This is a post about Poline, a tiny programming language I wrote recently. The main “gimmick” of Poline is a feature called Green Threads. In fact, Poline doesn’t have many other features besides them.

Green what?

Green Threads are a way of managing concurrency. The core idea is to have many lightweight threads scheduled over fewer OS threads. These tiny threads are then managed by the runtime itself, instead of the OS.

Cooperative Scheduling

Languages like Go, as well as Poline, do cooperative scheduling for their threads. The runtime knows when a given thread is performing a blocking operation, and can “preempt” that thread in order to run others. For example, when a thread is reading from a TCP socket, the runtime can switch off to other threads if no data has arrived yet.


Having independent threads is nice in and of itself, especially when combined with preemption, but threads also want to communicate with eachother.

In languages like Go, threads must communicate through explicit interfaces called channels. A channel first needs to be created and then given to both threads before they can communicate to eachother across it. In Go, multiple threads can be sending messages on a channel, and multiple threads can be pulling messages from that channel.

Other languages, such as Erlang and Poline itself, instead allow communication between threads directly. In Poline, creating a new thread also gives us a handle, which we can use to send messages to that thread. The thread itself can wait until it receives messages sent directly to it.


My main motivation in writing Poline was to learn how to implement Green Threading. The impetus was actually a tweet, describing Green Threading as a good interview question. I wondered how I might implement that feature myself, and decided to tinker with tiny language. Poline doesn’t have many features specifically because I wanted to focus on this aspect.

The language itself

Before I go into the implementation of Poline, let’s take a look at its syntax.

A Poline program consists of a series of function declarations. Here’s an example of one of these declarations:

fn example(arg1, arg2) {

Each function has a name, and then takes a list of named arguments.

The function called main, is the entry point for a program.

String literals

The only type of literal in Poline is the string, which works the same as other languages:

"example string"

The only things a variable can contain in Poline are strings, and thread handles, as we’ll see later.


Poline has a statement for printing:

fn example(arg) {
    print arg;
    print "literal";

Both variables, and string literals can be printed. Every statement in poline ends with a semicolon. Every function consists of a series of statements.

Calling functions

Another type of statement is the function call:

fn print(arg) {
    print arg;

fn main() {

This works as you’d expect. Extra arguments are ignored, and missing arguments are filled in with empty strings.

Creating threads

Now we come to the real interesting parts of Poline.

We can create a new thread from a function call:

fn print(arg) {
    print arg;

fn main() {
    spawn print("a") as p;

Here, the variable p contains the handle for the thread we’ve spawned. The thread will run the function it was called with.

Communicating between threads

Here’s an example program that shows how messaging works:

fn print_recv() {
    recv arg;
    print arg;

fn main() {
    spawn print_recv() as p;
    send "foo" to p;

After spawning a new thread, we have a handle we can access stored in p. We send the string literal "foo" to p. We could have sent a variable instead of a string literal too.

In the thread p, we first receive a message, creating a variable named arg, and then we print the contents of that variable.


We’ll go into the details of this later, but whenever a thread uses recv, it gets preempted until a message is available. When p calls recv without a message to fulfill that request, it gets preempted, letting another thread run. Once a message is sent to p, it can be considered again.

Poline is actually deterministic, because it doesn’t yet have multithreading. In this case, p will always start running after the main thread finishes, because the main thread has no blocking recv calls that preempt it off.


I decided to implement Poline in Rust, mainly because I’m familiar with the language, and because it has good ways of representing ASTs.

The interpretation pipeline looks like this:

Lexing -> Parsing -> Simplifying -> Interpreting

The lexing phase separates the raw text into tokens, making it easier to parser. The parser converts this newly created series of tokens into an AST representing the program. The simplifier makes the code easier for the interpreter, by doing things like removing variable names. And the interpreter is the work horse here, actually executing the code.

I’ve taken some care in making the code easier to understand, so I encourage you to check out the source itself for more details about the implementation.


The lexer takes the raw text of the program, and converts that into a series of tokens.

For example, this program:

fn main() {
    print "foo";

gets lexed into:

Function Name("main") ( ) { Print String("foo") ; }

Dealing with a sequence of tokens instead of raw text makes the parser’s job much easier.

The language is simple enough that the lexer can work with just one character of lookahead. Essentially, our lexer only needs the following operations from our source of text:

// pseudo code
fn next(Source) -> Option<char>
fn peek(Source) -> Option<char>

The first function, next, will return None if we’re at the end of our source, and will otherwise return the next available character, and then advance that source. For example, given "12" as our source, the first call to next will return Some('1'), the next will return Some('2'), and subsequent calls will return None.

The difference between peek, and next is that the former doesn’t advance the source. Given "12" as our input, calls to peek will always return Some(1), until we call next to move the input forward.

The lexer works by repeatedly calling next, and then emitting tokens based on what it says. The one situation where peek is needed is parsing names. The lexer keeps interpreting the characters as part of the name until a non-alpha-numeric character is reached with peek.

To handle keywords, the lexer first lexes out a name, and then checks if that name corresponds to one of the built-in keywords. This lets printer lex as Name("printer") and not print Name("er").


The parser takes the series of tokens produced by the previous stage, and converts them into a single representation of the program as a syntax tree.

For example, the following program:

fn main() {
    print "main";
    spawn main() as p;

Produces the following tree:

// Slightly simplified rust
Syntax {
    functions: [
        FunctionDeclaration {
            name: "main",
            arg_names: [],
            body: [
                Statement::Spawn("p", FunctionCall {
                    name: "main",
                    args: []

This tree represents the program as presented by the user. The parsing stage excludes programs that make no syntactic sense, e.g.

fn main() main() {
    print print ; ; "foo"

But it can’t do anything for programs that work syntactically, but not logically.

The parser is written as a hand-crafted recursive descent parser, but going into how those work is a bit outside the scope of this post.


To illustrate what simplification does, let’s take the example program from previously:

fn main() {
    print "main";
    spawn main() as p;

This simplifies into:

Program {
    strings: ["main"],
    main_function: 0,
    functions: [FunctionDeclaration {
       arg_count: 0,
       body: [
          Statement::Spawn(FunctionCall {
              name: 0,
              args: []

The first thing to notice is the extra information in addition to the syntax tree. We’ve moved all of the string literals in our program into an external table, and we have an index for the main function. The main work done by simplification is to remove literal strings and names from our syntax tree. Instead of referring to functions by their name, we refer to them by their index. We now refer to string literals in the AST by their position in the table. Variables are referred to by their position on their stack.

Stack indices

For variables, we refer to them by stack position. For example:

fn foo(x, y) {
    print x;
    print y;

will simplify into:

FunctionDeclaration {
    arg_count: 2,
    body: [

Instead of printing x, we now print 0, since we’re printing the variable with index 0 on the stack. We’ll use a stack to contain the contents of our variables, so all the interpreter needs to do is lookup that position on the stack.


You might have noticed previously that our spawn statement now takes a single argument instead of two. This is because we refer to variables by their index on the stack instead of their name. But spawn always introduces a new variable, even if the name shadows an existing one. Because of this, there’s no point having that second argument, since we always know that spawn pushes to the end of the stack.


The interpreter takes the AST produced in the previous steps, and actually runs the code contained inside.


The main way I tested the interpreter was by comparing expected print outputs to what the interpreter actually spit out. In order to test these outputs without looking at a terminal, I used a trait for the effects the interpreter needed:

pub trait ProgramIO {
    fn print(&mut self, message: &str);

Instead of printing out directly, the interpreter would instead call this method. When testing, we pass an implementation of this trait that appends printed messages to a vector. We can inspect this in order to test the interpeter.


The state the interpreter maintains looks something like this:

threads [
    calls [

Each thread has a mailbox to contain the messages it receives. The send statement results in a new variable being pushed there.

We also have a sequence of function calls. Everytime a thread calls a function, it pushes some new state to the end of these calls. Whenever we reach the end of a function, we pop that state of from our stack of calls. We also have a stack containing the variables used in a function. We make sure to keep track of the function we’re executing, along with the index of the statement we’re at in that function, so that we can resume execution after preempting this thread.


The way the interpeter works is by finding the next statement to execute, and then changing the state around it based on that statement.

We first look for a statement in the current thread. If a thread becomes blocked, then the subsequent thread becomes the current thread. If a thread finishes executing, then we mark that thread’s slot as dead, so that we can reuse that space.

All the magic of green threading happens in this statement searching and current thread switching.

Further Reading

This was a high level overview of how the interpreter for poline works. If you want a more detailed look, I’d recommend looking at the source code itself.