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Emacs Lisp: Closures Exposed

I recently learned about some interesting wrinkles in Emacs Lisp that make it useful for learning about closures. First let’s talk about closures in more reasonable languages.

What do the the following code snippets do?

Python:

def fun1():
    x = 12
    return lambda y: x*y

fun1()(3)

Javascript:

var fun1 = function() {
    var x = 12;
    return function (y) {
        return x*y;
    };
};

fun1()(3)

The answer is, they print 36. Each returns outer function returns an anonymous function that is then called with the value 3 a an input. But what about the equivalent code in Emacs Lisp?:

(funcall (let ((x 12))
           (lambda (y)
             (* x y))) 3)

This throws an error: (void-variable x). Huh? What is going on? The answer is that most modern languages, including Python and JavaScript, are lexically scoped, whereas Emacs Lisp, being many decades old, is dynamically scoped. What does this mean? It has to do with the resolution of free variables. In each code example above, x is a free variable in the innermost function call because it was not passed as an argument and has no local definition. How is the value of a free variable resolved then? In lexically scoped languages, the language looks for definitions of free variables in the immediate lexical environment, whereas in dynamically scoped langauges, the language looks for definitions of free variables in the immediate evaluating environment.

This explains our differing results above. Python and JavaScript see a free variable x in the anonymous function returned by fun1. They go look for a definition in the enclosing lexical scope (the definition of fun1), see that here x is defined to be 12, and so use 12 as the value for x. Emacs Lisp, on other hand, does something different. Using funcall, we asked it to call the following with argument 3:

(let ((x 12))
       (lambda (y)
         (* x y)))

The let statement says that during the evaluation of the following code, let the value of x be 12. The keyword here is evaluation. Emacs Lisp allows x to be 12 during the evaluation, which returns a function of y. The evaluation is then over, so Emacs Lisp promptly forgets the value of x! The lambda function returned has no notion of the fact that x is twelve in its lexical environment; when this function is called by funcall it is called in the global scope, in which there is no definition of x, hence (void-variable x).

This seems weird by modern lights, because most languages we write code in regularly are lexically scoped. Emacs Lisp gets ever weirder though. Remember when I said that python and javascript “go look for a definition in the enclosing lexical scope”? That was sort of a lie. They don’t really go looking through the text of your code trying to find definitions, what actually happens is that when fun1 evaluates, it doesn’t just return a bare anonymous function. Instead, the function is returned along with some information about its lexical environment. This information is called a closure, and usually consists of the values that any free variables had at the time the function was defined. When python or javascript needs to know the value of x during evaluation, they go look up its definition in the closure. You can’t actually examine closures in the language itself; they’re specially protected and hidden away in the implementation. But let’s go back to Emacs Lisp for a moment. When we execute

(let ((x 12)) (lambda (y) (* x y)))

We get back:

(lambda (y) (* x y))

which is a function definition, pretty much what we expected. Notice that this expression evaluated on its own (which is effectively what we were doing when we did the funcall above) has no way of figuring out what x is (i.e. no closure containing a definition of x). Where Emacs Lisp gets weird is that it is possible to have lexical scoping, but its an optional feature that you have to turn on. Let’s try it:

(setq lexical-binding t)

(let ((x 12))
       (lambda (y)
         (* x y)))

Now the second expression evaluates to:

(closure ((x . 12) t) (y) (* x y))

Aha! A closure! The first part of the closure is a list of pairs that describe the lexical environment. We can see that x is bound to 12. The remainder of the closure is the argument list and function body. Because lexical scope was tacked onto Elisp decades after its creation, it doesn’t hide closures away from you the way more modern languages do; they are right there, available to be inspected as data structures in the language itself, which is really pretty bizarre. If we funcall this with 3 as an argument, we get 36, just like we did in python or javascript. Internally, these languages are doing the same thing, we as programmers are just not allowed to see it. Emacs Lisp is adorable trusting; however, which means we can do stupidly silly things. The closure is just a list, so we can use it as we would any other:

(setq c (let ((x 12))
          (lambda (y)
            (* x y))))

The closure is now bound to the symbol c, and we can funcall it:

(funcall c 3)
;; => 36

We can also modify it, e.g.:

(setcdr (caadr c) 5)

We set the cdr of the car of the car of the cdr of c to 5. This changes c to:

(closure ((x . 5) t) (y) (* x y))

And now:

(funcall c 3)
;; => 15

I personally find this totally hilarious, and I hope its at least somewhat illuminating with respect to what a closure is as well.


Addendum (May 15th, 2014): As Nic Ferrier pointed out on twitter, this all only works interactively and not when byte-compiling. The exposure of closures illustrated above is considered an implementation detail by the Emacs developers.