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Little Tortoise

Do you remember the programming language Logo? Logo was used in computer science classes to teach children how to program. In fact, it was a adaptation of LISP! But the remarkable part was the so-called turtle, a graphical cursor that can be given commands to move and turn, thereby drawing lines.

The goal is a language to control a turtle drawing an image. Technically, this example will teach you how to adapt and use the XbaseInterpreter for your own languages.


We have built a language that allows to define Programs and SubPrograms. Each of these has a body, which can contain any number of expressions. In addition to the standard Xbase expressions, we are able to issue commands to the tortoise. Here is an example explaining the concepts in comments:

// Program: Haus vom Nikolaus
  val length = 150                // local variable
  val diagonal = length * sqrt(2) // all Math.* methods are available
  lineWidth = 2                   // assignment of a property
  square(length)                  // call to a SubProgram
  turnRight(45)                   // call to a command method
  lineColor = blue                // all ColorConstants.* are available
  lineColor = red
  forward(diagonal / 2)
  forward(diagonal / 2)
  lineColor = blue
end  // main program

sub square           // a subprogram
  int length         // parameter
  for (i : 1..4) {   // loop-expression from Xbase 
end  // sub square

The main trick about our solution is to not bake in the turtle commands into the language itself, but define it in the runtime library. This way, the language stays as slim as can be and additions can be easily added without the need to regenerate the whole language infrastructure.

The core of the runtime library is the class Tortoise. You can think of it as of our only domainmodel class: It keeps the current state of the tortoise and allows modifying it using methods. Here is an excerpt of its code:

class Tortoise {
  double angle
  double x
  double y
  @Accessors int delay = 200

  boolean isPaint = true
  @Accessors int lineWidth
  @Accessors Color lineColor

  List<ITortoiseEvent.Listener> listeners = newArrayList()

When a method changes the state of the tortoise, an event is thrown. These events are consumed by a GEF based view and turned into animations of a TortoiseFigure. This loose coupling of model and view allows for easier testing.

Running the Example

In the runtime Eclipse, open the Tortoise View (Window → Show View → Other → Xtext → TortoiseView). Then open one of the example files in org.eclipse.xtext.tortoiseshell.examples. The Program is interpreted on editor activation and on save. An additional toggle button Step Mode in the Tortoise View allows to execute the code live from the editor up to the caret’s current line.

Tortoise takes a rest after running the Pythagoras example


The grammar is very short. Once again, we inherit from the Xbase language to have nice Java integration and rich expressions. A user can define a Program, which can have SubPrograms with parameters. The Executable rule is never called, but defines a common supertype for Program and SubProgram that will hold their common member body. A Body is an XBlockExpression from Xbase, but with the keywords begin and end instead of the curly braces.

grammar org.xtext.tortoiseshell.TortoiseShell
  with org.eclipse.xtext.xbase.Xbase

import "http://www.eclipse.org/xtext/xbase/Xbase"
generate tortoiseShell "http://www.xtext.org/tortoiseshell/TortoiseShell"

Program :
  'sub' name=ValidID (':' returnType=JvmTypeReference)?
  (parameters += FullJvmFormalParameter)*

Body returns XBlockExpression:
  (expressions+=XExpressionInsideBlock ';'?)*
  Program | SubProgram;

Translation to Java

With the tortoise commands defined as methods in the runtime library class Tortoise, we have to infer a Java class that inherits from this. Within this class, we create a method for each Program and SubProgram. The resulting code looks like this:

class TortoiseShellJvmModelInferrer extends AbstractModelInferrer {
  public static val INFERRED_CLASS_NAME = 'MyTortoiseProgram'
  @Inject extension JvmTypesBuilder
  def dispatch void infer(Program program, 
                          IJvmDeclaredTypeAcceptor acceptor, 
                          boolean isPreIndexingPhase) {
      superTypes += typeRef(Tortoise)
      if(program.body != null)
        members += program.toMethod("main", typeRef(Void.TYPE)) [
          body = program.body
      for(subProgram: program.subPrograms)
        members += subProgram.toMethod(subProgram.name, 
            subProgram.returnType ?: inferredType(subProgram.body)) [
          for(subParameter: subProgram.parameters)
              parameters += subParameter.toParameter(subParameter.name, subParameter.parameterType)
          body = subProgram.body


The Xbase language library does not only provide a compiler that generates Java code, but also an interpreter. This has been adapted to execute our Programs.

After all an interpreter is just a big visitor. For each expression type, it has an evaluation method, that recursively calls the evaluation methods for the subexpressions for its arguments. The methods also pass an execution context storing all temporary state such as local variables.

The first thing we have to cope with is the mixture of existing Java methods (from the super class Tortoise) and inferred ones. While the former are evaluated via Java reflection, we need special treatment for the latter. The idea is to bind an instance of Tortoise to this and intercept calls to the inferred methods to execute them directly. This is accomplished by overriding the method invokeOperation:

  @Inject extension IJvmModelAssociations
  override protected invokeOperation(JvmOperation operation, 
                                     Object receiver, 
                                     List<Object> argumentValues) {
    val executable = operation.sourceElements.head
    if (executable instanceof Executable) {
      val context = createContext
      context.newValue(QualifiedName.create("this"), tortoise)
      operation.parameters.forEach[p, i|
        context.newValue(QualifiedName.create(p.name), argumentValues.get(i))
      val result = evaluate(executable.body, context, CancelIndicator.NullImpl)
      if(result.exception != null)
        throw result.exception
    } else {
      super.invokeOperation(operation, receiver, argumentValues)

One thing you have to know about the Java inferrence is that when creating Java elements using the JvmTypesBuilder, the infrastructure stores the information which elements have been inferred from which source elements. To navigate these traces, we use the Xbase service IJvmModelAssociations. So to detect whether a JvmOperation is inferred, we check whether it has a source element. If so, we have to setup an execution context binding this and the parameters as local variables and then execute the method’s body using the interpreter.

To start the interpretation we have to do almost the same: Setup the execution context and then evaluate the Program’s body. The respective code is

  override run(Tortoise tortoise, EObject program, int stopAtLine) {
    if(tortoise != null && program != null) {
      this.tortoise = tortoise
      this.stopAtLine = stopAtLine
      try {
          ?.invokeOperation(null, #[])
      } catch (StopLineReachedException exc) {
        // ignore

The StopLineReachedException is part of the Step Mode. It is thrown when the execution reaches the line stopAtLine, thus terminating the current execution. The throwing code is

  override protected internalEvaluate(XExpression expression, 
                                      IEvaluationContext context, 
                                      CancelIndicator indicator) {
    val line = NodeModelUtils.findActualNodeFor(expression)?.startLine
    if(line-1 == stopAtLine)
      throw new StopLineReachedException
    super.internalEvaluate(expression, context, indicator)

Literal Classes

To make the static methods and fields of Math and ColorConstants callable directly, we provided the TortoiseShellImplicitlyImportedFeatures:

class TortoiseShellImplicitlyImportedFeatures extends ImplicitlyImportedFeatures {
  override protected getStaticImportClasses() {
    (super.getStaticImportClasses() + #[Math, ColorConstants])

To overcome a small issue in the interpreter we also had to implement the TortoiseShellIdentifiableSimpleNameProvider.

Next Chapter: The Grammar Language