Scheme is a functional programming language and one of the two main dialects of the programming language Lisp. Unlike Common Lisp, the other main dialect, Scheme follows a minimalist design philosophy specifying a small standard core with powerful tools for language extension.

Scheme was created during the 1970s at the MIT AI Lab and released by its developers, Guy L. Steele and Gerald Jay Sussman, via a series of memos now known as the Lambda Papers. It was the first dialect of Lisp to choose lexical scope and the first to require implementations to perform tail-call optimization, giving stronger support for functional programming and associated techniques such as recursive algorithms. It was also one of the first programming languages to support first-class continuations. It had a significant influence on the effort that led to the development of Common Lisp.

The Scheme language is standardized in the official IEEE standard and a de facto standard called the Revisedn Report on the Algorithmic Language Scheme (RnRS). The most widely implemented standard is R5RS (1998); a new standard, R6RS, was ratified in 2007. Scheme has a diverse user base due to its compactness and elegance, but its minimalist philosophy has also caused wide divergence between practical implementations, so much that the Scheme Steering Committee calls it “the world’s most unportable programming language” and “a family of dialects” rather than a single language.


Main article: History of the Scheme programming language


Scheme started in the 1970s as an attempt to understand Carl Hewitt’s Actor model, for which purpose Steele and Sussman wrote a “tiny Lisp interpreter” using Maclisp and then “added mechanisms for creating actors and sending messages.” Scheme was originally called “Schemer”, in the tradition of other Lisp-derived languages like Planner or Conniver. The current name resulted from the authors’ use of the ITS operating system, which limited filenames to two components of at most six characters each. Currently, “Schemer” is commonly used to refer to a Scheme programmer.


A new language standardization process began at the 2003 Scheme workshop, with the goal of producing an R6RS standard in 2006. This process broke with the earlier RnRS approach of unanimity.

R6RS features a standard module system, allowing a split between the core language and libraries. A number of drafts of the R6RS specification were released, the final version being R5.97RS. A successful vote resulted in the ratification of the new standard, announced on August 28, 2007.

Currently the newest releases of various Scheme implementations, such as Chez Scheme, Racket, Ikarus, Larceny and Ypsilon, support the R6RS standard. There is a portable reference implementation of the proposed implicitly phased libraries for R6RS, called psyntax, which loads and bootstraps itself properly on various older Scheme implementations.

R6RS introduces numerous significant changes to the language. The source code is now specified in Unicode, and a large subset of Unicode characters may now appear in Scheme symbols and identifiers, and there are other minor changes to the lexical rules. Character data is also now specified in Unicode. Many standard procedures have been moved to the new standard libraries, which themselves form a large expansion of the standard, containing procedures and syntactic forms that were formerly not part of the standard. A new module system has been introduced, and systems for exception handling are now standardized. Syntax-rules has been replaced with a more expressive syntactic abstraction facility (syntax-case) which allows the use of all of Scheme at macro expansion time. Compliant implementations are now required to support Scheme’s full numeric tower, and the semantics of numbers have been expanded, mainly in the direction of support for the IEEE 754 standard for floating point numerical representation.


The R6RS standard has caused controversy because it is seen to have departed from the minimalist philosophy. In August 2009, the Scheme Steering Committee which oversees the standardization process announced its intention to recommend splitting Scheme into two languages: a large modern programming language for programmers; and a small version, a subset of the large version retaining the minimalism praised by educators and casual implementors. Two working groups were created to work on these two new versions of Scheme. The Scheme Reports Process site has links to the working groups’ charters, public discussions and issue tracking system.

The ninth draft of R7RS (small language) was made available on April 15, 2013. A vote ratifying this draft closed on May 20, 2013, and the final report has been available since August 6, 2013, describing “the ‘small’ language of that effort: therefore it cannot be considered in isolation as the successor to R6RS.”

Distinguishing features

See also: Lisp (programming language)

Scheme is primarily a functional programming language. It shares many characteristics with other members of the Lisp programming language family. Scheme’s very simple syntax is based on s-expressions, parenthesized lists in which a prefix operator is followed by its arguments. Scheme programs thus consist of sequences of nested lists. Lists are also the main data structure in Scheme, leading to a close equivalence between source code and data formats (homoiconicity). Scheme programs can easily create and evaluate pieces of Scheme code dynamically.

The reliance on lists as data structures is shared by all Lisp dialects. Scheme inherits a rich set of list-processing primitives such as cons, car and cdr from its Lisp progenitors. Scheme uses strictly but dynamically typed variables and supports first class procedures. Thus, procedures can be assigned as values to variables or passed as arguments to procedures.

This section concentrates mainly on innovative features of the language, including those features that distinguish Scheme from other Lisps. Unless stated otherwise, descriptions of features relate to the R5RS standard.

In examples provided in this section, the notation “===> result” is used to indicate the result of evaluating the expression on the immediately preceding line. This is the same convention used in R5RS.

Fundamental design features

This subsection describes those features of Scheme that have distinguished it from other programming languages from its earliest days. These are the aspects of Scheme that most strongly influence any product of the Scheme language, and they are the aspects that all versions of the Scheme programming language, from 1973 onward, share.


Main article: Minimalism (computing)

Scheme is a very simple language, much easier to implement than many other languages of comparable expressive power. This ease is attributable to the use of lambda calculus to derive much of the syntax of the language from more primitive forms. For instance of the 23 s-expression-based syntactic constructs defined in the R5RS Scheme standard, 11 are classed as derived or library forms, which can be written as macros involving more fundamental forms, principally lambda. As R5RS says (R5RS sec. 3.1): “The most fundamental of the variable binding constructs is the lambda expression, because all other variable binding constructs can be explained in terms of lambda expressions.”

Source: Wikipedia

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