C Isn't A Programming Language Anymore

Aria Beingessner

March 16th, 2022

Phantomderp and I have both recently been very aligned on a particular subject: being extremely angry about C ABIs and trying to fix them. Where we’re not aligned is why we’re mad about them.

He’s trying to materially improve the conditions of using C itself as a programming language.

I’m trying to materially improve the conditions of using literally any language other than C.

Now you might reasonably ask: “what the fuck does your problem have to do with C?”

It wouldn’t if C was actually a programming language. Unfortunately, it’s not, and it hasn’t been for a long time. This isn’t about the fact that C is actually horribly ill-defined due to a billion implementations or its completely failed integer hierarchy.

That stuff sucks, but on its own that wouldn’t be my problem.

My problem is that C was elevated to a role of prestige and power, its reign so absolute and eternal that it has completely distorted the way we speak to each other. Rust and Swift cannot simply speak their native and comfortable tongues – they must instead wrap themselves in a grotesque simulacra of C’s skin and make their flesh undulate in the same ways it does.

C is the lingua franca of programming. We must all speak C, and therefore C is not just a programming language anymore – it’s a protocol that every general-purpose programming language needs to speak.

So actually this kinda is about the whole “C is an inscrutable implementation-defined mess” thing. But only insofar as it makes this protocol we all have to use an even bigger nightmare!

Foreign Function Interfaces

Ok let’s get technical. You’ve finished designing your new language, Bappyscript, with first class support for Bappy Paws/Hooves/Fins. An amazing language that’s going to completely revolutionize the way that cats, sheep, and sharks program!

But now you need to actually make it do something useful. You know like, take user input, or write output, or literally anything observable? If you want programs written in your language to be good little citizens that work well with the major operating systems, you need to interact with the operating system’s interface. I hear that everything on Linux is “just a file”, so let’s open a file on Linux!



       open, openat, creat - open and possibly create a file


       #include <fcntl.h>

       int open(const char *pathname, int flags);
       int open(const char *pathname, int flags, mode_t mode);

       int creat(const char *pathname, mode_t mode);

       int openat(int dirfd, const char *pathname, int flags);
       int openat(int dirfd, const char *pathname, int flags, mode_t mode);

       /* Documented separately, in openat2(2): */
       int openat2(int dirfd, const char *pathname,
                   const struct open_how *how, size_t size);

   Feature Test Macro Requirements for glibc (see

           Since glibc 2.10:
               _POSIX_C_SOURCE >= 200809L
           Before glibc 2.10:

Um sorry what? This is Bappyscript, not C. Where’s the Bappyscript interface for Linux?


What do you mean there’s no Bappyscript interface for Linux!? Ok well sure it’s a brand-new language, but you’re going to add one, right? Right…?

Fuck ok, I guess we have to use what they’ve given us.

We’re going to need some kind of Interface that lets our language call Functions that are Foreign to it. A Foreign Function Interface… FFI… yeah! I like the sound of that!

Oh hey there Rust, you have C FFI too? And you too Swift? Even Python?!

"What if we kissed 😳 and we were both C" over a page of the AMD64 SysV ABI, detailing how the calling convention is defined in terms of C types.

Everyone had to learn to speak C to talk to the major operating systems, and then when it came time to talk to eachother we suddenly all already spoke C so… why not talk to eachother in terms of C too?

Oops! Now C is the lingua franca of programming.

Oops! Now C isn’t just a programming language, it’s a protocol.

What Does Talking To C Involve?

Ok so apparently basically every language has to learn to talk C. A language that is definitely very well-defined and not a mass hallucination.

What does “talking” C mean? It means getting descriptions of an interface’s types and functions in the form of a C header and somehow:

Well we’ve got a few problems here:

You Can’t Actually Parse A C Header

Yes, I am genuinely asserting that parsing C is basically impossible.

“But wait! There are lots of tools that read in C headers! Like rust-bindgen!”


bindgen uses libclang to parse C and C++ header files. To modify how bindgen searches for libclang, see the clang-sys documentation. For more details on how bindgen uses libclang, see the bindgen users guide.

Anyone who spends much time trying to parse C(++) headers very quickly says “ah, actually, fuck that” and asks a C(++) compiler to do it. Keep in mind that meaningfully parsing a C header is more than just parsing: you need to resolve #includes, typedefs, and macros too! So now you need to implement all of the platform’s header resolution logic and somehow figure out what things are DEFINED in the environment you care about! Yikes!

Like let’s take the really extreme example of Swift. It has basically everything going for it in terms of C interop and resources:

It’s a language developed by Apple to effectively replace Objective-C as the primary language for defining and using system APIs on its own platforms. In doing so, it has (imo) taken the notion of ABI-stability and design further than anyone else.

It’s also one of the most hardcore FFI-supporting languages I’ve ever seen! It can natively import (Objective-)C(++) headers and will produce a nice and native Swift interface with types getting automagically “bridged” to their Swift equivalents at the boundary (often transparently due to the types having identical ABIs)!

Swift was also developed by many of the same people at Apple who built and maintain Clang and LLVM. Straight-up world-leading experts in C and its spawn. One of those people is Doug Gregor, let’s see what his opinion on C FFI is:

A tweet from Doug Gregor: All of this is the reason that Swift uses Clang internally to handle the (C)++ ABI. That way, we’re not chasing every new ABI-impacting attribute Clang adds.

Ah, well fuck. Not even Swift has the stomach for this stuff.

(See also Jordan Rose’s and John McCall’s llvm presentation on why Swift went with this approach)

So what do you do if you Absolutely Positively do not want to have a C compiler parsing and resolving headers at compile time?

You hand-translate those bad boys! int64_t? Write i64. long? Write… uhhhh… oh no.

What’s a long?

C Doesn’t Actually Have An ABI

Ok well no big surprise here: the integer types in C that were designed to be wobbly-sized for “portability” are in fact wobbly-sized! Like ok we can punt on CHAR_BIT being weird, but that still doesn’t help us know the size and align of long!

“But wait! There are standardized calling conventions and ABIs for each platform!”

There are! And they usually define the layouts of key primitives in C! (And some of them don’t just define the calling conventions in terms of C types! side-eyes AMD64 SysV)

Ok but here’s a nasty problem: the architecture doesn’t define the ABI. No not the OS either. We’ve gotta go all in on a specific target triple like “x86_64-pc-windows-gnu” (not to be mistaken with “x86_64-pc-windows-msvc”).

Ok how many of those could there be?

> rustc --print target-list


Wow ok that’s a lo-


Please sto-



176 triples. I was originally going to include them all for the visual gag/impact but it’s literally too many for even that.

That’s too many fucking ABIs.

And we haven’t even gotten into all the different calling conventions like stdcall vs fastcall or aapcs vs aapcs-vfp!

Well at least all of these ABIs and calling conventions and what not are definitely available in a nice machine-readable format that everyone can use: PDFs full of human prose.

Ok well at least the major C compilers agree on the ABIs for a particular target triple! Like ok sure there’s weird jank C compilers but clang and gcc–

> abi-checker --tests ui128 --pairs clang_calls_gcc gcc_calls_clang


Test ui128::c::clang_calls_gcc::i128_val_in_0_perturbed_small        passed
Test ui128::c::clang_calls_gcc::i128_val_in_1_perturbed_small        passed
Test ui128::c::clang_calls_gcc::i128_val_in_2_perturbed_small        passed
Test ui128::c::clang_calls_gcc::i128_val_in_3_perturbed_small        passed
Test ui128::c::clang_calls_gcc::i128_val_in_0_perturbed_big          failed!
test 57 arg3 field 0 mismatch
caller: [30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D, 3E, 3F]
callee: [38, 39, 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D, 3E, 3F, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47]
Test ui128::c::clang_calls_gcc::i128_val_in_1_perturbed_big          failed!
test 58 arg3 field 0 mismatch
caller: [30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D, 3E, 3F]
callee: [38, 39, 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D, 3E, 3F, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47]


392 passed, 60 failed, 0 completely failed, 8 skipped

That’s my FFI abi-checker running on x64 Ubuntu 20.04. A pretty dang major and well-behaved platform! All it’s testing here is some very boring situations where some integer arguments get passed by-value between two static libs compiled by clang and gcc… and it fails!


clang and gcc can’t even agree on the ABI of __int128 on x64 linux. That type is a gcc extension but it’s also explicitly defined and specified by the AMD64 SysV ABI in one of those nice human-readable PDFs!

I wrote this dang thing to check for mistakes in rustc, I didn’t expect to find inconsistencies between the two major C compilers on one of the most important and well-trodden ABIs!


Trying To Tame C

So actually semantically parsing a C header is a horrible nightmare that can only really be done by “the” C compiler for that platform, and even if you get the C compiler to tell you the types and and how to make sense of the annotations that still doesn’t actually tell you the size/align/convention for everything.

How do you interoperate with that mess?

Your first option is to completely surrender and soulbond your language with C, which can be any of:

But even these only take you so far, because unless your language is literally exposing unsigned long long you’re going to inherit C’s big portability mess.

This brings us to the second option: Lie, Cheat, And Steal.

If it’s all gonna be a dumpster fire anyway, you may as well just start hand-translating the type and interface definitions into your language. That’s basically what we do in Rust all day every day! Like yeah people use rust-bindgen and friends to automate some of this stuff, but a lot of the time the definitions get checked in or hand-tweaked because life is too short to try to get someone’s weird bespoke C build system working portably.

Hey Rust, what’s intmax_t on x64 linux?

pub type intmax_t = i64;

Cool! End of story!

Hey Nim, what’s long long on x64 linux?

clonglong {.importc: "long long", nodecl.} = int64

Cool! End of story!

A lot of code has completely given up on keeping C in the loop and has started hardcoding the definitions of core types. After all, they’re clearly just part of the platform’s ABI! What are they going to do, change the size of intmax_t!? That’s obviously an ABI-breaking change!

Oh yeah what was that thing phantomderp was working on again?

We talked about how intmax_t can’t be changed because some binary, somewhere, would lose its mind and use the wrong calling convention / return convention if we changed from e.g. long long (64-bit integer) to __int128_t (128-bit integer). But is there a way that - if the code opted into it or something - we could upgrade the function calls for newer applications while leaving the older applications intact? Let’s craft some code that test the idea that Transparent Aliases can help with ABI.

Fuuuuuuuucccccccckkkkkkkkkk Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck FUUUUUCK

So like, yeah their article is really good and working on some very real and very important problems but… how would programming languages even deal with this change? How would you specify which version of intmax_t you interoperate with? If some C header you have refers to intmax_t, which definition is it using?

The primary mechanism we have for talking about platforms with different ABIs are target triples. You know what’s one target triple? x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu. You know what that covers? Basically every major desktop/server linux distro from the last 20 years. Right now you can ostensibly compile for that target and get a binary that “just works” on all those platforms. I do not believe this would be the case if some programs were compiled believing intmax_t was larger than int64_t.

Would any platform that tries to make this change become a new target triple? x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu2? Would that even be enough if anything compiled against x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu was allowed to run on it?

Changing Signatures Without Breaking ABIs

“So what, does C never get to improve anymore?”

No! But also, Yes! Because they shipped bad designs.

Making ABI-compatible changes is, honestly, a bit of an art form. Part of that art is preparedness. Specifically it’s much easier to make changes that don’t break ABI if you’re prepared for them.

As phantomderp’s article notes, things like glibc (the g is the gnu in x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu) have long understood this and use mechanisms like symbol versioning to update signatures and APIs while keeping the old versions around for anyone compiled against older versions of itself.

So if you have int32_t my_rad_symbol(int32_t), you tell the compiler to export this as my_rad_symbol_v1, and anyone who compiles against your headers will write my_rad_symbol in their code but link against my_rad_symbol_v1.

Then when you decide Actually It Should Use int64_t then you can make int64_t my_rad_symbol(int64_t) as my_rad_symbol_v2 but keep around the old definition as my_rad_symbol_v1. Anyone who compiles against newer versions of your header will happily use the v2 symbol, while anyone compiled against the older version will continue to use v1!

Except you still have a compatibility hazard: anyone who compiles against your new header can’t link against the old version of your library! The v1 version of your library simply doesn’t have the v2 symbol! So if you want the Hot New Features you need to accept incompatibility with older outdated systems.

This isn’t a deal breaker though, it just makes platform vendors sad that no one gets to use the thing they spent so much time working on right away. You have to ship a shiny new feature and then sit on your hands for several years while everyone waits for it to be common/mature enough that people are willing to depend on it and break support for older platforms (or are willing to implement dynamic checking and fallback for it).

If you get really serious about letting people upgrade right away, then you’re talking about forward compatability. This lets older versions of things somehow work with newer features that they have no conception of.

Changing Types Without Breaking ABIs

Ok so we can change the signature of a function, what else can we change? Can we change type layouts?

Yes! But also, No! It depends on how you expose the type.

One of the genuinely fantastic features of C is that it lets you distinguish between a type which has a known layout and one that doesn’t. If you only forward-declare a type in a C header, then any user code that interacts with that type isn’t “allowed” to know the layout of that type and has to handle it opaquely behind a pointer at all times.

So you can make an API like MyRadType* make_val() and use_val(MyRadType*) and then do the same symbol versioning trick to expose make_val_v1 and use_val_v1 symbols, and any time you want to change that layout you bump the version on everything that interacts with that type. Similarly you keep around MyRadTypeV1, MyRadTypeV2 and some typedefs to make sure people use the “right” one.

Nice, we can change type layouts between versions! …Right? Well, mostly.

If multiple things build on top of your library and then start talking to eachother in terms of your opaque types, bad things can start to happen:

If lib1 and lib2 are ever compiled against different versions of your library, then make_val_v1 can get fed into use_val_v2! Yikes! You have two options for dealing with this:

  1. Say that this is forbidden, chastise anyone who does it anyway, be sad.
  2. Design MyRadType in a forward-compatible way so that mixing is fine.

Common forward-compatible tricks include:


Microsoft is genuinely a master of this forward-compatability fuckery, to the extent that they even keep stuff they really care about layout-compatible between architectures. An example I’ve recently been working with is MINIDUMP_HANDLE_DATA_STREAM in Minidumpapiset.h.

This API describes a versioned list of values. The list starts with this type:

    ULONG32 SizeOfHeader;
    ULONG32 SizeOfDescriptor;
    ULONG32 NumberOfDescriptors;
    ULONG32 Reserved;


And indeed, Microsoft actually had a reason to use this versioning scheme, and defines two versions of the array element:

    ULONG64 Handle;
    RVA TypeNameRva;
    RVA ObjectNameRva;
    ULONG32 Attributes;
    ULONG32 GrantedAccess;
    ULONG32 HandleCount;
    ULONG32 PointerCount;

    ULONG64 Handle;
    RVA TypeNameRva;
    RVA ObjectNameRva;
    ULONG32 Attributes;
    ULONG32 GrantedAccess;
    ULONG32 HandleCount;
    ULONG32 PointerCount;
    RVA ObjectInfoRva;
    ULONG32 Reserved0;

// The latest MINIDUMP_HANDLE_DESCRIPTOR definition.

The actual details of these structs isn’t terribly interesting other than:

This thing is an absolutely indestructible forward-compat behemoth. Hell, because they’re so careful with padding it even has the same layout between 32-bit and 64-bit! (Which is actually really important because you want a minidump processor on one architecture to be able to handle minidumps from every architecture.)

Well, at least it’s really robust if you play along with its game and actually manipulate things by-reference and use the size fields.

But hey, at least it’s very clear that there’s a game to play! At some point you do just have to say “you’re using this wrong”. Well ok no Microsoft probably wouldn’t say that, they’d just do something horrible instead.

Case Study: jmp_buf

I’m not terribly familiar with this situation, but while looking into historical glibc breaks I came across this great article in lwn: The glibc s390 ABI break. I’ll be assuming it’s accurate.

As it turns out, glibc has broken the ABI of types before, at least on s390. Based on the description of this article it was chaos.

Specifically they changed the layout of the save-state type used by setjmp/longjmp, jmp_buf. Now, they weren’t complete fools. They understood this was an ABI-breaking change, so they did the responsible symbol versioning thing.

But jmp_buf wasn’t an opaque type. Other things were storing instances of this type inline. Like oh you know, Perl’s runtime. Needless to say this relatively obscure type had wormed itself into many binaries and the ultimate conclusion was that everything in Debian needed to be recompiled!


The article even discusses the possibility of version-bumping libc to cope with this:

The SO name bump in a mixed-ABI environment like debian results in two libc’s being loaded and competing for effectively the same namespace of symbols with resolution (and therefore selection of the ABI) being determined by ELF interposition and scope rules. It’s a nightmare. It’s possible a worse solution than just telling everyone to rebuild and get on with their lives.

Double Ouch!

(The article is full of lots more great details, I highly recommend it.)

Can You Really Change intmax_t?

As far as I’m concerned, not really. It’s just like jmp_buf – it’s not an opaque type, and that means it’s inlined into a ton of random structs, assumed to have a specific representation by tons of other languages and compilers, and probably part of tons of public interfaces that aren’t under the control of libc, linux, or even the distro maintainers.

Sure, libc can properly do symbol versioning tricks to make its APIs work with the new definition, but changing the size of a really basic datatype like intmax_t is begging for chaos in the larger ecosystem for a platform.

I’m happy to be proven wrong, but as far as I can tell making this change would necessitate a new target triple and to not allow any binary/library built for the old ABI to run on this new triple. You can certainly do that work, but I don’t envy any distro which does.

And even then you have the x64 int problem: it’s such a fundamental type, and has been that size for so long, that countless applications may have weird undetectable assumptions about it. This is why int is 32-bit on x64 even though it was “supposed” to be 64-bit: int was 32-bit for so long that it was completely hopeless to update software to the new size even though it was a whole new architecture and target triple!

Again I hope I’m wrong but… sometimes you make a mistake so bad that you just don’t get to undo it. If C was a self-contained programming language? Sure, go for it.

But it’s not, it’s a protocol. A bad protocol certainly, but the protocol we have to use nonetheless!

Sorry C, you conquered the world, maybe you don’t get to have nice things anymore.

You don’t see England trying to improve itself, do you?