ML (‘Meta Language’) is a general-purpose functional programming language. It has roots in Lisp, and has been characterized as “Lisp with types”. It is known for its use of the polymorphic Hindley–Milner type system, which automatically assigns the types of most expressions without requiring explicit type annotations, and ensures type safety – there is a formal proof that a well-typed ML program does not cause runtime type errors. ML provides pattern matching for function arguments, garbage collection, imperative programming, call-by-value and currying. It is used heavily in programming language research and is one of the few languages to be completely specified and verified using formal semantics. Its types and pattern matching make it well-suited and commonly used to operate on other formal languages, such as in compiler writing, automated theorem proving and formal verification.
Features of ML include a call-by-value evaluation strategy, first-class functions, automatic memory management through garbage collection, parametric polymorphism, static typing, type inference, algebraic data types, pattern matching, and exception handling. ML uses static scoping rules.
ML can be referred to as an impure functional language, because although it encourages functional programming, it does allow side-effects (like languages such as Lisp, but unlike a purely functional language such as Haskell). Like most programming languages, ML uses eager evaluation, meaning that all subexpressions are always evaluated, though lazy evaluation can be achieved through the use of closures. Thus one can create and use infinite streams as in Haskell, but their expression is indirect.
ML’s strengths are mostly applied in language design and manipulation (compilers, analyzers, theorem provers), but it is a general-purpose language also used in bioinformatics, financial systems, and applications including a genealogical database and a peer-to-peer client/server program.
ML was developed by Robin Milner and others in the early 1970s at the University of Edinburgh, whose syntax is inspired by ISWIM. Historically, ML was conceived to develop proof tactics in the LCF theorem prover (whose language, pplambda, a combination of the first-order predicate calculus and the simply-typed polymorphic lambda calculus, had ML as its metalanguage).
Today there are several languages in the ML family; the two major dialects are Standard ML (SML) and Caml, but others exist, including F# – a language that Microsoft supports for their .NET platform. Ideas from ML have influenced numerous other languages, like Haskell, Cyclone, Nemerle, ATS, and Elm.
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