A compiler is computer software that transforms computer code written in one programming language (the source language) into another programming language (the target language).
Compilers are a type of translator that support digital devices, primarily computers. The name compiler is primarily used for programs that translate source code from a high-level programming language to a lower level language (e.g., assembly language, object code, or machine code) to create an executable program.
However, there are many different types of compilers. If the compiled program can run on a computer whose CPU or operating system is different from the one on which the compiler runs, the compiler is a cross-compiler.
A bootstrap compiler is written in the language that it intends to compile. A program that translates from a low-level language to a higher level one is a decompiler. A program that translates between high-level languages is usually called a source-to-source compiler or transpiler.
A language rewriter is usually a program that translates the form of expressions without a change of language. The term compiler-compiler refers to tools used to create parsers that perform syntax analysis.
A compiler is likely to perform many or all of the following operations: preprocessing, lexical analysis, parsing, semantic analysis (syntax-directed translation), conversion of input programs to an intermediate representation, code optimization and code generation.
Compilers implement these operations in phases that promote efficient design and correct transformations of source input to target output. Program faults caused by incorrect compiler behavior can be very difficult to track down and work around; therefore, compiler implementers invest significant effort to ensure compiler correctness.
Compilers are not the only translators used to transform source programs. An interpreter is computer software that transforms and then executes the indicated operations.
The translation process influences the design of computer languages which leads to a preference of compilation or interpretation. In practice, an interpreter can be implemented for compiled languages and compilers can be implemented for interpreted languages.
Theoretical computing concepts developed by scientists, mathematicians, and engineers formed the basis of digital modern computing development during World War II. Primitive binary languages evolved because digital devices only understand ones and zeros and the circuit patterns in the underlying machine architecture.
In the late forties, assembly languages were created to offer a more workable abstraction of the computer architectures. Limited memory capacity of early computers led to substantial technical challenges when the first compilers were designed. Therefore, the compilation process needed to be divided into several small programs.
The front end programs produce the analysis products used by the back end programs to generate target code. As computer technology provided more resources compiler designs could align better with the compilation process.
The human mind can design better solutions as the language moves from the machine to a higher level. So the development of high-level languages follows naturally from the capabilities offered by the digital computers. High-level languages are formal languages that are strictly defined by their syntax and semantics which form the high-level language architecture.
Elements of these formal languages include:
- Alphabet, any finite set of symbols;
- String, a finite sequence of symbols;
- Language, any set of strings on an alphabet.
The sentences in a language may be defined by a set of rules called a grammar.
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