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9.2 Data Representation

Scheme is a latently-typed language; this means that the system cannot, in general, determine the type of a given expression at compile time. Types only become apparent at run time. Variables do not have fixed types; a variable may hold a pair at one point, an integer at the next, and a thousand-element vector later. Instead, values, not variables, have fixed types.

In order to implement standard Scheme functions like pair? and string? and provide garbage collection, the representation of every value must contain enough information to accurately determine its type at run time. Often, Scheme systems also use this information to determine whether a program has attempted to apply an operation to an inappropriately typed value (such as taking the car of a string).

Because variables, pairs, and vectors may hold values of any type, Scheme implementations use a uniform representation for values — a single type large enough to hold either a complete value or a pointer to a complete value, along with the necessary typing information.

The following sections will present a simple typing system, and then make some refinements to correct its major weaknesses. We then conclude with a discussion of specific choices that Guile has made regarding garbage collection and data representation.

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