A tail call optimizing LISP interpreter that runs on BrainFuck

This project is maintained by westerp

Welcome to Zozotez. Zozotez, which means Lisp in French (infinitive zozoter, but we use polite form) is a tail recursive Lisp interpreter which runs under any BrainFuck environment. It’s a fully LISP1 compliant interpreter if used with the largest bootstrap expression when started up. Without it it’s still LISP1, but with other symbols. See below.


The summer 2010 and 2011 I created EBF. A Compiler for a superset of BrainFuck which makes BrainFuck object code. I wrote it because I wanted to learn how programming languages was bootstrapped. It is of course written in itself. EBF is the language I have written Zozotez. Zozotez is in itself extendable since it has the power of both functions and macroes :)

BrainFuck is an Esoteric language/turing tarpit that only has enough instructions to become Turing Complete which means that it is possible to create any application with it, but not as easy as some other programming languages. Daniel Cristofani wrote so elegantly: “- a language designed for the amusement of programmers”. For more information on Brainfuck see Wikipedia

The idea of creating Lisp in Brainfuck started in 2007 when talking with a collague with my new found fasination and time waster: To create small brainfuck programs. Later that day we talked about favorite programming language and he’s was Lisp. He said that the language is so easy to implement that it can be written in BrainFuck. The original LISP was based on research done by AI researcher John McCarthy in the late 1950’s which produced a paper in 1958 describing the language which also included a interpreter written in itself using only 10* primitive operators that need to be implemented in some underlying machinecode. For a breif article on this see This article which is slightly easier to understand than McCarthy's own paper which is more mathematical than programmer-oriented.

* Actually it was 7 defined: quote,atom,eq,car,cdr,cons and cond. I say 10 because I have added list-lambda (functions) in addition to read and print for side effects. BrainFuck is actually Turing complete without the side effects too, but application would be harder to use as this must be emulated in either code or environment.

Why do this?

Mostly for kicks. EBF and Zozotez are both projects that have everlasting enhancement potential while any puzzle is finished when you have laid the last piece. The fact that some people have thought about this, some has started, but never succeeded has motivated me as I feel I’m the first to successfully climb this mountain. I feel I have the know how to successfully implement LISP in any imperative machine architecture and not just LISP which relies on the underlying implementation to do certain things. Peter Michaux’ Scheme implementation has similar properties and is an excellent blog how he did it step by step.

Syntax overview

Zozotez is a LISP dialect, but because of it’s nature all except the symbols T and NIL have been given different, one char symbols. Here is the formal syntax with usual LISP equivalents.

Special forms


All functions evaluate all its arguments, even excess arguments, befor invoking the functions.

User defined functions

If an expression in the operation position evaluates to a list with the first element \ it is a lambda-expression. A lambda expression is a user defined function. One can define a new function with set in this manner:

(: 'cons (\ (arg1 arg2) (c arg1 arg2)))
so that 
(cons 'a '(b)) => (a b)

We can also invoke it directly:

((\ (arg1 arg2) (c arg1 arg2)) 'a '(b)) => (a b)

Only the last expression returns something in a user defined function. If there are more than one expression it has to be for the side effects.

User defined macroes

A macro is a function where the arguments are not evaluated before the execution and the resulting expression gets evaluated in the end. Thus: ((~(sym arg)(c :(c(c “(c sym))(c arg))))) a ‘(b)) evaluates the return of the body, which is (: (“ a) (“ (b))) which assosiates a with (b). You might have noticed that this implements setq.

Implementation limitation

When read reads a symbol it creates a hash using a similar method as EBF. It has one symbol table for both functions, macroes and variables and they are prone to collisions. In EBF collisions were errors requiring you to change the name to something else, while collisions in Zozotez are not handeled so ` (eq ‘p ‘ok) ` returns T since they both have the same hash. To check your symbols do '<symbol> in a REPL and it will echo the stored string (which will not be the same as you entered if it’s an collision). Together with dynamic scoping it is a serious flaw in Zozotez which I may fix in the future, but I feel there are other areas more cool (like garbage collection, numbers, tail call optimizations and precomputing (compilation) of functions. I also want to make lexical scoping, but the design with the o(1) hash lookup does not support such a scheme at this time.



((\ (x) (list x (list (" ") x))) (" (\ (x) (list x (list (" ") x)))))

If you’d like to know about the design og Zozotez I’ve added some information on that, starting with memory design.

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