Python to C++; a silly idea?



In the more than ten years since this I first wrote this,

  1. I have learned a lot about programming, programming languages, compilers, interpreters, and more; and
  2. The ecosystem around this kind of idea has changed a lot! See, for instance, mojo.

I’ll leave the rest of this post untouched; please forgive past Graham’s naivete!

Python type annotations

In the 3.x series of the Python language, there’s a powerful, unused feature in the standard: type annotations. As they currently stand, type annotations don’t seem to do anything except set some attributes of the function to which they’re applied; however, I’ve been thinking of a possible use for them: compiling Python to C++.

I’m aware of the amazing Cython project, and various other options when it comes to compiling code for faster Python runtimes. There’s even Shed Skin, a compiler that takes much of the 2.x Python standard to C++ already. Thus, this idea is nothing more than an excuse for me to learn more computer science, specifically compilers (and lexers and parsers, oh my!). However, besides Python 3.x’s type annotations, there’s one other feature none of these options use:1 C++11, the new C++ standard.


C++11 is quite interesting; Bjarne Stroustrup, the creator of C++, says

Surprisingly, C++11 feels like a new language: The pieces just fit together better than they used to and I find a higher-level style of programming more natural than before and as efficient as ever.

There’s a huge amount of things that have changed in the new standard, but some of my favorites are type inference, lambda functions, and ranged-based for loops. These new features make C++ a much more pleasant language to work with, in my opinion; in fact, I like it so much that I used it for the code portion of my dissertation.

The above-mentioned type inference, coupled with alternative function syntax, are what gave me the (probably silly) idea of trying to compile Python 3.x code to C++11 code.

Suggestive examples

Here are some slightly suggestive code examples that got me thinking. The idea would be to somehow compile (perfectly valid) Python 3 code like this:

def f(x:int, y:int) -> int:
    return 2 * x + y

into equivalent2 C++11 code:

auto f(int x, int y) -> int {
    return 2 * x + y;

Here’s a slightly more involved example: what if we could compile a (very tiny) Python class

class R2Point(object):
    __slots__ = ('x', 'y')

    def __init__(self, x:int, y:int) -> None:
        self.x = x
        self.y = y

    def __add__(self, other:R2Point) -> R2Point:
        return R2Point(self.x + other.x, self.y + other.y)

into a C++11 struct

struct R2Point {
    int x, y;
    auto operator+(R2Point other) -> R2Point {
        return R2Point{x + other.x, y + other.y};

We can even handle Python lambdas3, to some extent. This,

f = lambda x: 2 * x
xs = xrange(10)
ys = []
for x in xs:

might become

template <typename T> auto f = [](const T& x) { return 2 * x; }
auto xs = std::vector<int>(10); std::iota(xs.begin, xs.end, 0);
auto ys = std::vector<decltype(xs.front())>;
for (auto x: xs) {
std::cout << std::accumulate(ys.begin(), ys.end(), 0) << std::endl;

Admittedly, these aren’t very involved examples; the code is quite short, and they don’t involve translating Python idioms like list comprehensions into C++. I still find them suggestive, though (at least, the first two).

Something else

Like I said, these aren’t terribly involved examples and don’t demonstrate changing idiomatic Python code into idiomatic C++11 code, really. If the Python to C++ idea doesn’t pan out, though, there’s always the option of something analogous to the relationship between CoffeeScript and JavaScript. Since one of the common criticisms of C++ is that it is too complex, a simpler front end that compiles to a C++ back end might be interesting. That being said, I think that starting fresh with idiomatic C++11 might be enough of a simplification in some cases.

In the long run

In the long run, I doubt this idea is really going to take off; Pythonistas like Python for their reasons, and C++ coders like their language for their own. More than anything, any potential transpiler of Python to C++ I develop would be a chance for me to learn more about how programming languages are implemented and how compilation works. I had a lot of fun reading this stellar book, and might take its approach to this problem. I thought it was interesting how similar the syntax of the two languages can look in their latest versions, and that got me wondering. If I take this idea anywhere, I’ll be sure to write about it.

  1. As far as my cursory research has shown; please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong! ↩︎

  2. Well, largely equivalent; Python has arbitrarily large integers, which C++ can’t match natively (even using intmax_t). ↩︎

  3. Which are weak—some might say broken—compared to C++11’s (or Lisp’s, Scheme’s, Haskell’s, etc.). ↩︎