Dynamic programming language

This article is about a class of programming languages. For the method for reducing the running time of algorithms, see Dynamic programming.

Dynamic programming language, in computer science, is a class of high-level programming languages which, at runtime, execute many common programming behaviors that static programming languages perform during compilation. These behaviors could include extension of the program, by adding new code, by extending objects and definitions, or by modifying the type system. Although similar behaviours can be emulated in nearly any language, with varying degrees of difficulty, complexity and performance costs, dynamic languages provide direct tools to make use of them. Many of these features were first implemented as native features in the Lisp programming language.

Most dynamic languages are also dynamically typed, but not all are. Dynamic languages are frequently (but not always) referred to as "scripting languages", although the term "scripting language" in its narrowest sense refers to languages specific to a given run-time environment.



Some dynamic languages offer an eval function. This function takes a string parameter containing code in the language, and executes it. If this code stands for an expression, the resulting value is returned. However, Erik Meijer and Peter Drayton suggest that programmers "use eval as a poor man's substitute for higher-order functions."[1]

Object runtime alteration

A type or object system can typically be modified during runtime in a dynamic language. This can mean generating new objects from a runtime definition or based on mixins of existing types or objects. This can also refer to changing the inheritance or type tree, and thus altering the way that existing types behave (especially with respect to the invocation of methods).

Functional programming

Functional programming concepts are a feature of many dynamic languages, and also derive from Lisp.


One of the most widely used aspects of functional programming in dynamic languages is the closure, which allows creating a new instance of a function which retains access to the context in which it was created. A simple example of this is generating a function for scanning text for a word:

function new_scanner (word)
  temp_function = function (input)
    scan_for_text (input, word)
  end function
  return temp_function
end function

Note that the inner function has no name, and is instead stored in the variable temp_function. Each time new_scanner is executed, it will return a new function which remembers the value of the word parameter that was passed in when it was defined.

Closures[2] are one of the core tools of functional programming, and many languages support at least this degree of functional programming.


Another feature of some dynamic languages is the continuation. Continuations represent execution states that can be re-invoked. For example, a parser might return an intermediate result and a continuation that, when invoked, will continue to parse the input. Continuations interact in very complex ways with scoping, especially with respect to closures. For this reason, many dynamic languages do not provide continuations.


Reflection is common in many dynamic languages, and typically involves analysis of the types and metadata of generic or polymorphic data. It can, however, also include full evaluation and modification of a program's code as data, such as the features that Lisp provides in analyzing S-expressions.


A limited number of dynamic programming languages provide features which combine code introspection (the ability to examine classes, functions and keywords to know what they are, what they do and what they know) and eval in a feature called macros. Most programmers today who are aware of the term macro have encountered them in C or C++, where they are a static feature which are built in a small subset of the language, and are capable only of string substitutions on the text of the program. In dynamic languages, however, they provide access to the inner workings of the compiler, and full access to the interpreter, virtual machine, or runtime, allowing the definition of language-like constructs which can optimize code or modify the syntax or grammar of the language.

Assembly, C, C++, early Java, and FORTRAN do not generally fit into this category.


The following examples show dynamic features using the language Common Lisp and its Common Lisp Object System.

Computation of code at runtime and late binding

The example shows how a function can be modified at runtime from computed source code

; the source code is stored as data in a variable
CL-USER > (defparameter *best-guess-formula* '(lambda (x) (* x x 2.5)))

; a function is created from the code and compiled at runtime, the function is available under the name best-guess
CL-USER >  (compile 'best-guess *best-guess-formula*)
#<Function 15 40600152F4>

; the function can be called
CL-USER > (best-guess 10.3)

; the source code might be improved at runtime
CL-USER > (setf *best-guess-formula* `(lambda (x) ,(list 'sqrt (third *best-guess-formula*))))
(LAMBDA (X) (SQRT (* X X 2.5)))

; a new version of the function is being compiled
CL-USER > (compile 'best-guess *best-guess-formula*)
#<Function 16 406000085C>

; the next call will call the new function, a feature of late binding
CL-USER > (best-guess 10.3)

Object runtime alteration

This example shows how an existing instance can be changed to include a new slot when its class changes and that an existing method can be replaced with a new version.

; a person class. The person has a name.
CL-USER > (defclass person () ((name :initarg :name)))

; a custom printing method for the objects of class person
CL-USER > (defmethod print-object ((p person) stream)
            (print-unreadable-object (p stream :type t)
              (format stream "~a" (slot-value p 'name))))

; one example person instance
CL-USER > (setf *person-1* (make-instance 'person :name "Eva Luator"))
#<PERSON Eva Luator>

; the class person gets a second slot. It then has the slots name and age.
CL-USER > (defclass person () ((name :initarg :name) (age :initarg :age :initform :unknown)))

; updating the method to print the object
CL-USER > (defmethod print-object ((p person) stream)
            (print-unreadable-object (p stream :type t)
              (format stream "~a age: ~" (slot-value p 'name) (slot-value p 'age))))

; the existing object has now changed, it has an additional slot and a new print method
CL-USER > *person-1*
#<PERSON Eva Luator age: UNKNOWN>

; we can set the new age slot of instance
CL-USER > (setf (slot-value *person-1* 'age) 25)

; the object has been updated
CL-USER > *person-1*
#<PERSON Eva Luator age: 25>

Assembling of code at runtime based on the class of instances

In the next example the class person gets a new superclass. The print method gets redefined such that it assembles several methods into the effective method. The effective method gets assembled based on the class of the argument and the at runtime available and applicable methods.

; the class person
CL-USER > (defclass person () ((name :initarg :name)))

; a person just prints its name
CL-USER > (defmethod print-object ((p person) stream)
            (print-unreadable-object (p stream :type t)
              (format stream "~a" (slot-value p 'name))))

; a person instance
CL-USER > (defparameter *person-1* (make-instance 'person :name "Eva Luator"))

; displaying a person instance
CL-USER > *person-1*
#<PERSON Eva Luator>

; now redefining the print method to be extensible
; the around method creates the context for the print method and it calls the next method
CL-USER > (defmethod print-object :around ((p person) stream)
            (print-unreadable-object (p stream :type t)

; the primary method prints the name
CL-USER > (defmethod print-object ((p person) stream)
            (format stream "~a" (slot-value p 'name)))

; a new class id-mixin provides an id
CL-USER > (defclass id-mixin () ((id :initarg :id)))

; the print method just prints the value of the id slot
CL-USER > (defmethod print-object :after ((object id-mixin) stream)
          (format stream " ID: ~a" (slot-value object 'id)))

; now we redefine the class person to include the mixin id-mixin
CL-USER 241 > (defclass person (id-mixin) ((name :initarg :name)))

; the existing instance *person-1* now has a new slot and we set it to 42
CL-USER 242 > (setf (slot-value *person-1* 'id) 42)

; displaying the object again. The print-object function now has an effective method, which calls three methods: an around method, the primary method and the after method.
CL-USER 243 > *person-1*
#<PERSON Eva Luator ID: 42>


Popular dynamic programming languages include JavaScript, Python, Ruby, PHP, Lua and Perl. The following are generally considered dynamic languages:

See also


  1. Meijer, Erik and Peter Drayton (2005), Static Typing Where Possible, Dynamic Typing When Needed: The End of the Cold War Between Programming Languages, Microsoft Corporation, CiteSeerX accessible
  2. See example of use on p.330 of Larry Wall's Programming Perl ISBN 0-596-00027-8
  3. Chapter 24. Dynamic language support. Static.springsource.org. Retrieved on 2013-07-17.
  4. <http://groovy.codehaus.org/

Further reading

External links

(Many use the term "scripting languages".)

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