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The Burro Programming Language, version 1.0

October 2007, Chris Pressey, Cat's Eye Technologies.

Note: This document describes version 1.0 of the Burro language. For documentation on the latest version of the language, please see Language/Burro/Definition.lhs.


Burro is a Brainfuck-like programming language whose programs form an algebraic group under concatenation.

(At least, that is how I originally would have described it. But that description turns out to be not entirely precise, because the technical meanings of "group" and "program" come into conflict. A more precise statement would be: "Burro is a semi-formal programming language, the set of whose program texts, paired with the operation of concatenation, forms an algebraic group over a semantic equivalence relation." But the first version is close enough for jazz, and rolls off the tongue more easily...)

Anyway, what does it mean? It means that, among other things, every Burro program has an antiprogram — a series of instructions that can be appended to it to annihilate its behavior. The resulting catenated program has the same semantics as no program at all — a "no-op," or a zero-length program.

Why is this at all remarkable? Well, take the Brainfuck program fragment [-]+[]. What could you append to it to it to make it into a "no-op" program? Evidently nothing, because once the interpreter enters an infinite loop, it's not going to care what instructions you've put after the loop. And a program that loops forever isn't the same as one that does nothing at all.

So not all Brainfuck programs have antiprograms. Despite that, Brainfuck does embody a lot of symmetry. Group theory, too, is a branch of mathematics particularly suited to the study of symmetry. And as you might imagine, there is a distinct relation between symmetrical programming languages and reversible programming (even though it may not be immediatly clear exactly what that relationship is.) These are some of the factors that encouraged me to design Burro.


Before explaining Burro, a short look of group theory and of the theory of computation would probably be helpful.

Group Theory

Recall (or go look up in an abstract algebra textbook) that a group is a pair of a set S and a binary operation · : S × S → S that obeys the following three axioms:

  • For any three elements a, b, and c of the set S, (a · b) · c = a · (b · c). In other words, the operation is "associative." Parentheses don't matter, and we generally leave them out.
  • There exists some element of S, which we call e, such that a · e = e · a = a for every element a of S. Think of e as a "neutral" element that just doesn't contribute anything.
  • For every element a) of S there is an element _a' of S such that a · a' = e. That is, for any element, you can find some element that "annihilates" it.

There are lots of examples of groups — the integers under the operation of addition, for example, where e is 0, and the annihilator for any integer is simply its negative (because x + (-x) always equals 0.)

There are also lots of things you can prove are true about any group (that is, about groups in general.) For instance, that e is unique: if a · x = a and a · y = a then x = y = e. (This particular property will become relevant very soon, so keep it in mind as you read the next section.)

The set on which a group is based can have any number of elements. Research and literature in group theory often concentrates on finite groups, because these are in some ways more interesting, and they are useful in error-correcting codes and other applications. However, the set of Burro programs is countably infinite, so we will be dealing with infinite groups here.

Theory of Computation

I don't need to call on a lot of theory of computation here except to point out one fact: for any program, there are an infinite number of equivalent programs. There are formal proofs of this, but they can be messy, and it's something that should be obvious to most programmers. Probably the simplest example, in Brainfuck, is that +-, ++--, +++---, ++++----, etc., all have the same effect.

To be specific, by "program" here I mean "program text" in a particular language; if we're talking about "abstract programs" in no particular language, then you could well say that there is only and exactly one program that does any one thing, it's just that there are an infinite number of concrete representations of it.

This distinction becomes important with respect to treating programs as elements of a group, like we're doing in Burro. Some program will be the neutral element e. But either many programs will be equivalent to this program — in which case e is not unique, contrary to what group theory tells us — or we are talking about abstract programs independent of any programming language, in which case our goal of defining a particular language called "Burro" for this purpose seems a bit futile.

There are a couple of ways this could be resolved. We could foray into domain theory, and try to impose a group structure on the semantics of programs irrespective of the language they are in. Or we could venture into representation theory, and see if the program texts can act as generators of the group elements. Both of these approaches could be interesting, but I chose an approach that I found to be less of a distraction, and possibly more intuitive, at the cost of introducing a slight variation on the notion of a group.

Group Theory, revisited

To this end, let's examine the idea of a group over an equivalence relation. All this is, really, is being specific about what constitutes "equals" in those group axioms I listed earlier. In mathematics there is a well-established notion of an equivalence relation — a relationship between elements which paritions a set into disjoint equivalence classes, where every element in a class is considered equivalent to every other element in that same class (and inequivalent to any element in any other class.)

We can easily define an equivalence relation on programs (that is, program texts.) We simply say that two programs are equivalent if they have the same semantics: they map the same inputs to the same outputs, they compute the same function, they "do the same thing" as far as an external observer can tell, assuming he or she is unconcerned with performance issues. As you can imagine, this relation will be very useful for our purpose.

We can also reformulate the group axioms using an equivalence relation. At the very least, I can't see why it should be invalid to do so. (Indeed, this seems to be the general idea behind using "quotients" in abstract algebra. In our case, we have a set of program texts and a "semantic" equivalence relation "are equivalent programs", and the quotient set is the set of all computable functions regardless of their concrete representation.)

So let's go ahead and take that liberty. The resulting algebraic structure should be quite similar to what we had before, but with the equivalence classes becoming the real "members" of the group, and with each class containing many individual elements which are treated interchangably with respect to the group axioms.

I'll summarize the modified definition here. A group over an equivalence relation is a triple 〈S,·,≡〉 where:

  • S is a set
  • · : S × S → S is a binary operation over S
  • ≡ is a reflexive, transitive, and symmetrical binary relation over S

where the following axioms are also satisfied:

  • a, b, c ∈ S: (a · b) · ca · (b · c)
  • e ∈ S: ∀ a ∈ S: a · ee · aa
  • a ∈ S: ∃ a' ∈ S: a · a'e

Every theorem that applies to groups should be easy to modify to be applicable to a group over an equivalence relation: just replace = with ≡. So what we have, for example, is that while any given e itself might not be unique, the equivalence class E ⊆ S that contains it is: E is the only equivalence class that contains elements like e and, for the purposes of the group, all of these elements are interchangeable.

Syntax and Semantics

Five-instruction Foundation

Burro is intended to be Brainfuck-like, so we could start by examining which parts of Brainfuck are already suitable for Burro and which parts will have to be modified or rejected.

First, note that Brainfuck is traditionally very lenient about what constitutes a "no-op" instruction. Just about any symbol that isn't explicitly mentioned in the instruction set is treated as a no-op (and this behaviour turns out to be useful for inserting comments in programs.) In Burro, however, we'll strive for better clarity by defining an explicit "no-op" instruction. For consistency with the group theory side of things, we'll call it e. (Of course, we won't forget that e lives in an equivalence class with other things like +- and the zero-length program, and all of these things are semantically interchangeable. But e gives us a nice, single-symbol, canonical program form when we want to talk about it.)

Now let's consider the basic Brainfuck instructions +, -, <, and >. They have a nice, symmetrical organization that is ideally suited to group structure, so we will adopt them in our putative Burro design.

On the other hand, the instructions . and , will require devising some kind of annihilator for interactive input and output. This seems difficult at least, and not really necessary if we're willing to forego writing "Hunt the Wumpus" in Burro, so we'll leave them out for now. The only input for a Burro program is, instead, the initial state of the tape, and the only output is the final state.

In addition, [ and ] will cause problems, because as we saw in the introduction, [-]+[] is an infinite loop, and it's not clear what we could use to annihilate it. We'll defer this question for later and for the meantime leave these instructions out, too.

What we're left in our "Burro-in-progress" is essentially a very weak subset of Brainfuck, with only the five instructions +-><e. But this is a starting point that we can use to see if we're on the right track. Do the programs formed from strings of these instructions form a group under concatenation over the semantic equivalence relation? i.e., Does every Burro program so far have an inverse?

Let's see. For every single-instruction Burro program, we can evidently find another Burro instruction that, when appended to it, "cancels it out" and makes a program with the same semantics as e:

Instruction Inverse Concatenation Net effect
+ - +- e
- + -+ e
> < >< e
< > <> e
e e ee e

Note that we once again should be more explicit about our requirements than Brainfuck. We need to have a tape which is infinite in both directions, or else < wouldn't always be the inverse of > (because sometimes it'd fail in some way like falling off the edge of the tape.) And, so that we don't have to worry about overflow and all that rot, let's say cells can take on any unbounded negative or positive integer value, too.

But does this hold for any Burro program? We can use structural induction to determine this. Can we find inverses for every Burro program, concatenated with a given instruction? (In the following table, b indicates any Burro program, and b' its inverse. Also note that bb' is, by definition, e.)

Instruction Inverse Concatenation Net effect
b+ -b' b+-b'beb'bb' e
b- +b' b-+b'beb'bb' e
b> <b' b><b'beb'bb' e
b< >b' b<>b'beb'bb' e
beb eb'b'eb' bb' e

Looks good. However, this isn't an abelian group, and concatenation is definately not commutative. So, to be complete, we need a table going in the other direction, too: concatenation of a given instruction with any Burro program.

Instruction Inverse Concatenation Net effect
+b b'- +bb'-+e-+- e
-b b'+ -bb'+-e+-+ e
>b b'< >bb'<>e<>< e
<b b'> <bb'><e><> e
ebb b'eeb'b' bb' e

So far, so good, I'd say. Now we can address to the problem of how to restrengthen the language so that it remains as powerful as Brainfuck.


Obviously, in order for Burro to be as capable as Brainfuck, we would like to see some kind of looping mechanism in it. But, as we've seen, Brainfuck's is insufficient for our purposes, because it allows for the construction of infinite loops that we can't invert by concatenation.

We could insist that all loops be finite, but that would make Burro less powerful than Brainfuck — it would only be capable of expressing the primitive recursive functions. The real challenge is in having Burro be Turing-complete, like Brainfuck.

This situation looks dire, but there turns out to be a way. What we do is borrow the trick used in languages like L00P and Version (and probably many others.) We put a single, implicit loop around the whole program. (There is a classic formal proof that this is sufficient — the interested reader is referred to the paper "Kleene algebra with tests" (Footnote 1), which gives a brief history, references, and its own proof.)

This single implicit loop will be conditional on a special flag, which we'll call the "halt flag", and we'll stipulate is initially set. If this flag is still set when the end of the program is reached, the program halts. But if it is unset when the end of the program is reached, the flag is reset and the program repeats from the beginning. (Note that although the halt flag is reset, all other program state (i.e. the tape) is left alone.)

To manipulate this flag, we introduce a new instruction:

Instruction Semantics
! Toggle halt flag

Then we check that adding this instruction to Burro's instruction set doesn't change the fact that Burro programs form a group:

Instruction Inverse Concatenation Net effect
! ! !! e
!b b'! !bb'!!e!!! e
b! !b' b!!b'beb'bb' e

Seems so. Now we can write Burro programs that halt, and Burro programs that loop forever. What we need next is for the program to be able to decide this behaviour for itself.


OK, this is the ugly part.

Let's add a simple control structure to Burro. Since we already have repetition, this will only be for conditional execution. To avoid confusion with Brainfuck, we'll avoid [] entirely; instead, we'll use () to indicate "execute the enclosed code (once) if and only if the current cell is non-zero".

Actually, let's make it a bit fancier, and allow an "else" clause to be inserted in it, like so: (/) where the code before the / is executed iff the cell is non-zero, and the code after the / is executed iff it is zero.

(The reasons for this design choice are subtle. They come down to the fact that in order to find an inverse of a conditional, we need to invert the sense of the test. In a higher-level language, we could use a Boolean NOT operation for this. However, in Brainfuck, writing a NOT requires a loop, and thus a conditional. Then we're stuck with deciding how to invert the sense of that conditional, and so forth. By providing NOT-like behaviour as a built-in courtesy of /, we dodge the problem entirely. If you like, you can think of it as meeting the aesthetic demands of a symmetrical language: the conditional structures are symmetrical too.)

A significant difference here with Brainfuck is that, while Brainfuck is a bit lacksidaisical about matching up ['s with ]'s, we explicitly disallow parentheses that do not nest correctly in Burro. A Burro program with mismatched parentheses is an ill-formed Burro program, and thus not really a Burro program at all. We turn up our nose at it; we aren't even interested in whether we can find an inverse of it, because we don't acknowledge it. This applies to the placement of / outside of parentheses, or the absence of / in parentheses, as well.

(The reasons for this design choice are also somewhat subtle. I originally wanted to deal with this by saying that (, /, and ) could come in any order, even a nonsensical one, and still make a valid Burro program, only with the semantics of "no-op" or "loop forever" or something equally representative of "broken." You see this quite often in toy formal languages, and the resulting lack of syntax would seem to allow the set of Burro instructions to be a "free generator" of the group of Burro programs, which sounds like it might have very nice abstract-algebraical properties. The problem is that it potentially interferes with the whole "finding an antiprogram" thing. If a Burro program with mismatched parentheses has the semantics of "no-op", then every Burro program has a trivial annihilator: just tack on an unmatching parenthesis. Similarly, if malformed programs are considered to loop forever, how do you invert them? So, for these reasons, Burro has some small amount of syntax — a bit more than Brainfuck is usually considered to have, but not much.)

Now, it turns out we will have to do a fair bit of work on () in order to make it so that we can always find a bit of code that is the inverse of some other bit of code that includes ().

We can't just make it a "plain old if", because by the time we've finished executing an "if", we don't know which branch was executed — so we have no idea what the "right" inverse of it would be. For example,


After this has finished executing, the current cell could contain 0 - but is that because it was already 0 before the ( was encountered, and nothing happened to it inside the "if"... or is it because it was 1 before the ( was encountered, and decremented to 0 by the - instruction inside the "if"? It could be either, and we don't know — so we can't find an inverse.

We remedy this in a somewhat disappointingly uninteresting way: we make a copy of the value being tested and squirrel it away for future reference, so that pending code can look at it and tell what decision was made, and in so doing, act appropriately to invert it.

This information that we squirrel away is, I would say, a kind of continuation. It's not a full-bodied continuation, as the term continuation is often used, in the sense of "function representing the entire remainder of the computation." But, it's a bit of context that is retained during execution that is intended to affect some future control flow decision — and that's the basic purpose of a continuation. So, I will call it a continuation, although it is perhaps a diminished sort of continuation. (In this sense, the machine stack where arguments and return addresses are stored in a language like C is also a kind of continuation.)

These continuations that we maintain, these pieces of information that tell us how to undo things in the future, do need to have an orderly relationship with each other. Specifically, we need to remember to undo the more recent conditionals first. So, we retain the continuations in a FIFO discipline, like a stack. Whenever a ( is executed, we "push" a continuation into storage, and when we need to invert the effect of a previous conditional, we "pop" a continuation from storage.

To actually accomplish this latter action we need to define the control structure for undoing conditional tests. We introduce the construct {\}, which works just like (/), except that the value that it tests doesn't come from the tape — instead, it comes from the continuation. We establish similar syntactic rules about matching every { with a } and an intervening \, in addition to a rule that says every {\} must be preceded by a (/).

With this, we're very close to having an inverse for conditionals. Consider:


If the current cell contains 0 after (-/e), the continuation will contain either a 1 or a 0 (the original contents of the cell.) If the continuation contains a 0, the "else" part of {+\e} will be executed — i.e. nothing will happen. On the other hand, if the continuation contains a 1, the "then" part of {+\e} will be executed. Either way, the tape is correctly restored to its original (pre-(-/e)) state.

There are still a few details to clean up, though. Specifically, we need to address nesting. What if we're given


How do we form an inverse of this? How would the following work?


The problem with this, if we collect continuations using only a naive stack arrangement, is that we don't remember how many times a ( was encountered before a matching ). The retention of continuations is still FIFO, but we need more control over the relationships between the continuations.

The nested structure of the (/)'s suggests a nested structure for collecting continuations. Whenever we encounter a ( and we "push" a continuation into storage, that continuation becomes the root for a new collection of continuations (those that occur inside the present conditional, up to the matching ).) Since each continuation is both part of some FIFO series of continuations, and has the capacity to act as the root of it's own FIFO series of continuations, the continuations are arranged in a structure that is more a binary tree than a stack.

This is perhaps a little complicated, so I'll summarize it in this table. Since this is a fairly operational description, I'll use the term "tree node" instead of continuation to help you visualize it. Keep in mind that at any given time there is a "current continuation" and thus a current tree node.

Instruction: (

  • Create a new tree node with the contents of the current cell
  • Add that new node as a child of the current node
  • Make that new node the new current node
  • If the current cell is zero, skip one instruction past the matching /

Instruction: /

  • Skip to the matching )

Instruction: )

  • Make the parent of the current node the new current node

Instruction: {

  • Make the most recently added child of the current node the new current node
  • If the value of the current node is zero, skip one instruction past the matching \

Instruction: \

  • Skip to the matching }

Instruction: }

  • Make the parent of the current node the new current node
  • Remove the old current node and all of its children

Now, keeping in mind that the continuation structure remains constant across all Burro programs equivalent to e, we can show that control structures have inverses:

Instruction Inverse Test result Concatenation Net effect
a(b/c)d d'{b'\c'}a' zero acdd'c'a'acc'a'aa' e
a(b/c)d d'{b'\c'}a' non-zero abdd'b'a'abb'a'aa' e

There you have it: every Burro program has an inverse.


There are two reference interpreters for Burro. burro.c is written in ANSI C, and burro.hs is written in Haskell. Both are BSD licensed. Hopefully at least one of them is faithful to the execution model.


The executable produced by compiling burro.c takes the following command-line arguments:

burro [-d] srcfile.bur

The named file is loaded as Burro source code. All characters in this file except for ><+-(/){\}e! are ignored.

Before starting the run, the interpreter will read a series of whitespace-separated integers from standard input. These integers are placed on the tape initially, starting from the head-start position, extending right. All unspecified cells are considered to contain 0 initially.

When the program has halted, all tape cells that were "touched" — either given initially as part of the input, or passed over by the tape head — are output to standard output.

The meanings of the flags are as follows:

  • The -d flag causes debugging information to be sent to standard error.

The C implementation performs no syntax-checking. It approximates the unbounded Burro tape with a tape of finite size (defined by TAPE_SIZE, by default 64K) with cells each capable of containing a C language long.


The Haskell version of the reference implementation is meant to be executed from within an interactive Haskell environment, such as Hugs. As such, there is no command-line syntax; the user simply invokes the function burro, which has the signature burro :: String -> Tape -> Tape. A convenience constructor tape :: [Integer] -> Tape creates a tape from the given list of integers, with the head positioned over the leftmost cell.

The Haskell implementation performs no syntax-checking. Because Haskell supports unbounded lists and arbitrary-precision integers, the Burro tape is modelled faithfully.


I hadn't intended to come up with anything in particular when I started designing Burro. I'm hardly a mathematician, and I didn't know anything about abstract algebra except that I found it intriguing. I suppose that algebraic structures have some of the same appeal as programming languages, what with both dealing with primitive operators, equivalent expression forms, and so forth.

I was basically struck by the variety of objects that could be shown to have this or that algebraic structure, and I wanted to see how well it would hold up if you tried to apply these structures to programs.

Why groups? Well, the original design goal for Burro was actually to create a Brainfuck-like language where the set of possible programs forms the most restricted possible magma (i.e. the one with the most additional axioms) under concatenation. It can readily been seen that the set of Brainfuck programs forms a semigroup, even a monoid, under concatenation (left as an exercise for the interested reader.) At the other extreme, if the set of programs forms an abelian group under concatenation, the language probably isn't going to be very Brainfuck-like (since insisting that concatenation be commutative is tantamount to saying that the order of instructions in a program doesn't matter.) This leaves a group as the reasonable target to aim for, so that's what I aimed for.

But the end result turns out to be related to reversible computing. This shouldn't have been a surprise, since groups are one of the simplest foundations for modelling symmetry; it should have been obvious to me that trying to make programs conform to them, would make them (semantically) symmetrical, and thus reversible. But, it wasn't.

We may ask: in what sense is Burro reversible? And we may compare it to other esolangs in an attempt to understand.

Well, it's not reversible in the sense that Befreak is reversible — you can't pause it at any point, change the direction of execution, and watch it "go backwards". Specifically, you can't "undo" a loop in Burro by executing 20 iterations, then turning around and "un-executing" those 20 iterations; instead, you "undo" the loop by neutralizing the toggling of the halt flag. With this approach, inversion is instead like the loop never existed in the first place.

If one did want to make a Brainfuck-like language which was reversible more in the sense that Befreak is reversible, one approach might be to add rules like "+ acts like - if the program counter is incoming from the right". But, I haven't pondered on this approach much at all.

Conversely, the concatenation concept doesn't have a clear correspondence in a two-dimensional language like Befreak — how do you put two programs next to each other? Side-by-side, top-to-bottom? You would probably need multiple operators, which would definately complicate things.

It's also not reversible in the same way that Kayak is reversible — Burro programs need not be palindromes, for instance. In fact, I specifically made the "then" and "else" components of both (/) and {\} occur in the same order, so as to break the reflectional symmetry somewhat, and add some translational similarity.

Conversely, Kayak doesn't cotton to concatenation too well either. In order to preserve the palindrome nature, concatenation would have to occur both at the beginning and the end simultaneously. I haven't given this idea much thought, and I'm not sure where it'd get you.

Lastly, we could go outside the world of esolangs and use the definition of reversible computing given by Mike Frank (Footnote 2):

When we say reversible computing, we mean performing computation in such a way that any previous state of the computation can always be reconstructed given a description of the current state.

Burro appears to qualify by this definition — almost. The requirement that we can reconstruct any previous state is a bit heavy. We can definately reconstruct states up to the start of the last loop iteration, if we want to, due to the mechanism (continuations) that we've defined to remember what the program state was before any given conditional.

But what about before the last loop iteration? Each time we reach the end of the program text with halt flag unset, we repeat execution from the beginning, and when this happens, there might still be one or more continuations in storage that were the result of executing (/)'s that did not have matching {\}'s.

We didn't say what happens to these "leftover" continuations. In fact, computationally speaking, it doesn't matter: since syntactically no {\} can precede any (/), those leftover continuations couldn't actually have any affect during the next iteration. Any {\} that might consume them next time 'round must be preceded by a (/) which will produce one for it to consume instead.

And indeed, discarding any continuation that remains when a Burro program loops means that continuations need occupy only a bounded amount of space during execution (because there is only a fixed number of conditionals in any given Burro program.) This is a desirable thing in a practical implementation, and both the C and Haskell reference implementations do just this.

But this is an implementation choice, and it would be equally valid to write an interpreter which retains all these leftover continuations. And such an interpreter would qualify as a reversible computer under Mike Frank's definition, since these continuations would allow one to reconstruct the entire computation history of the program.

On this last point, it's interesting to note the similarity between Burro's continuations and Kayak's bit bucket. Although Burro continuations record the value tested, they really don't need to; they could just contain bits indicating whether the tests were successes or failures. Both emptying the bit bucket, and discarding continuations, results in a destruction of information that prevents reversibility (and thermodynamically "generates heat") but allows for a limit on the amount of storage required.


I began formulating Burro in the summer of 2005. The basic design of Burro was finished by winter of 2005, as was the C implementation. But its release was delayed for several reasons. Mainly, I was busy with other (ostensibly more important) things, like schoolwork. However, I also had the nagging feeling that certain parts of the language were not quite described correctly. These doubts led me to introduce the concept of a group over an equivalence relation, and to decide that Burro needed real syntax rules (lest inverting a Burro program was "too easy.") So it wasn't until spring of 2007 that I had a general description that I was satisfied with. I also wanted a better reference implementation, in something a bit more abstract and rigorous than C. So I wrote the Haskell version over the summer of 2007.

In addition, part of me wanted to write a publishable paper on Burro. After all, group theory and reversible computing are valid and relatively mainstream research topics, so why not? But in the end, considering doing this was really a waste of my time. Densening my writing style to conform to acceptable academic standards of impermeability, and puffing up my "discovery" to acceptable academic standards of self-importance, really didn't appeal to me. There's no sense pretending, in high-falutin' language, that Burro represents some profound advance in human knowledge. It's just something neat that I built! And in the end it seemed just as valuable, if not moreso, to try to turn esolangers on to group theory than to turn academics on to Brainfuck...

Happy annihilating!

-Chris Pressey
Cat's Eye Technologies
October 26, 2007
Windsor, Ontario, Canada


Footnote 1

Footnote 2