Getting started with Guile Scheme


To start following the tutorial, install guile and launch the REPL with guile command. The following line of text will be displayed:


You can type for instance 1985 and you will now see the following:

scheme@(guile-user)> 1985
$1 = 1985


In this tutorial you will study how to:

Let's go!

Calling a procedure

A procedure is equivalent to what other languages call a function. In Guile the addition is a procedure. To add 27 to 15 one can do:

scheme@(guile-user)> (+ 27 15)
$2 = 42

There is also a minus procedure named - and times named *. Guile is a perfect calculator and support arbitrary big numbers. If it doesn't speak to you, suffice to say that it's very useful for doing science.

Imagine that you have 101 donuts for the year. You'd like to know how many donut you can eat per hour without running out of donut. You solve this big problem using the following code:

scheme@(guile-user)> (/ 101 (* 24 365))
$3 = 101/8760

As you can see it return an exact number. To convert the results to something that is more readable, we can ask Guile to convert the results using the procedure exact->inexact:

scheme@(guile-user)> (exact->inexact $3)
$4 = 0.011529680365296804

In the above $3 reference the result of (/ (* 24 365) 101). If the result count is not the same as the one used above, replace $3 with the value you see.


The REPL is a very useful tool.

The default configuration doesn't use readline. You can activate it using a $HOME/.guile configuration file. Create it and copy/paste the following:

(use-modules (texinfo reflection)) ;; help
(use-modules (ice-9 readline))

Restart the REPL.

You can try to use up and down arrow to navigate history. Use TAB to complete the current input for instance, if you type exact and hit TAB it will display a list of procedures that start with exact.

You can now also use help procedure to get the documentation of procedure.

Toplevel variable definition

The first way to define variables is using the define:

scheme@(guile-user)> (define guilers 1337)

define returns nothing, that's why there no line with a dollar sign.

At the next Guile hackfest 1337 guilers will gather to hack the final cosmits for the Earth Software System. Every hacker is given an apple, three donuts and two chai. How many apples, donuts and chais are needed?

scheme@(guile-user)> (define apple-per-guiler 1)
scheme@(guile-user)> (define apples (* apple-per-guiler guilers))
scheme@(guile-user)> apples
$15 = 1337
scheme@(guile-user)> (define donut-per-guiler 3)
scheme@(guile-user)> (define donuts (* donut-per-guiler guilers))
scheme@(guile-user)> donuts
$16 = 6018
scheme@(guile-user)> (define chai-per-guiler 2)
scheme@(guile-user)> (define chai (* chai-per-guiler guilers))
scheme@(guile-user)> chai
$17 = 4012

How much food in total will be given? Try to guess how to compute the total...

scheme@(guile-user)> (+ chai donuts apples)
$18 = 12036

Got it?

List List List

Scheme is made of list. Maybe you did not recognize it but the parens and what's inside the parens separated by space form a list.

To build your own list you can use the list procedure:

scheme@(guile-user)> (list apples donuts chai)
$19 = (1337 6018 4012)

To retrieve the head of the list you can use the car procedure:

scheme@(guile-user)> (car (list apples donuts chai))
$20 = 1337

Whereas cdr procedure will retrive the tail:

scheme@(guile-user)> (cdr (list apples donuts chai))
$21 = (6018 4012)



Say you already have a list a values that you want to pass as arguments to a procedure. How do you do? Well, for that you use the (apply proc lst) procedure which takes the list LST of arguments to apply to a procedure PROC.

For instance you can compute the sum of a list of integers using:

scheme@(guile-user)> (define everything (list apples donuts chai))
scheme@(guile-user)> (apply + everything)
$22 = 11367


Strings in Guile are similar to string in other languages. The single particular thing is that you can only define strings with double quotes ":

scheme@(guile-user)> (define box (list "1 apples" "3 donuts" "2 chai"))

This is rather simple definition for the box.


Another important datastructure of Guile is the association. It's actually only a list of pairs. A pair is constructed with cons procedure, for instance:

scheme@(guile-user)> (cons "apple" 1)
$20 = ("apple" . 1)

This means that "apple" is associated with 1.

Together cons, car and cdr are list primitives. Higher level procedure exists to deal with more complex situations.

An association is a list of cons.

To define a better representation for the box, we can use the following code:

scheme@(guile-user)> (define box (list (cons "apple" 1) (cons "donuts" 3) (cons "chai" 2)))
scheme@(guile-user)> box
$21 = (("apple" . 1) ("donuts" . 3) ("chai" . 2))

Now we can retrieve the number of chai in a box using assoc-ref procedure:

scheme@(guile-user)> (assoc-ref box "chai")
$22 = 2

Usually the first argument of a procedure is the primary object, the object against which the action is taken.

Toplevel procedure definition

define is also used to define procedure but with small syntax change.

Remember to define a variable the syntax is the following:

(define answer 42)

Let's define ruse procedure that returns itself:

scheme@(guile-user)> (define (ruse) ruse)
scheme@(guile-user)> ruse
$24 = #<procedure ruse ()>
scheme@(guile-user)> (ruse)
$25 = #<procedure ruse ()>

This procedure is not useful, except to explicit the syntax of define to define procedure. The astute reader has noted that the procedure takes no argument. Such procedure is called a thunk. Calling a procedure you defined is done the same way as regular procedures. In this case the procedure takes no argument so it looks different but the principle is the same.

Let's define a procedure that takes two arguments and return the mean:

scheme@(guile-user)> (define (mean a b) (/ (+ a b) 2))
scheme@(guile-user)> (mean 12 12)
$29 = 12

Mind the fact that space and newlines have no effect on the interpretation of scheme code. So the above one liner can be written as follow:

scheme@(guile-user)> (define (mean a b)
                       (/ (+ a b) 2))

Let's try something more complex.

map procedure

One of the most important procedure of Guile is (map proc lst) iterates over a list and apply a procedure over each item. Give a list (list a b c) it will return a new list (list (proc a) (proc b) (proc c)).

For instance we can increment of list of integers:

scheme@(guile-user)> (map 1+ (iota 5))
$30 = (1 2 3 4 5)

Mind the fact, that this is a new list. Try that:

scheme@(guile-user)> (define numbers (iota 5))
scheme@(guile-user)> (define others (map 1+ numbers))
scheme@(guile-user)> (equal? numbers others)
$31 = #f
scheme@(guile-user)> numbers
$32 = (0 1 2 3 4)
scheme@(guile-user)> others
$33 = (1 2 3 4 5)

map create a new list out of the input list.

Making list out of a list

To finish the introduction to the basics we will define a procedure that will simulate a guiler picking a chai from her box. Remember the box is defined as an association:

scheme@(guile-user)> (define box (list (cons "apple" 1) (cons "donuts" 3) (cons "chai" 2)))
scheme@(guile-user)> box
$21 = (("apple" . 1) ("donuts" . 3) ("chai" . 2))

The association is a list, so it can go through map procedure. We will mock the procedure that we want to implement:

scheme@(guile-user)> (define (pick-chai box)
                       (map pair-pick-chai box))

pair-pick-chai takes an item of the box ie. a pair, that's why it's prefixed with pair-. It must decrement the count of chai if it's a "chai" pair or return the pair as-is if it's not. Will need a conditional branch if.

if syntax is the following:

(if predicate

Live it looks like this:

scheme@(guile-user)> (if #true "ok" "ko")
$34 = "ok"

So, if we also use car and cdr, you guess that pair-pick-chai can be defined as:

scheme@(guile-user)> (define (pair-pick-chai pair)
                      (if (equal? (car pair) "chai")
                          (cons "chai" (1- (cdr pair)))

That's all! Well almost... This is a bit naive because there might be no chai left. Maybe you can find how to solve this issue?

Wrapping up

In the first tutorial you studied the basics of Guile: