Cortege: a Row-polymorphic Tuple


Every once in a while I stumble upon some tuple code like this:

let fst3 (x,_,_) = x
let snd3 (_,x,_) = x
let thd3 (_,_,x) = x

let fst4 (x,_,_,_) = x
let snd4 (_,x,_,_) = x
let thd4 (_,_,x,_) = x
let for4 (_,_,_,x) = x

Or even like this:

instance Upd1 b (a1,a2) (b,a2) where
  upd1 b (a1,a2) = (b,a2)
instance Upd1 b (a1,a2,a3) (b,a2,a3) where
  upd1 b (a1,a2,a3) = (b,a2,a3)
instance Upd1 b (a1,a2,a3,a4) (b,a2,a3,a4) where
  upd1 b (a1,a2,a3,a4) = (b,a2,a3,a4)
instance Upd1 b (a1,a2,a3,a4,a5) (b,a2,a3,a4,a5) where
  upd1 b (a1,a2,a3,a4,a5) = (b,a2,a3,a4,a5)
instance Upd1 b (a1,a2,a3,a4,a5,a6) (b,a2,a3,a4,a5,a6) where
  upd1 b (a1,a2,a3,a4,a5,a6) = (b,a2,a3,a4,a5,a6)

It always made me wonder if we could do better. Couldn’t we come up with a more polymorphic tuple type for which we could write select, update, and other functions without the need to duplicate the implementation for each tuple size?!

There seems to be a gap in our type systems. We have nominal variants, and their counterparts, row-polymorphic variants. We have nominal records and row-polymorphic records. We have tuples. So where are all the row-polymorphic tuples?!

Let’s employ our wishful thinking and imagine how they might look like.

Bananan Notation

OCaml row-polymorphic object type may look like this:

< width : int; height : int; .. >

The implicit row variable (..) tells us that more fields are allowed. So why can’t we say the same about tuples? Let’s use banana brackets for our imaginary row-polymorphic tuple:

Then you could write selector functions that work for any such tuple of appropriate size. For example, accessor function for the first element would require a tuple of size one or more:

val first  : (| 'a, .. |) -> 'a
val second : (| _, 'a, .. |) -> 'a
val third  : (| _, _, 'a, .. |) -> 'a

Similar story with polymorphic update functions:

module Update : sig
  val first  : 'x -> (| 'a, .. |) -> (| 'x, .. |)
  val second : 'x -> (| 'a, 'b, .. |) -> (| 'a, 'x, .. |)
  val third  : 'x -> (| 'a, 'b, 'c, .. |) -> (| 'a, 'c, 'x, .. |)
As well as other polymorphic functions:
val prepend : 'a -> (| .. |) -> (| 'a, .. |)
val swap : (| 'a, 'b, .. |) -> (| 'b, 'a, .. |)
val tail : (| 'a, .. |) -> (| .. |)

I am a little fast-and-loose with notation here. We would probably need to make row variables explicit to be able to say that they unify on both sides of an arrow:

val tail : (| 'a, .. as 'row |) -> (| .. as 'row |)

So what is stopping us from having such row-polymorphic tuples in a language like OCaml?! Nothing, really!

GADT Cortege

Here’s cortege: a row-polymorphic tuple, implemented here using GADT:

module Cortege = struct
  type _ t =
    | [] : unit t
    | (::) : 'a * 'b t -> ('a -> 'b) t
At value-level, it is a simple linked list. We also encode the type of each tuple element inside a type-level linked list. We could use any type-level linked list, for example:
type nil
type ('head, 'tail) cons

However, we instead use the unit for nil and (->) for cons. Unit type corresponds neatly to our unit cortege, while the function type (->) is convenient because of the infix notation.

Here’s the correspondence between our notation and the Cortege type:

(| 'a, 'b |)      ⇒  ('a -> 'b -> unit) Cortege.t
(| 'a |)          ⇒  ('a -> unit) Cortege.t
(| |)             ⇒  unit Cortege.t
(| 'a, 'b, .. |)  ⇒  ('a -> 'b -> 'row) Cortege.t
(| 'a, .. |)      ⇒  ('a -> 'row) Cortege.t
(| .. |)          ⇒  'row Cortege.t

Since OCaml version 4.03 we can re-define [] and (::) constructors to overload the list notation. We use this inside the cortege module to conveniently construct our row-polymorphic tuples:

let unit = Cortege.[]
let pair a b = Cortege.[a; b]
let triple a b c = Cortege.[a; b; c]

Let’s define accessor functions:

let first  Cortege0.(x :: _) = x
let second Cortege0.(_ :: x :: _) = x
let third  Cortege0.(_ :: _ :: x :: _) = x

And check that they work on any sufficiently wide cortege:

assert Cortege.(first [true] = true);
assert Cortege.(first [true; "b"] = true);
assert Cortege.(first [true; "b"; `c] = true);

Notice that one-tuple is allowed. Not sure if it is good or not.

Let’s define update functions:

module Update = struct
  let first  x (a :: rest) = x :: rest
  let second x (a :: b :: rest) = a :: x :: rest
  let third  x (a :: b :: c :: rest) = a :: b :: x :: rest
Pattern matching works perfectly. We can both use the list notation and the cons constructor in patterns:
assert begin
  match Cortege.[true; "a"; `b] with
  | Cortege.[true; _; _] -> true
  | Cortege.(false :: _) -> false
As well as our miscelaneous functions:
let prepend a rest = Cortege.(a :: rest)
let swap Cortege.(a :: b :: rest) = Cortege.(b :: a :: rest)
let tail Cortege.(_ :: rest) = rest

Flat Cortege

While with the GADT cortege we gained a more polymorphic tuple type, we lost our ability to represent a tuple with a flat array.

But with a little bit of “magic” and unsafe casting we can re-gain our flat array representation:

module type CORTEGE = sig
  type _ t

  val unit : unit t
  val pair : 'a -> 'b -> ('a -> 'b -> unit) t
  val triple : 'a -> 'b -> 'c -> ('a -> 'b -> 'c -> unit) t

  val prepend : 'head -> 'tail t -> ('head -> 'tail) t

  val first  : ('a -> _) t -> 'a
  val second : (_ -> 'a -> _) t -> 'a
  val third  : (_ -> _ -> 'a -> _) t -> 'a


module Array_backed_cortege : CORTEGE = struct
  type _ t = int array

  let unit = [||]
  let pair a b = [|Obj.magic a; Obj.magic b|]
  let triple a b c = [|Obj.magic a; Obj.magic b; Obj.magic c|]

  let prepend head tail = Array.append [|Obj.magic head|] tail

  let first  t = Obj.magic (Array.unsafe_get t 0)
  let second t = Obj.magic (Array.unsafe_get t 1)
  let third  t = Obj.magic (Array.unsafe_get t 2)


We declare this cortege to be an abstract type backed by an int array. But behind the compiler’s back, we unsafely coerce the values using Obj.magic to fit our heterogeneous values into the array. To understand why this works it is useful to know how OCaml represents values at runtime.

We use the same type parameter structure as we did with GADT to track the types of the contained values, however, in this case, the type parameter is purely a phantom type.

We can even use the faster Array.unsafe_get and Array.unsafe_set in our implementation (which avoid bound checks), because we have encoded the information about the number of elements in a cortege using the phantom type.

At the end of the day, consider this implementation a proof-of-concept that a cortege can be backed by a flat array, but not something useful in practice (unlike the GADT version). Notably, the Array_backed_cortege fails in unsafe ways whenever floats are stored in it, because of OCaml’s special representation for float arrays. We could take that into account and fix the code, but I would still consider it to be unpractical without the “literal” notation and pattern matching.

Right? Left? Both!

We have now established that a row-polymorphic tuple can be expressed in OCaml type system and that it could be backed by a flat array. However, if it is a flat array, and not a linked list, why limit ourselves to representing the “tail” of the tuple as the row type? Why not the start of the tuple? Why not both?

The row variable can stand for an unknown number of elements at any position of the tuple: start, middle, or tail:

We could write accessors for last elements:

val last : (| .., 'a |) -> 'a
val last_but_one : (| .., 'a, _ |) -> 'a

Update functions alike. Or consider a swap function that swaps the first and the last element of any cortege, size two or more:

val swap : (| 'a, .., 'b |) -> (| 'b, .., 'a |)


Cortege is a solution to the problem of tuples being not flexible and not polymorphic enough. However, it could be that we are trying to solve the wrong problem.

Consider Elm, it limits tuples to at most a three-tuple and thus forces the user to switch to a row-polymorphic record instead. PureScript doesn’t have built-in support for tuples at all in the language, also on purpose.

A counterargument could be that, unlike row-polymorphic records, corteges have a notion of order, so would fit well with applications where the order is important. For example, a list of corteges can model tabular data, like a CSV file, without losing the information about the column order.

Another argument is that a Cortege could be implemented as a flat array, unlike a row-polymorphic record.

So it could be that the cortege is a language feature that overlaps too much with other features, like row-polymorphic records. Or it could be a useful practical tool, who knows. I recommend trying to use the GADT cortege for yourself, and over time together we’ll learn if it is any good.


Code from this article is available in a GitHub gist.


Cortege or кортеж is a French-borrowed Russian word for a tuple.


Heterogeneous linked lists, like the GADT cortege, are not a new idea. One reference to it I could find was in an OCaml compiler pull request.

Thanks to my colleague Kristian Støvring for a valuable discussion and for suggesting to use GADT for row-polymorphic tuples.

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