The fourth century BCE:
In India, Pannini creates
a sophisticated description of the Sanskrit language,
exact and complete, and including pronunciation.
could be recreated using nothing but Pannini's grammar.
Pannini's grammar is probably the first formal system of any kind, predating Euclid.
Even today, nothing like it exists for any other natural language
of comparable size or corpus.
Pannini is the object of serious study today.
But in the 1940's and 1950's Pannini is almost unknown in the West.
His work has no direct effect on the other events in this timeline.
Emil Post defines and studies a formal rewriting system using
With this, the process of reinventing Pannini in the West begins.
Claude Shannon publishes the foundation paper of information theory.
Andrey Markov's finite state processes are used heavily.
Grace Hopper writes a linker-loader and
as a "compiler".
She seems to be the first person to use this term for a computer program.
Hopper uses the term
"compiler" in its original sense:
"something or someone that brings other things together".
At IBM, a team under John Backus begins working
on the language which will be called FORTRAN.
The term "compiler" is still being used in Hopper's looser sense,
instead of its modern one.
In particular, there is no implication that the output of a "compiler"
is ready for execution by a computer.
The output of one 1954 "compiler",
for example, produces relative addresses,
which need to be translated by hand before a machine can execute them.
Noam Chomsky is awarded a Ph.D. in linguistics and accepts a teaching post at MIT.
MIT does not have a linguistics department and
Chomsky, in his linguistics course, is free to teach his own approach,
highly original and very mathematical.
Chomsky publishes the paper which
is usually considered the foundation of Western formal language theory.
The paper advocates a natural language approach that involves
- a bottom layer, using Markov's finite state processes;
- a middle, syntactic layer, using context-free grammars and
context-sensitive grammars; and
- a top layer, which involves mappings or "transformations"
of the output of the syntactic layer.
These layers resemble, and will inspire,
the lexical, syntactic and AST transformation phases
of modern parsers.
For finite state processes, Chomsky acknowledges Markov.
The other layers seem to be Chomsky's own formulations --
Chomsky does not cite Post's work.
Steven Kleene discovers regular expressions,
a very handy notation for Markov's processes.
Regular expressions turn out to describe exactly the mathematical
objects being studied as
finite state automata,
as well as some of the objects being studied as
Noam Chomsky publishes
one of the most influential books of all time.
The orthodoxy in 1957 is structural linguistics
which argues, with Sherlock Holmes, that
"it is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts".
Structuralists start with the utterances in a language,
and build upward.
But Chomsky claims that without a theory there
are no facts: there is only noise.
The Chomskyan approach is to start with a grammar, and use the corpus of
the language to check its accuracy.
Chomsky's approach will soon come to dominate linguistics.
Backus's team makes the first FORTRAN compiler
available to IBM customers.
FORTRAN is the first high-level language
that will find widespread implementation.
As of this writing,
it is the oldest language that survives in practical use.
FORTRAN is a line-by-line language
and its parsing is primitive.
John McCarthy's LISP appears.
LISP goes beyond the line-by-line syntax --
it is recursively structured.
But the LISP interpreter does not find the
the programmer must explicitly
indicate the structure herself,
Backus invents a new notation to describe
the IAL language (aka ALGOL).
Backus's notation is influenced by his study of Post --
he seems not to have read Chomsky until later.
improves the Backus notation
and uses it to describe ALGOL 60.
The improved notation will become known as Backus-Naur Form (BNF).
The ALGOL 60 report
specifies, for the first time, a block structured
ALGOL 60 is recursively structured but the structure is
implicit -- newlines are not semantically significant,
and parentheses indicate syntax only in a few specific cases.
The ALGOL compiler will have to find the structure.
It is a case of 1960's optimism at its best.
As the ALGOL committee is well aware, a parsing
of handling ALGOL 60 does not yet exist.
But the risk they are taking will soon pay off.
A.E. Gleenie publishes his description of a compiler-compiler.
Glennie's "universal compiler" is more of a methodology than
an implementation -- the compilers must be written by hand.
Glennie credits both Chomsky and Backus, and observes that the two
notations are "related".
He also mentions Post's productions.
Glennie may have been the first to use BNF as a description of a
instead of as the description of a
Glennie points out that the distinction is "important".
Chomskyan BNF and procedural BNF:
BNF, when used as a Chomsky grammar, describes a set of strings,
describe how to parse strings according to the grammar.
BNF notation, if used to describe a procedure, is a set of instructions, to be
tried in some order, and used to process a string.
Procedural BNF describes a procedure first, and a language only indirectly.
Both procedural and Chomskyan BNF describe languages,
not the same
- Suppose D is some BNF description.
- Let P(D) be D interpreted as a procedure,
- Let L(P(D)) be the language which the procedure P(D) parses.
- Let G(D) be D interpreted as a Chomsky grammar.
- Let L(G(D)) be the language which the grammar G(D) describes.
- Then, usually, L(P(D)) != L(G(D)).
The pre-Chomskyan approach,
using procedural BNF,
is far more natural
to someone trained as a computer programmer.
The parsing problem appears to the programmer in the form of
strings to be parsed,
exactly the starting point of procedural BNF
and pre-Chomsky parsing.
Even when the Chomskyan approach is pointed out,
it does not at first seem very attractive.
With the pre-Chomskyan approach,
the examples of the language
more or less naturally lead to a parser.
In the Chomskyan approach
the programmer has to search for
an algorithm to parse strings according to his grammar --
and the search for good algorithms to parse
Chomskyan grammars has proved surprisingly
long and difficult.
semantics is more natural with a Chomksyan approach.
But, using captures, semantics
can be added to a pre-Chomskyan parser
and, with practice, this seems natural enough.
Despite the naturalness of the pre-Chomskyan approach
to parsing, we will find that the first fully-described
automated parsers are Chomskyan.
This is a testimony to Chomsky's influence at the time.
We will also see that Chomskyan parsers
have been dominant ever since.
Ned Irons publishes a paper describing his ALGOL 60
It is the first paper to fully describe any parser.
The Irons algorithm is Chomskyan and top-down
with a "left corner" element.
The Irons algorithm
meaning that it can parse anything written in BNF.
It is syntax-driven (aka declarative),
meaning that the parser is
actually created from the BNF --
the parser does not need
to be hand-written.
Peter Lucas publishes the first
description of a purely top-down parser.
This can be considered to be recursive descent,
though in Lucas's
paper the algorithm has a
syntax-driven implementation, useable only for
a restricted class of grammars.
Today we think of recursive descent as a methodology for
writing parsers by hand.
Hand-coded approaches became more popular
in the 1960's due to three factors:
Memory and CPU were both extremely limited.
Hand-coding paid off, even when the gains were small.
Non-hand coded top-down parsing,
of the kind Lucas's syntax-driven
approach allowed, is a very weak parsing technique.
It was (and still is) often necessary
to go beyond its limits.
Top-down parsing is intuitive -- it essentially means calling
It therefore requires little or
no knowledge of parsing theory.
This makes it a good fit for hand-coding.
L. Schmidt, Howard Metcalf, and Val Schorre present papers
on syntax-directed compilers at a Denver conference.
Schorre publishes a paper on the Meta II
"compiler writing language",
summarizing the papers of the 1963 conference.
Schorre cites both Backus and Chomsky as sources
for Meta II's notation.
that his parser
is "entirely different" from that of Irons 1961 --
in fact it is pre-Chomskyan.
Meta II is a template, rather
than something that readers can use,
but in principle it can be turned
into a fully automated compiler-compiler.
Don Knuth invents LR parsing.
The LR algorithm is deterministic,
Chomskyan and bottom-up,
but it is not thought to be practical.
Knuth is primarily interested
in the mathematics.
1968: Jay Earley invents the algorithm named after him.
Like the Irons algorithm,
Earley's algorithm is Chomskyan, syntax-driven and fully general.
Unlike the Irons algorithm, it does not backtrack.
Earley's algorithm is both top-down and bottom-up at once --
it uses dynamic programming and keeps track of the parse
Earley's approach makes a lot of sense
and looks very promising indeed,
but there are three serious issues:
- First, there is a bug in the handling of zero-length rules.
- Second, it is quadratic for right recursions.
- Third, the bookkeeping required to set up the tables is,
by the standards of 1968 hardware, daunting.
Frank DeRemer describes a new variant of Knuth's LR
DeRemer's LALR algorithm requires only
a stack and a state table of quite
LALR looks practical.
Ken Thompson writes the "ed" editor as one of the first components
At this point, regular expressions are an esoteric mathematical formalism.
Through the "ed" editor and its descendants,
regular expressions will become
part of the working programmer's toolkit.
In comparing algorithms, it can be important to keep in mind whether
they are recognizers or parsers.
is a program which takes a string and produces a "yes"
or "no" according to whether a string is in part of a language.
Regular expressions are typically used as recognizers.
is a program which takes a string and produces a tree reflecting
its structure according to a grammar.
The algorithm for a compiler clearly must be a parser, not a recognizer.
Recognizers can be, to some extent,
used as parsers by introducing captures.
Alfred Aho and Jeffrey Ullman
publish a two volume textbook summarizing the theory
This book is still important.
It is also distressingly up-to-date --
progress in parsing theory slowed dramatically
Aho and Ullman describe
a straightforward fix to the zero-length rule bug in Earley's original algorithm.
Unfortunately, this fix involves adding even more bookkeeping to Earley's.
Under the names TDPL and GTDPL,
Aho and Ullman investigate
the non-Chomksyan parsers in
the Schorre lineage.
They note that
"it can be quite difficult to determine
what language is defined by a TDPL parser".
GTDPL parsers do whatever they do,
and that whatever is something
the programmer in general will not be able to describe.
The best a programmer can usually do
is to create a test suite and fiddle with the GTDPL description
until it passes.
Correctness cannot be established in any stronger sense.
GTDPL is an extreme form of
the old joke that "the code is the documentation" --
with GTDPL nothing
documents the language of the parser,
not even the code.
GTDPL's obscurity buys nothing in the way of additional parsing
Like all non-Chomskyan parsers,
GTDPL is basically a extremely powerful recognizer.
Pressed into service as a parser, it is comparatively weak.
As a parser, GTDPL
is essentially equivalent to Lucas's 1961 syntax-driven
which was in turn a restricted form of recursive descent.
At or around this time,
rumor has it
that the main line of development for GTDPL parsers
is classified secret by the US government.
GTDPL parsers have the property that even small changes
in GTDPL parsers can be very labor-intensive.
For some government contractors,
GTDPL parsing provides steady work for years to come.
Public interest in GTDPL fades.
Bell Labs converts its C compiler from hand-written recursive
descent to DeRemer's LALR algorithm.
The first "Dragon book" comes out.
This soon-to-be classic textbook is nicknamed after
the drawing on the front cover,
in which a knight takes on a dragon.
Emblazoned on the knight's lance are the letters "LALR".
From here on out,
to speak lightly of LALR will be to besmirch the escutcheon
of parsing theory.
1979: Bell Laboratories releases Version 7 UNIX.
V7 includes what is, by far,
the most comprehensive, useable and easily available
compiler writing toolkit yet developed.
Part of the V7 toolkit is Yet Another Compiler Compiler (YACC).
YACC is LALR-powered.
Despite its name, YACC is the first compiler-compiler
in the modern sense.
For some useful languages, the process of going from
Chomskyan specification to executable is fully automated.
Most practical languages,
the C language
and YACC's own input language,
still require manual hackery.
after two decades of research,
it seems that the parsing problem is solved.
Larry Wall introduces Perl 1.
Perl embraces complexity like no previous language.
Larry uses YACC and LALR very aggressively --
to my knowledge more aggressively than anyone before
Joop Leo discovers a way of speeding up right
recursions in Earley's algorithm.
is linear for just about every unambiguous grammar of
practical interest, and many ambiguous ones as well.
In 1991 hardware is six orders of magnitude faster
than 1968 hardware, so that the
issue of bookkeeping overhead had receded
This is a major discovery.
When it comes to speed,
the game has changed in favor of the Earley algorithm.
But Earley parsing is almost forgotten.
Twenty years will pass
before anyone writes a practical
implementation of Leo's algorithm.
Earley's is forgotten.
So everyone in LALR-land is content, right?
Wrong. Far from it, in fact.
Users of LALR are making unpleasant discoveries.
While LALR automatically
generates their parsers,
is so hard they could just as easily
write the parser by hand.
Once debugged, their LALR parsers are fast for correct inputs.
But almost all they tell the users about incorrect inputs
is that they are incorrect.
In Larry's words, LALR is "fast but stupid".
Larry Wall decides on a radical reimplementation
of Perl -- Perl 6.
Larry does not even consider using LALR again.
John Aycock and R. Nigel Horspool
publish their attempt at a fast, practical Earley's parser.
Missing from it is Joop Leo's improvement --
they seem not to be aware of it.
Their own speedup is limited in what it achieves
and the complications it introduces
can be counter-productive at evaluation time.
But buried in their paper is a solution to the zero-length rule bug.
And this time the solution requires no additional bookkeeping.
Bryan Ford publishes his paper on PEG.
Implementers by now are avoiding YACC,
and it seems
as if there might soon be no syntax-driven algorithms in practical
Ford fills this gap by repackaging the nearly-forgotten GTDPL.
Ford adds packratting, so that PEG is always linear,
and provides PEG with an attractive new syntax.
But nothing has been done to change
the problematic behaviors
GNU announces that the GCC compiler's parser has been rewritten.
For three decades,
the industry's flagship C compilers have used
LALR as their parser --
proof of the claim that LALR and serious
parsing are equivalent.
Now, GNU replaces
LALR with the technology that
it replaced a quarter century earlier:
After five decades of parsing theory,
the state of the art seems to be back
where it started.
We can imagine someone taking
Ned Iron's original 1961 algorithm
from the first paper ever published describing a parser,
and republishing it today.
True, he would have to
translate its code from the mix of assembler and
ALGOL into something more fashionable, say Haskell.
But with that change,
it might look like a breath of fresh air.
Marpa: an afterword
The recollections of my teachers cover most of
My own begin around 1970.
Very early on, as a graduate student,
I became unhappy with the way
the field was developing.
Earley's algorithm looked interesting,
and it was something I returned to on and off.
The original vision of the 1960's was a parser that
- general, and
By 2010 this vision
seemed to have gone the same way as many other 1960's dreams.
The rhetoric stayed upbeat, but
parsing practice had become a series of increasingly desperate
while nobody was looking for them,
the solutions to the problems encountered in the 1960's
had appeared in the literature.
Aycock and Horspool had solved the zero-length rule bug.
Joop Leo had found the speedup for right recursion.
And the issue of bookkeeping overhead had pretty much evaporated on its
Machine operations are now a billion times faster than in 1968,
and are probably no longer relevant in any case --
cache misses are now the bottleneck.
The programmers of the 1960's would have been prepared
to trust a fully declarative Chomskyan parser.
With the experience with LALR in their collective consciousness,
modern programmers might be more guarded.
As Lincoln said, "Once a cat's been burned,
he won't even sit on a cold stove."
But I found it straightforward to rearrange the Earley parse engine
to allow efficient
event-driven handovers between procedural and syntax-driven
And Earley tables provide the procedural logic with
full knowledge of the state of the
parse so far,
Earley's algorithm is a better platform
for hand-written procedural logic than recursive descent.
References, comments, etc.
My implementation of Earley's algorithm is called Marpa.
For more about Marpa, there is the
semi-official web site, maintained by Ron Savage.
The official, but more limited, Marpa website
is my personal one.
Comments on this post can be made in
Marpa's Google group,
or on our IRC channel: #marpa at freenode.net.