Makefile Programming Language Tutorial


January 6, 2022

Makefile language is a functional, dynamically typed language, and of course, it is Turing complete. It’s probably the most popular, unpopular programming language, widely adopted in many programming projects (especially ones using C as the main language). While it shares many features with other functional languages, it has rather an unorthodox syntax.

In the following tutorial, I would be assuming that you are using a Unix-like operating system. GNU Make is probably already preinstalled, so you don’t need to do anything.

The code examples can be found here.


Makefiles have two flavors of variables. The simple expanded variables work like ordinary variables, we can assign values to them (:=), access, and modify their values. Let’s take the following code as an example:


    echo $(GREET) World

Makefile does not have a REPL environment, so to run it we first need to save it into a file, we’ll use file for it. Next, we can run it using the make command:

$ make -f
echo Hi World
Hi World

Alternatively, a variable can be passed to the program when calling it:

$ make -f GREET=Hello
echo Hello World
Hello World

As you can see, the variable assignments are only used to define the default values. To set variables that could not be changed by the user, use the overwrite keyword.

Another kind of variable is the recursively expanded, assigned with =. Those variables behave similarly to pointers because they can point to other variables and will change when the variables they refer to change. This is best illustrated with an example.


    @ echo $(GREET) World  # with @ the command is not printed

If we used instead


and didn’t provide the value for neither GREET nor MESSAGE, GREET would be null by default and print as an empty string, like below.

$ make -f

However with GREET = $(MESSAGE), it expands to the value it points to:

$ make -f
Hi World
$ make -f GREET=Hola
Hola World
$ make -f MESSAGE=Hello
Hello World
$ make -f GREET=Hola MESSAGE=Hello
Hola World

Variables are defined by a convention on the top of the Makefile. They cannot be modified within the functions, the code below won’t work.

    MESSAGE := Hello
    @ echo $(MESSAGE) World
$ make -f invalid
MESSAGE := Hello
make: MESSAGE: No such file or directory
make: *** [invalid] Error 1

What this means for us, is that we need to treat the data as immutable and embrace the functional programming style.


Like other lisps, Makefile natively supports list data structures and has several methods for interacting with lists:

  • $(words $(LIST)) returns the size of the LIST,
  • $(firstword $(LIST)) returns the first element of the LIST,
  • $(word $(N), $(LIST)) returns Nth element of the LIST,
  • $(wordlist $(START), $(END), $(LIST)) returns elements from START to END (inclusive),
  • variable += value adds value to variable, treating variable as a list.

To do (cons cat cdr) as in Scheme, in Makefile we just need to construct it is a regular string "$(CAT) $(CDR)".

Lists are passed as strings with elements separated by spaces, LIST="1 2 3 4" is a list of four elements. Unlike other lisps, Makefile does not have native support for lists of lists or other data structures, so implementing them is left as an exercise for the user.

Makefile has foreach and filter methods for working with lists that may be known to users of other functional programming languages (foreach corresponds to map). To implement the function that reduces the list, we need to use recursion.


Functions (or targets as they are called) in Makefile are defined by writing their name followed by :, where the code starts from the next line indented with tab (sorry space users). The syntax might feel familiar to Python, Haskell, or OCaml programmers.

GREET := Hello

    @ echo "$(GREET) World!"

    @ echo $(shell date)

By default, Makefile assumes the first function in the file to be the main entry point (like the main function in Go).

$ make -f
Hello World!
$ make -f date
Tue 4 Jan 20:47:28 CET 2022

We can of course call functions from other functions. For example, we could define another function that would invoke the two functions above.

    @ $(MAKE) -f hello GREET=Hi
    @ echo "It's" "$(shell $(MAKE) -f date)"

To call the other functions, we used the $(MAKE) command. If directory contains only one Makefile, $(MAKE) alone can be used, but when there are multiple Makefiles available, we need to name the specific file. In the first line of the function, we called make alone, but in the second line its output was passed as an argument to another function, so we needed to call it with $(shell command) (see below).

The example above shows also how Makefile code can be grouped into packages (files) and imported. The -f syntax helps to distinguish the source of the function like Go (e.g. fmt.Println) or Python (e.g. datetime.datetime) do use the dot instead.

Remember that each line of the function is executed in its own subshell so they don’t share their states. This can be changed using .ONESHELL target.

Chained functions

Makefiles support chained execution of the functions, where a function can define its dependencies that will be called before executing it.

numbers: one two three

    @ echo One

    @ echo Two

    @ echo Three

Since the functions don’t share any state, the only way to pass data between them is through writing and reading files.


Makefile has four conditional statements: ifeq (two values are equal), ifneq (two values are not equal), ifdef (value is defined), and ifndef (value is not defined). The two latter methods, check if the variable was defined rather than if its value was set. If you want to check for an empty value, use

ifeq ($(VARIABLE), )
# do things

The conditional statements can be chained

conditional-directive-one text-if-one-is-true else conditional-directive-two text-if-two-is-true else text-if-one-and-two-are-false endif

The statements can sometimes be tricky. For example, calling make -f invalid won’t work


ifeq ($(VARIABLE), 1)
    echo 1
    echo 0

ifeq ($(shell $(MAKE) -f cond), 1)
    echo "it's 1"
    echo "it's not 1"

because Makefile has a rather specific order of executing and expanding stuff. In fact, the Makefile with invalid rule won’t work at all, because Makefile won’t be able to parse a script that recursively calls make in the conditional statement. Instead, use something like the below:

ifeq ($(CONDITION), 1)
    echo "it's 1"
    echo "it's not 1"

    $(MAKE) -f impl CONDITION="$(shell $(MAKE) -f cond)"

By doing this, we first call cond and pass the result to the CONDITION variable that is evaluated in the ifeq condition.

Since Makefile does not come with other comparison operators than checking for equality and inequality, they need to be implemented by the user using Bash test command (or something else).

less = $(shell test "$(1)" \< "$(2)"; echo $$?)

ifeq ($(call less, $(A), $(B)), 0)
    @ echo "$(A) < $(B)"
    @ echo "$(A) >= $(B)"

Conditionals can be used also outside functions when defining variables.


Makefile has a very simple syntax. Same as lisp, it doesn’t have for loops and instead we need to use recursion. Consider the simple recursive function that sums elements of a LIST:

TOTAL := 0
HEAD := $(firstword $(LIST))
TAIL := $(wordlist 2, $(words $(LIST)), $(LIST))

ifeq ($(LIST), )
    @ echo $(TOTAL)
    $(MAKE) -f LIST="$(TAIL)" TOTAL=$(shell expr $(TOTAL) + $(HEAD))

As you can see, the function uses the accumulator pattern, common in functional programming languages. It iterates over LIST, chopping off elements from the beginning of the array and adding them to TOTAL variable that is printed at the end.

When using recursion, it may be a good idea to add MAKEFLAGS += --no-print-directory to the script. It will silence the Make messages informing about every new call to make.

Unit testing

While Makefile does not come out of a box with unit testing utilities, it can be easily implemented by the user. An example is shown below.

    @ echo $(shell expr 2 + 2)

ifeq ($(RESULT), $(EXPECTED))
    $(info "OK!")
    $(error "Test failed")

    $(MAKE) -f assert RESULT="$(shell $(MAKE) -f testme)" EXPECTED=4

Metaprogramming with macros

While Makefile’s metaprogramming utilities are not as impressive as with some lisps, they still can be quite helpful. Makefile supports macros in two forms. We saw one form of macros in the section on conditionals when defining the less macro that was called using $(call macro,args...). You might have noticed that in fact less is a named lambda function.

The second kind of macro is declared using the define block and called the same way as variables. The second kind of macro is snippets of code that get pasted to the code at the execution time.

define date
    $(shell date)

sum = $(shell expr $(1) + $(2))

    @ echo "Today is" "$(date)"
    @ echo "2 + 2 =" $(call sum,2,2)

Interacting with other programming languages

Makefiles can interact with any program that can be called from the command line. To do this, just use the $(shell command) that executes the command in Shell. This can be used for expanding conditionals or for arithmetics using expr, etc.


To give a slightly more complicated example, below I show the implementation of Quicksort algorithm in Makefile. The code uses variables, calling internal functions with $(MAKE), conditionals, and recursion.

MAKEFLAGS += --no-print-directory
HEAD := $(firstword $(LIST))
TAIL := $(wordlist 2, $(words $(LIST)), $(LIST))

lt = $(shell test $(1) \< $(2); echo $$?)

    @ $(MAKE) impl LIST="$(TAIL)" PIVOT="$(HEAD)" LEFT= RIGHT=

ifeq ($(PIVOT), )
    @ echo
else ifeq ($(LIST), )
    @ echo $(shell $(MAKE) LIST="$(LEFT)") $(PIVOT) $(shell $(MAKE) LIST="$(RIGHT)")
else ifeq ($(call lt, $(HEAD), $(PIVOT)), 0)
    @ $(MAKE) impl LIST="$(TAIL)" LEFT="$(LEFT) $(HEAD)" PIVOT="$(PIVOT)" RIGHT="$(RIGHT)"
    @ $(MAKE) impl LIST="$(TAIL)" LEFT="$(LEFT)" PIVOT="$(PIVOT)" RIGHT="$(HEAD) $(RIGHT)"

Another example shows a tail-recursive implementation of the Fibonacci sequence generator. Unfortunately, to my best knowledge Makefile does not support tail call optimization as many functional programming languages do, so it would be rather slow. The example also shows a limitation of integer type numbers, as it will overflow when using NUMBER over 91.

MAKEFLAGS += --no-print-directory

ifeq ($(NUMBER), 0)
    echo $(CURRENT)
    $(MAKE) NUMBER=$(shell expr $(NUMBER) - 1) CURRENT=$(NEXT) NEXT=$(shell expr $(CURRENT) + $(NEXT))

For other examples, here you can find tic-tac-toe game implemented in Make, and here someone implemented integer arithmetics in pure Makefile (no expr or Bash).