Tech Report CS-89-33

A Denotational Semantics of Inheritance

William R. Cook

May 1989


This thesis develops a semantic model of inheritance and investigates its applications for the analysis and design of programming languages. Inheritance is a mechanism for incremental programming in the presence of self-reference. This interpretation of inheritance is formalized using traditional techniques of fixed-point theory, resulting in a compositional model of inheritance that is directly applicable to object-oriented languages. Novel applications of inheritance revealed by the model are illustrated to show that inheritance has wider significance beyond object-oriented class inheritance. Constraints induced by self-reference and inheritance are investigated using type theory and yield a formal characterization of abstract classes and a demonstration that the subtype relation is a direct consequence of the basic mechanism of inheritance. The model is proven equivalent to the operational semantics of inheritance embodied by the interpreters of object-oriented languages like Smalltalk. Concise descriptions of inheritance behavior in several object-oriented languages, including Smalltalk, Beta, Simula, and Flavors, are presented in a common framework that facilitates direct comparison of their features.

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