction. Derivations will always be pure, procs will often be focused on changing observable state which will then have more pure derivations made from it. In fact, the plan is for all mutable state to be observable. None of it can slip through the cracks and go unobserved. It will be impossible to make the most common mistakes people make with MobX.

As I'm writing this, I just had another idea. I wonder if I could enforce that all "outside-system" side-effects are placed inside reactive side-effects, so that they can only be triggered when the program state changes.

I think there's a ton of interesting stuff to explore here.

Misc niceties #

Here's a grab-bag of other, more straightforward improvements I plan to make over JavaScript/TypeScript:

Status and timeline #

I technically got my first "counter app" (a GUI with a number and + and - buttons) working in Bagel a little while ago, which was a huge and exciting milestone for me. With that said there are still lots of unsolved problems, many of which could require me to rethink fundamental ideas (which is why I didn't show much in the way of code or examples in this post), and even without those there would still be a ton of work to be done. And, to emphasize, this is a passion-project, so it's first and foremost about what's fun for me and that includes the timeline.

With that said I hope people thought this was interesting, and I'll post more about Bagel on here once I have more to show. I look forward to any feedback that might come my way, and if you really want to go spelunking in a repository that's broken more often than not, you can find Bagel in its (semi-)current state on my GitHub.

Thanks for reading, and cheers! 🥯

Epilogue: The name? #

One Sunday I was struggling to come up with a name for this project that was starting to turn into something real, and my girlfriend was making bagels. I thought the word "bagel" was short, catchy, cute, memorable, and probably wouldn't have any name collisions. It also plays into the "two halves" thing and reduces to the nifty and unused file extension .bgl (please don't take it! :) ), so it stuck.