Java and Migratory Typing

:: migratory typing, java, transient

By: Ben Greenman

The transient approach to migratory typing (circa 2014) is similar to type erasure in Java (circa 2004) in a few interesting ways.

Migratory typing

The goal of migratory typing is to enrich the type system of a language without breaking backwards compatibility. Ideally, code that uses the enriched types:

  • (G1) benefits from new ahead-of-time checks,
  • (G2) benefits from stronger run-time guarantees, and
  • (G3) may interact with all kinds of existing code.

There are tradeoffs involved in the implementation of a migratory typing system, however, and (as we will see) different implementations may focus on different goals than the three above.

A typical migratory typing system adds a static type checker to a dynamically typed language (examples), but one could also extend the type system of a statically-typed language; for example, by adding dependent types. In this sense, Java 1.5.0 is a migratory typing system for pre-generics Java. The addition of generic types enabled new ahead-of-time checks and maintained backwards compatibility with existing Java code.

Java’s implementation of migratory typing has some interesting things in common with the transient implementation strategy recently proposed by Michael Vitousek and collaborators (DLS’14, POPL’17). The goal of this post is to demonstrate the connections.

Erasure migratory typing

Before we compare Java 1.5.0 to transient, let’s review a simpler strategy: the erasure approach to migratory typing.

TypeScript is a great (modern) example of the erasure approach. TypeScript is a migratory typing system for JavaScript. A TypeScript module gets validated by an ahead-of-time type checker and compiles to JavaScript. After compilation, any JavaScript program may import bindings from the generated code. Conversely, a TypeScript module may import bindings from a JavaScript module by declaring a static type for each binding.

The DefinitelyTyped repository provides TypeScript type definitions for many JavaScript libraries.

The TypeScript compiler erases types; every type T in the source code translates to the universal “JavaScript type”. For instance, a TypeScript function declaration compiles to an untyped JavaScript function:

(function (n0 : number, n1 : number) { return n0 + n1; })

// ==(compiles to)==>

(function (n0, n1) { return n0 + n1; })

TypeScript satisfies goals G1 and G3 for a migratory typing system because its type checker adds ahead-of-time checks and its compiler outputs JavaScript. TypeScript does not satisfy goal G2 because the compiler erases types. In terms of the example above, the compiled function may be invoked with any pair of JavaScript values; the variable n0 is not guaranteed to point to a number at run-time. On one hand, this means the type annotations have no effect on the behavior of a program — and in particular, cannot be trusted for debugging. On the other hand, it means that an experienced JavaScript programmer can re-use their knowledge to predict the behavior of a TypeScript program.

In an ordinary program, the run-time guarantees of TypeScript are simply the run-time guarantees of JavaScript:

  • if a TypeScript expression e has the static type T and evaluates to a value v, then the only guarantee is that v is a valid JavaScript value (e.g., T could be number and v could be an incompatible object).

Transient migratory typing

Reticulated is a migratory typing system for Python that follows a transient implementation strategy. A Reticulated module gets type-checked and compiles to a Python module that defends itself from certain type-invalid inputs through the use of assertions that run in near-constant time. The type-checking addresses goal G1, the compilation to Python provides interoperability (goal G3), and the assertions partially meet goal G2.

These certain inputs are the ones that would cause a standard typed operational semantics to reach an undefined state. For a discussion of near-constant, see On the Cost of Type-Tag Soundness, section 2.

For example, here is a Reticulated function that computes the average of a list of numbers:

# Reticulated (commit e478343)
def average(nums : List(Float)) -> Float:
  if ns:
    return sum(ns) / len(ns)
    raise ValueError("average: expected non-empty list")

and here is the Python code it compiles to:

from retic.runtime import *
from retic.transient import *
from retic.typing import *

def average(nums):
    if ns:
        return check_type_float((check_type_function(sum)(ns) / check_type_function(len)(ns)))
        raise check_type_function(ValueError)('average: expected non-empty list')

Note: the Reticulated syntax for type annotations is similar to the one proposed in PEP 484, but not identical. For example, Reticulated does not require forward references to be embedded in strings.

The Reticulated compiler removes all type annotations and inserts check_type assertions throughout the code. In average, these assertions check that: (1) the input is a list, (2) the output is a float, (3) and the names sum len and ValueError point to callable values. That’s all. The assertions do not check that nums contains only floating-point numbers.

The assertions also do not check that the function bound to sum is defined for a single argument, which is arguably a bug. Scaling a model to an implementation is always challenging.

If nums contains something other than floating point numbers, then the call to average may cause sum to raise an exception or it may silently compute a nonsense result. The behavior depends on the implementation of sum in the same way that the behavior of a TypeScript function depends on any JavaScript functions that it invokes.

Reticulated does not erase types, nor does it fully enforce types. Every type in a Reticulated module translates to its top-level type constructor C(T), e.g.:

  C(Float)                = Float
  C(List(Float))          = List
  C(List(Float) -> Float) = ->

Consequently, Reticulated has a slightly stronger run-time guarantee than Python:

  • if e is an expression with static type T that evaluates to a value v, then v is guaranteed to have a top-level shape that matches the C(T) constructor.

Java migratory typing

Java 1.5.0 added generic types to the Java 1.4.0 type system. The benefit of generics is that a programmer can: write one class definition, use the definition in a few different contexts, and receive specific feedback from the type checker in each context.

Review: generic types

Suppose we want to write a Box class that holds some kind of value; the value could be an Integer or a String or anything else. Here is a pre-generics definition:

class Box {
  private Object val;

  public Box(Object val) { this.set(val); }

  public void set(Object val) { this.val = val; }

  public Object get() { return this.val; }

With this definition is it possible to make boxes that hold different types of values:

// good!
Box iBox = new Box(new Integer(4));
Box sBox = new Box(new String("X"));

but it is also possible to “change the type” of the contents of a Box:

// maybe bad!
iBox.set(new String("not a number"));

and some calls to get must be followed by a type cast:

// annoying!
((String) sBox.get()).charAt(0);

With generics, we can give a name (e.g. ValType) to “the type of the value inside a box”:

class GBox<ValType> {
  private ValType val;

  public GBox(ValType val) { this.set(val); }

  public void set(ValType val) { this.val = val; }

  public ValType get() { return this.val; }

and now we can tell the type checker to check different boxes differently (satisfying goal G1):

GBox<Integer> iBox = new GBox<Integer>(new Integer(0));
GBox<String> sBox = new GBox<String>(new String("A"));

// iBox.set(new String("not a number")); // Type Error, good!

sBox.get().charAt(0); // no cast, good!

Backwards compatibility & danger

Java generics are backwards-compatible with older code (goal G3). This means that pre-generics code can interact with instances of a generic class. Vice-versa, generic code can interact with pre-generics classes. Since pre-generics code is not aware of type parameters, these interactions are potentially unsafe. For example, a pre-generics method can change the type of a GBox:

// Java 1.4.0 method
public static void evil(GBox b) { b.set(666); }

// Java 1.5.0 method
public static void test() {
  GBox<String> sBox = new GBox<String>(new String("A"));
  evil(sBox); // OK, but generates unchecked warning

The code above passes the type checker (with a warning about the evil method), and so it seems as though running the code will run the nonsense method call 666.charAt(0) and lead to evil behavior. The actual result, however, is a cast error immediately after the call sBox.get() returns.

Based on the cast error, we can tell that the compiler does not trust the type GBox<String> and inserts a run-time check that the result of the .get() is a string object.

“Calling legacy code from generic code is inherently dangerous; once you mix generic code with non-generic legacy code, all the safety guarantees that the generic type system usually provides are void.” Generics in the Java Programming Language, Section 6.1

Java Type Erasure

In order to support pre-generics and post-generics code on the same virtual machine, the Java compiler erases generic type parameters after type-checking. Everywhere that the compiled code depends on an erased type, such as the String in GBox<String> above, Java adds a cast to prove to the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) that the erased bytecode is type-safe. (A smarter JVM type system might be able to prove that some casts are unnecessary via occurrence typing.)

After erasure, the GBox<ValType> class declaration loses its parameter:

// Erase `ValType`, replace with `Object`
class GBox {
  private Object val;

  public GBox(Object val) { this.set(val); }

  public void set(Object val) { this.val = val; }

  public Object get() { return this.val; }

and the client code gains a cast:

GBox sBox = new GBox(new String("A"));

((String) sBox.get()).charAt(0);

So far, so good. But it’s worth noting that erasure can cause problems with Java arrays. An array needs to know the run-time type of its elements, so the following “natural” definition of an ArrayList is not permitted:

class ArrayList<T> {
  private T[] data;
  private int size;

  public ArrayList(int capacity) {
    data = new T[capacity];
    size = 0;

  public T get(int ix) {
    // TODO bounds check
    return data[ix]

  // ....

The trouble is that T does not say anything about the data that a new array needs to handle: error: generic array creation
    data = new T[capacity];

The only work-arounds require an array of objects and unchecked casts. One solution is to unsafely cast the array to the generic type:

  // possibly dangerous, if `data` is aliased to an `Object[]`
  public ArrayList(int capacity) {
    data = (T[]) new Object[capacity];
    size = 0;

The other is to unsafely cast array elements in the get method, and elsewhere:

class ArrayList<T> {
  private Object[] data;
  private int size;

  public ArrayList(int capacity) {
    data = new Object[capacity];
    size = 0;

  public T get(int ix) {
    return (T) data[ix];

  // ....

Both may potentially lead to heap pollution.

"The decision not to make all generic types [not erased] is one of the most crucial, and controversial design decisions involving the type system of the Java programming language.

"Ultimately, the most important motivation for this decision is compatibility with existing code." Java Language Specification, section 4.7

Run-time guarantees

By contrast to Reticulated’s C(T) transformation, the following G(T) transformation describes generic-type erasure, where T<T1> describes a type T with parameter T1 and A[T1, T2] describes a type variable A with lower bound T1 and upper bound T2:

  G(T<T1>)     = G(T)
  G(A[T1, T2]) = G(T1)
  G(T)         = T      otherwise

If generic-type erasure results in a type mismatch (e.g., in sBox.get().charAt(0) above), the compiler inserts a cast. The inserted casts led to the run-time error in the previous example, and provide the following run-time guarantee:

  • if e is an expression with static type T that evaluates to a value v, then v is guaranteed to match the (bytecode) type G(T)


TypeScript, Reticulated Python, and Java 1.5.0 each improved the type system of an existing language, but maintained backwards compatibility with existing code. The name migratory typing describes this kind of language extension.

Gradual typing is a similar; a gradual type system starts with a statically-typed language and adds dynamic typing in a principled way (example).

The TypeScript team had a choice between erasing types and enforcing types. They chose to erase types and run all code (typed or untyped) at the level of JavaScript. (Some TypeScript libraries, however, can enforce some types.)

TypeScript is not the only erasure language, nor is it the first. The oldest (I think) is MACLISP. For an erasure manifesto, see Pluggable Type Systems.

The Reticulated team faced an analogous choice, and chose to enforce the top-level shape of values in typed code (POPL 2017). It will be interesting to see if this guarantee helps developers maintain programs, or if it is too shallow to be much use. The Pyret language has been successful with comparable shallow checks.

Note: the POPL 2017 paper advertises an “open-world soundness”, but I do not see how this idea is different from the older idea of soundness in a multi-language system (TOPLAS 2009, DLS 2006).

Similarly, the Java team chose to erase generic types in Java 1.5.0 and use shallow casts in the JVM. The casts around type-erased generics provide a minimal level of safety — enough to prevent the use of a generic object from corrupting the state of a VM instance.

Alternatively, Java could enforce full generic types at run-time. Over the years there have been a few proposals to do so (example 1, example 2). The C# language has a similar type system and enforces generics at run-time (sources: blog post, PLDI 2001 paper, backup link to paper)


Thank you to Ryan Culpepper and Jesse Tov for noticing the similarity between Java’s generic-type erasure and transient migratory typing. Jesse commented on an early version of this post, supplied new Java example code, and explained the trouble with generics and arrays.