Value types

Table of content

This article is part of the Beginner’s Guide to Elvish series:

1. Maps

We have learned how you can use curl to request a URL and from-json to convert JSON-encoded bytes to Elvish values. Combining these two features allows us to import data from online JSON APIs: for example, let’s use the API from to query our IP address and country:

Terminal - elvish

~> curl -s {"ip":"","country":"Elvendom","cc":"EL"} ~> curl -s | from-json ▶ [&cc=EL &country=Elvendom &ip=]

The result is surrounded by [ and ], just like lists; but rather than a list, it’s actually a new type of data structure called maps.

Lists consist of elements. Maps, on the other hand, consists of pairs of keys and values. In Elvish, maps are written like &key=value, and putting writing inside [ and ] make the overall data structure a map. (The general concept of maps is present in many other languages. In this case, our map is actually converted from a JSON “object”, which you can also think of as a map.)

The key-value structure is useful because if there’s a key you know, you can find the corresponding value by indexing the map:

Terminal - elvish

~> curl -s | put (from-json)[country] ▶ Elvendom

The [country] used for indexing uses the same [ and ] for writing lists and maps, but has a different meaning in this context. You can even use them together:

Terminal - elvish

~> put [&country=Elvendom][country] ▶ Elvendom

Here, the first pair of [] delimits a map, and the second pair delimits the index.

To examine the map without having to make the same request every time, we can save it in a variable:

Terminal - elvish

~> curl -s | var info = (from-json) ~> put $info[country] ▶ Elvendom ~> put $info[cc] ▶ EL

2. List indexing

We can also use the indexing syntax to retrieve an element of a list by its position:

Terminal - elvish

~> var triumvirate = [Julius Crassus Pompey] ~> echo $triumvirate[0]' is the most powerful' Julius is the most powerful

The index starts at zero, like in many other programming languages.

Instead of just one element, lists also allow you to retrieve a slice of elements. There are two variants: i..j starts from i and doesn’t include j, while i..=j includes j:

Terminal - elvish

~> put $triumvirate[0..2] ▶ [Julius Crassus] ~> put $triumvirate[0..=2] ▶ [Julius Crassus Pompey]

As we can see, the result is another list. This is true even if the result is one or even zero element:

Terminal - elvish

~> put $triumvirate[0..1] ▶ [Julius] ~> put $triumvirate[0..0] ▶ []

3. Nesting data structures

Lists and maps in Elvish can be arbitrarily nested. You can have a list of lists, for example to represent tabular data:

Terminal - elvish

~> var table = [[6 10 2] [-2 0 10]] ~> put $table[0][1] ▶ 10

You can have a map where each value is another map, for example to represent information about different entities (in this case, great ancient people)

Terminal - elvish

~> var people = [&Julius=[&title=Dictator &country=Rome] &Alexander=[&title=King &country=Macedon]] ~> put $people[Julius][title] ▶ Dictator

You can even use lists and maps as map keys:

Terminal - elvish

~> var map-of-complex-keys = [&[&foo=bar]=map &[foo bar]=list] ~> put $map-of-complex-keys[[&foo=bar]] ▶ map ~> put $map-of-complex-keys[[foo bar]] ▶ list

(This example can be a bit of a brain teaser because all three meanings of [ and ] are used. Using maps and lists as map keys is not super common, but it’s convenient when you do need it.)

The possibilities are limitless – as long as the data fits in your computer’s RAM and the nesting relationship in your brain. And it’s not just for theoretical interest; for a real-world example of a list of maps with list values, see the update-servers-in-parallel.elv case study. (We’ll learn more about some features in that example in Organizing and reusing code).

4. Strings

String is a value type that we have actually been using the whole time. Any text not using any special punctuation or whitespaces are strings, as are quoted strings. Unquoted strings are also known as barewords.

5. Numbers

In fact, even numbers like 1 in Elvish are strings. Let’s examine this example:

Terminal - elvish

~> + 1 2 ▶ (num 3) ~> + '1' '2' ▶ (num 3)

In this example, both 1 and 2 are strings, so + 1 2 and + '1' '2' are equivalent. Numerical commands like + accept strings and know how to treat them as numbers internally.

This is OK for the most part, but there are situations where using strings as numbers doesn’t do what you need:

Terminal - elvish

~> put 1 | to-json "1" ~> put 1 2 12 | order ▶ 1 ▶ 12 ▶ 2

(The order command reads value inputs, and outputs them sorted.)

Elvish also supports a number type, and number values can be constructed using the num command. You can use them as arguments to numerical commands too, and they behave as numbers when converting to JSON or sorting:

Terminal - elvish

~> num 3 ▶ (num 3) ~> + (num 1) (num 2) ▶ (num 3) ~> num 1 | to-json 1 ~> put (num 1) (num 2) (num 12) | order ▶ (num 1) ▶ (num 2) ▶ (num 12)

Since commands like + accept both 1 and (num 1), we’ll call both “numbers”. To distinguish the latter from the former, we usually call them typed numbers.

As you have probably inferred from how the outputs were shown, even though numerical commands accept both strings and typed numbers as arguments, they always output typed numbers. This makes the result easier to use in contexts like converting to JSON or sorting.

We have only worked with integers so far, but Elvish also supports rational numbers and floating-point numbers:

Terminal - elvish

~> + 1/2 1/3 ▶ (num 5/6) ~> + 0.2 0.3 ▶ (num 0.5)

6. Booleans

The Boolean type has two values, true and false, written in Elvish as two variables $true and $false. Unsurprisingly, Elvish commands that tell you if something is true or false output Boolean values:

Terminal - elvish

~> use str ~> str:has-suffix a.png .png ▶ $true ~> str:has-suffix a.png .jpg ▶ $false

Elvish also supports Boolean algebra operations:

Terminal - elvish

~> and $true $false ▶ $false ~> or $true $false ▶ $true ~> not $true ▶ $false

6.1. Conditionals

Boolean values can be used to decide whether to do something or not, with the help of the if command:

Terminal - elvish

~> if $true { echo "Yes it's true" } Yes it's true ~> if $false { echo "This shouldn't happen" }

The if command is a conditional command, one of the most basic control flows. For loops, which we have seen earlier, are another type of control flow.

Extending our previous example of converting JPG files to AVIF, let’s add an additional condition: we should only perform the conversion when the AVIF file doesn’t exist yet:

Terminal - elvish

~> use os ~> use str ~> for jpg [*.jpg] { var avif = (str:trim-suffix $jpg .jpg).avif if (not (os:exists $avif)) { # new condition gm convert $jpg $avif } }

7. Value pipeline redux

Using what we’ve learned about values in Elvish, let’s build a more interesting value pipeline:

Terminal - elvish

~> curl -s | var latest = (from-json)[num] # ① ~> range $latest (- $latest 5) | # ② each {|n| curl -s$n/info.0.json } | # ③ from-json | # ④ each {|info| echo $info[num]': '$info[title] } # ⑤ 2905: Supergroup 2904: Physics vs. Magic 2903: Earth/Venus Venn Diagram 2902: Ice Core 2901: Geographic Qualifiers

The code above prints the latest 5 webcomics from, using its JSON API. Let’s examine it step by step:

  1. We first request, which fetches the information for the latest comic. We convert that to an Elvish map, and save the value of num in $latest.

  2. The range command outputs a range of numbers. The range can be increasing or decreasing, but in both cases, it starts at the first argument, and stops before it reaches the second argument.

    In the example output, $latest happens to be 2905, so (- $latest 5) is 2900. You can see the range command in action by running it separately:

    Terminal - elvish

    ~> range 2905 2900 ▶ (num 2905) ▶ (num 2904) ▶ (num 2903) ▶ (num 2902) ▶ (num 2901)
  3. The each command runs the code inside { and }, assigning $n to each input (we will cover the syntax soon in Organizing and reusing code). It’s similar to the for command we have seen before, except that it uses input values rather than list elements. The overall effect is the same as:

    Terminal - elvish

    ~> curl -s curl -s curl -s curl -s curl -s ...

    (To input multiple lines of commands at the prompt, press Alt-Enter instead of Enter.)

  4. The from-json command converts the stream of JSON outputs generated by all the curl commands into a stream of Elvish values, in this case maps.

  5. This second each command retrieves the values corresponding to the num and title keys, and print them.

7.1. Limitations of value pipelines

Value pipelines allow you to manipulate data in a natural way similar to traditional byte pipelines, but it does have an important shortcoming: it is not available to external commands. We have already seen that external commands can’t produce value outputs; they also can’t consume value inputs. As a result, if you write an Elvish command that produces value outputs, you have to convert it to bytes before an external command can make use of it, such as with the to-json command.

8. Conclusion

Elvish has a rich system of value types. These types allow you to model real-world problems however you want, and consume and manipulate data sourced from elsewhere. Elvish’s value pipeline mechanism allows you to express these operations in a fluid way.

Let’s now move on to the final part of this series, Organizing and reusing code.