GHC Core is well behind monads and burritos in the list of most documented topics. You can gather some knowledge from a few blog posts by Haskell gurus, some from StackOverflow or haskell-cafe and some from the GHC commentary or GHC’s code itself. I will try from time to time to publish a simple case-study to see how your usual Haskell code gets translated to GHC Core, learning some bits of Core along the way. Sounds good? Then read on.

What’s GHC Core

As some of you may know, before generating native code for your platform (through the NCG or LLVM, with -fllvm), GHC compiles your Haskell code to several intermediate languages, as witnessed by the following diagram (courtesy of the authors of the Haskell course at Stanford, most likely David Terei).

GHC Pipeline
GHC Pipeline

In this series we will focus on Core, which is at a high enough level to see the correspondance with our Haskell code, but happens late enough in the compilation process to reflect what transformations took place, how lazy or strict some functions will be, etc. Hopefully this will help you (and myself, by trying to decently explain things I will surely learn a lot) gain a better understanding of how GHC understands your Haskell code.

By the way, if other people feel like writing such blog posts, please do so! Obviously there’s a lot to say, a lot of situations to cover, etc. So feel free to write (and let me know about, if possible) your own GHC Core by example posts.

Hello world in Core

Let’s consider this simple Haskell module, in a file named, say Hello.hs.

To see the GHC Core code generated for the above Haskell code, simply run the following:

$ ghc -O2 -ddump-simpl -dsuppress-idinfo -dsuppress-coercions -dsuppress-type-applications -dsuppress-uniques -dsuppress-module-prefixes Hello.hs

The -ddump-simpl flag asks GHC to print the generated Core after the transformation engine optimising Core programs has run on it. That engine is called the simplifier, thus the “-simpl”. The other options I give ghc make the Core output more readable by stripping out a bunch of things while still retaining enough interesting information. You can try just ghc -O2 -ddump-simpl hello-core.hs. You’re of course not forced to use -O2 but that turns on quite a lot of transformations that we will be interested in, sooner or later.

You should get an output similar to the following.

[1 of 1] Compiling Hello           ( Hello.hs, Hello.o )

==================== Tidy Core ====================
Result size of Tidy Core = {terms: 3, types: 1, coercions: 0}

Followed by the actual Core code:

The first part gives statistics about the generated core code, and the second part is the code itself. Core is quite similar to Haskell. We’ll see quite a few differences, but it’s nonetheless close to Haskell syntax. The I# there is just the name of the constructor for Ints, defined in GHC as (at least something equivalent to) data Int = I# Int#, where Int# is a machine integer, without any laziness on top.

How does a list get translated to Core? Let’s find out by adding the following code to Hello.hs.

We get, stripping out the statistics and the Core for x:

So it creates an Int for each number of that list, and one call to (:) for each tail in that list. Let’s see how a simple function gets translated now.

Ok, nothing scary so far. The only differences are that it puts the argument on the right, thus rewriting the function as equal to a lambda, explicitly, and it annotates the argument with a type in the code itself, not just using the type signature. Let’s try two arguments now.

Same as before, and it explicitly shows that the y argument isn’t used by replacing it by _ in the argument list of the lambda. Let’s go polymorphic now, and actually give the definition for id, not an Int version.

Now it becomes interesting! We see that the type hasn’t changed much, except that there’s an explicit forall that introduces the type variable a. What may be more surprising though, is that the type itself explicitly becomes an argument to the function, with some special syntax though, getting a “@” prefix. The argument is then type-annotated using that “type argument”. How about looking at the Core for a function equivalent to flip (,)?

This time, we have two polymorphic arguments, not necessarily of the same type, and both of these type variables are (type-)arguments to that function and used when annotating the type of the actual arguments.

How about taking functions as arguments?

Nothing really fun here, just what you would expect considering everything we’ve seen so far. Let’s move on to something more interesting.


You may have noticed that no typeclass has been involved so far, in any way. That’s deliberate: the Core gets a bit hairy when typeclasses are involved. Let’s see what I mean by first looking at what the Core is for a simple call to a typeclass method (Num’s (*) in this case) with a specific type, not with the general Num a => a -> a type.

Ew! $fNumInt_$c*, really?! Yes, but don’t worry, you get used to this pretty quickly. So this is what the call to (*) gets translated to. If you remove -dsuppress-module-prefixes from the ghc command, you’ll get GHC.Num.$fNumInt_$c*. That means the definition of (*) for Ints is in the GHC.Num module, as a function that gets a weird name in Core. We see that it contains the name of the class (Num), the name of the type (that has an instance for that class - Int here), and the name of the typeclass method (here it’s *, without the parens – in Core, even operators appear in prefix position, just like any function).

What if we define our own typeclass and write an instance for some type?

There are some weirds things going on now. First, we see two mysterious calls to some cast function here. We’ll get back to it later. The two Chars just define 'f' and 't' in terms of the internal representation of Char, just like we had with I# earlier. Even these auxiliary values are prefixed with where they come from (Bool instance of the Foo typeclass). fFooBool_$cfoo is the Core name of the implementation of foo from the Foo typeclass for the Bool instance, and the content of the function is pretty straightforward, except for the weird way the case line looks.

But hey, what’s that: $fFooBool :: Foo Bool? Foo is a typeclass, so how can Foo Bool be a type? Well, typeclass instances happen to be implemented as records of values (may they be functions or just simple values), and a typeclass defines that data type (we call these dictionaries). Then each instance is just a value of that type. So you can picture our Foo class as generating a type Foo a equivalent to data Foo a = Foo { foo :: a -> Char }. And then the Bool instance is just a value of that type, with the foo field set to $fFooBool, in some way. Note that this generalizes to several methods/values in your typeclass, you just extend the data type with more fields.

But what are these casts? Let’s remove -dsuppress-coercions to figure out what’s happening.

  • The first one, without the Sym, takes a dictionary and kind of projects it to get the foo function, and it does so generically by taking as arguments both the a type and the tpl argument, which is the dictionary (or typeclass instance/implementation, if you prefer) for the given type a. That’s the actual function you call when you write a call to foo in your Haskell code, initially. You can note here that forall a. Foo a => ... gets desugared to having as arguments the type and the dictionary.
  • The second one kind of does the inverse of the first: it creates a dictionary $fFooBool from the definition of foo for our Bool instance, $fFooBool_$cfoo.

So typeclass constraints on values/functions are just translated to passing some dictionary arguments in Core! Let’s see how that’s processed when we actually write a typeclass constraint in our code, stripping away coercions again this time (since we now have seen how the casts look like).

We can witness that this type class constraint -> dictionary argument translation has been done again, for f. Note that these calls to cast on $dFoo are just this GHC Core’s foo (we mentionned it above, it has a cast call) calls in f being inlined. So $dFoo ... here really just means the foo implementation for the given a type. You can also see that GHC created a rule that specifies that any call to f on a Foo Bool dictionary (meaning: whenever we use the Foo instance for Bool), should be rewritten as a call to (the GHC-generated) f_$sf function, which, as you can see, has accomplished quite some inlining without us asking.

That’s going to be all for now. Next time we’ll see how some more useful code gets translated to Core.