C is a general-purpose programming language. It has been closely associated with the UNIX operating system where it was developed, since both the system and most of the programs that run on it are written in C. The language, however, is not tied to any one operating system or machine; and although it has been called a ‘‘system programming language’’ because it is useful for writing compilers and operating systems, it has been used equally well to write major programs in many different
Many of the important ideas of C stem from the language BCPL, developed by Martin Richards. The influence of BCPL on
C proceeded indirectly through the language B, which was written by Ken Thompson in 1970 for the first UNIX system on
the DEC PDP-7.
BCPL and B are ‘‘typeless’’ languages. By contrast, C provides a variety of data types. The fundamental types are characters, and integers and floating point numbers of several sizes. In addition, there is a hierarchy of derived data types created with pointers, arrays, structures and unions. Expressions are formed from operators and operands; any expression, including an assignment or a function call, can be a statement. Pointers provide for machine-independent address arithmetic.
C provides the fundamental control-flow constructions required for well-structured programs: statement grouping, decision making (if-else), selecting one of a set of possible values (switch), looping with the termination test at the top (while, for) or at the bottom (do), and early loop exit (break).
Functions may return values of basic types, structures, unions, or pointers. Any function may be called recursively. Local variables are typically ‘‘automatic’’, or created anew with each invocation. Function definitions may not be nested but variables may be declared in a block-structured fashion. The functions of a C program may exist in separate source files that are compiled separately. Variables may be internal to a function, external but known only within a single source file, or visible to the entire program.