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How Lists are Implemented

In Lisp, atoms are recorded in a straightforward fashion; if the implementation is not straightforward in practice, it is, nonetheless, straightforward in theory. The atom `rose', for example, is recorded as the four contiguous letters `r', `o', `s', `e'. A list, on the other hand, is kept differently. The mechanism is equally simple, but it takes a moment to get used to the idea. A list is kept using a series of pairs of pointers. In the series, the first pointer in each pair points to an atom or to another list, and the second pointer in each pair points to the next pair, or to the symbol  nil , which marks the end of the list.

A pointer itself is quite simply the electronic address of what is pointed to. Hence, a list is kept as a series of electronic addresses.

For example, the list  (rose violet buttercup) has three elements, `rose', `violet', and `buttercup'. In the computer, the electronic address of `rose' is recorded in a segment of computer memory along with the address that gives the electronic address of where the atom `violet' is located; and that address (the one that tells where `violet' is located) is kept along with an address that tells where the address for the atom `buttercup' is located.

This sounds more complicated than it is and is easier seen in a diagram:

In the diagram, each box represents a word of computer memory that holds a Lisp object, usually in the form of a memory address. The boxes, i.e. the addresses, are in pairs. Each arrow points to what the address is the address of, either an atom or another pair of addresses. The first box is the electronic address of `rose' and the arrow points to `rose'; the second box is the address of the next pair of boxes, the first part of which is the address of `violet' and the second part of which is the address of the next pair. The very last box points to the symbol  nil , which marks the end of the list.

When a variable is set to a list with a function such as  setq , it stores the address of the first box in the variable. Thus, evaluation of the expression

(setq bouquet '(rose violet buttercup))

creates a situation like this:

In this case, the symbol  bouquet holds the address of the first pair of boxes. Indeed, the symbol  bouquet consists of a group of address-boxes, one of which is the address of the printed word `bouquet', a second of which is the address of a function definition attached to the symbol, if any, a third of which is the address of the first pair of address-boxes for the list  (rose violet buttercup) , and so on.

This same list can be illustrated in a different sort of box notation like this:

In an earlier section, I suggested that you might imagine a symbol as being a chest of drawers. The function definition is put in one drawer, the value in another, and so on. What is put in the drawer holding the value can be changed without affecting the contents of the drawer holding the function definition, and vice-versa. Actually, what is put in each drawer is the address of the value or function definition. It is as if you found an old chest in the attic, and in one of its drawers you found a map giving you directions to where the buried treasure lies.

(In addition to its name, symbol definition, and variable value, a symbol has a `drawer' for a property list which can be used to record other information. Property lists are not discussed here; see section 'Property Lists' in The GNU Emacs Lisp Reference Manual.)

Here is a fanciful representation:

If symbol is set to the CDR of a list, the list itself is not changed; the symbol simply has an address further down the list. (In the jargon, CAR and CDR are `non-destructive'.) Thus, evaluation of the following expression

(setq flowers (cdr bouquet))

produces this:

The value of  flowers is  (violet buttercup) , which is to say, the symbol  flowers holds the address of the pair of address-boxes, the first of which holds the address of  violet , and the second of which holds the address of  buttercup .

A pair of address-boxes is called a cons cell or dotted pair. See section 'List Type' in The GNU Emacs Lisp Reference Manual, and section 'Dotted Pair Notation' in The GNU Emacs Lisp Reference Manual, for more information about cons cells and dotted pairs.

The function  cons adds a new pair of addresses to the front of a series of addresses like that shown above. For example, evaluating the expression

(setq bouquet (cons 'lilly bouquet))

produces:

However, this does not change the value of the symbol  flowers , as you can see by evaluating the following,

(eq (cdr (cdr bouquet)) flowers)

which returns  t for true.

Until it is reset,  flowers still has the value  (violet buttercup) ; that is, it has the address of the cons cell whose first address is of  violet . Also, this does not alter any of the pre-existing cons cells; they are all still there.

Thus, in Lisp, to get the CDR of a list, you just get the address of the next cons cell in the series; to get the CAR of a list, you get the address of the first element of the list; to  cons a new element on a list, you add a new cons cell to the front of the list. That is all there is to it! The underlying structure of Lisp is brilliantly simple!

And what does the last address in a series of cons cells refer to? It is the address of the empty list, of  nil .

In summary, when a Lisp variable is set to a value, it is provided with the address of the list to which the variable refers.

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