8.1.1 Introduction to Arrays

Doing linear scans over an associative array is like trying to club someone to death with a loaded Uzi.

Larry Wall

The awk language provides one-dimensional arrays for storing groups of related strings or numbers. Every awk array must have a name. Array names have the same syntax as variable names; any valid variable name would also be a valid array name. But one name cannot be used in both ways (as an array and as a variable) in the same awk program.

Arrays in awk superficially resemble arrays in other programming languages, but there are fundamental differences. In awk, it isn’t necessary to specify the size of an array before starting to use it. Additionally, any number or string, not just consecutive integers, may be used as an array index.

In most other languages, arrays must be declared before use, including a specification of how many elements or components they contain. In such languages, the declaration causes a contiguous block of memory to be allocated for that many elements. Usually, an index in the array must be a nonnegative integer. For example, the index zero specifies the first element in the array, which is actually stored at the beginning of the block of memory. Index one specifies the second element, which is stored in memory right after the first element, and so on. It is impossible to add more elements to the array, because it has room only for as many elements as given in the declaration. (Some languages allow arbitrary starting and ending indices—e.g., ‘15 .. 27’—but the size of the array is still fixed when the array is declared.)

A contiguous array of four elements might look like Figure 8.1, conceptually, if the element values are eight, "foo", "", and 30.

A Contiguous Array

Figure 8.1: A contiguous array

Only the values are stored; the indices are implicit from the order of the values. Here, eight is the value at index zero, because eight appears in the position with zero elements before it.

Arrays in awk are different—they are associative. This means that each array is a collection of pairs—an index and its corresponding array element value:


The pairs are shown in jumbled order because their order is irrelevant.44

One advantage of associative arrays is that new pairs can be added at any time. For example, suppose a tenth element is added to the array whose value is "number ten". The result is:

10"number ten"

Now the array is sparse, which just means some indices are missing. It has elements 0–3 and 10, but doesn’t have elements 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9.

Another consequence of associative arrays is that the indices don’t have to be nonnegative integers. Any number, or even a string, can be an index. For example, the following is an array that translates words from English to French:


Here we decided to translate the number one in both spelled-out and numeric form—thus illustrating that a single array can have both numbers and strings as indices. (In fact, array subscripts are always strings. There are some subtleties to how numbers work when used as array subscripts; this is discussed in more detail in Using Numbers to Subscript Arrays.) Here, the number 1 isn’t double-quoted, because awk automatically converts it to a string.

The value of IGNORECASE has no effect upon array subscripting. The identical string value used to store an array element must be used to retrieve it. When awk creates an array (e.g., with the split() built-in function), that array’s indices are consecutive integers starting at one. (See String-Manipulation Functions.)

awk’s arrays are efficient—the time to access an element is independent of the number of elements in the array.



The ordering will vary among awk implementations, which typically use hash tables to store array elements and values.