Signature polymorphic methods in Scala

Monday 17 July 2023

Seth Tisue, Lightbend

Java 7 introduced a curious and little-known feature to the Java Virtual Machine: “signature polymorphic” methods. These methods have strangely malleable types.

This blog post explains the feature and why it exists. We also delve into how it is specified and implemented in both Scala 2 and Scala 3.

The Scala 3 implementation is new, and that’s the occasion for this blog post. Thanks to this recent work, Scala 3 users can now access the entire Java reflection API, as of Scala 3.3.0.

Should I keep reading?

Signature polymorphism is admittedly an obscure feature. When you need it you need it, but the need doesn’t arise in ordinary Scala code. Thus, the remaining material may be of interest primarily to JVM aficionados, Scala and Java language mavens, and compiler hackers.

When is signature polymorphism needed?

Compiler support is needed when you use some portions of the Java reflection API, namely MethodHandle (since Java 7) and VarHandle (since Java 9).

MethodHandle provides reflective access to methods on JVM classes, regardless of whether the methods were defined in Java, Scala, or some other JVM language. VarHandle does the same, but for fields.

The polymorphism of these methods makes them more efficient, by avoiding boxing overhead when primitive values are passed, returned, or stored.

Is signature polymorphism supported in Scala?

Yes: since Scala 2.11.5, and more fully since Scala 2.12.16. Scala 3 now has the support too, as of Scala 3.3.0.

The initial Scala 2 implementation was done by Jason Zaugg in 2014 and refined later by Lukas Rytz. The latest version, with all fixes, landed in Scala 2.12.16 (released June 2022).

Recently, Dale Wijnand ported the feature to Scala 3, with the assistance of Guillaume Martres and myself, Seth Tisue.

Jason, Lukas, Dale, and myself are members of the Scala compiler team at Lightbend. We maintain Scala 2 and also contribute to Scala 3. Guillaume has worked on the Scala 3 compiler for some years, previously at LAMP and now at the Scala Center.

What signature polymorphic methods exist?

You may already have run into this feature if you have used the MethodHandle and VarHandle classes from the Java reflection API in the Java standard library.

In fact, MethodHandle and VarHandle are the only places you could possibly have run into this feature!

That’s because users are not allowed to define their own signature polymorphic methods. Only the Java standard library can do that, and so far, the creators of Java have only used the feature in these two classes.

What does “signature polymorphism” mean, exactly?

There is a formal description in JLS 15.12.3, but a more readable version is in the Javadoc for MethodHandle. It says:

A signature polymorphic method is one which can operate with any of a wide range of call signatures and return types.


In source code, a call to a signature polymorphic method will compile, regardless of the requested symbolic type descriptor. As usual, the Java compiler emits an invokevirtual instruction with the given symbolic type descriptor against the named method. The unusual part is that the symbolic type descriptor is derived from the actual argument and return types, not from the method declaration.

Note that generics are not sufficient to express this level of flexibility, for two reasons:

First, Java generics only work on reference types, not primitive types. Scala does not have this limitation, but pays for it by incurring boxing at run-time when primitive types are used in generic contexts.

Second, methods (in both languages) may only have a fixed number of type parameters, but we need one varying type for each parameter of the method we want to call reflectively.

The following example should help make all of this clearer.

How do I call a signature polymorphic method from Scala?

Take MethodHandle for example. It provides an invokeExact method. Its signature as seen from Scala is:

def invokeExact(args: AnyRef*): AnyRef

Signature polymorphism means that the AnyRefs here are just placeholders for types to be supplied later.

To see this work in practice, let’s adapt an example from the Javadoc. From Scala, we’ll make a reflective call to the replace method on a String:

import java.lang.invoke._
val mt = MethodType.methodType(
  classOf[String], classOf[Char], classOf[Char])
val mh = MethodHandles.lookup.findVirtual(
  classOf[String], "replace", mt)
val s = mh.invokeExact("daddy", 'd', 'n'): String

If we paste this into the Scala REPL (2 or 3), we see:

val s: String = nanny

Signature polymorphism helped us here in two ways:

  • The arguments d and n will not be passed as Object or boxed to java.lang.Character at runtime, but will be passed directly as primitive Chars.
  • The result comes back as a String without needing to be checked or cast at runtime.

Are these methods good for anything else?

Great question!

Doesn’t it seem puzzling that the designers of Java would go to so much trouble to make Java reflection faster? If I care so much about performance, shouldn’t I avoid using reflection entirely?

The real reason these methods need to be fast is to aid efficient implementation of dynamic languages on the JVM. MethodHandle was added to the JVM at the same time as invokeDynamic, as part of JSR-292, which aimed to support efficient implementation of JRuby and other alternative JVM languages. (invokeDynamic is additionally used for implementing lambdas, in both Java and Scala; see this writeup on Stack Overflow.)

How is this implemented in Scala 2?

Jason Zaugg describes his initial JDK 7 implementation in PR 4139 and shows how the resulting bytecode looks.

See also these well-documented followups: PR 5594 for JDK 9, PR 9530 for JDK 11, and PR 9930 for JDK 17.

What’s different in the Scala 3 version?

We had to work harder in Scala 3 because it wasn’t enough to have an an in-memory representation for signature polymorphic call sites. The call sites must also have a representation in TASTy, so we had to add a new TASTy node type. (Scala 2 pickles only represent method signatures; in contrast, TASTy represents method bodies too.)

To represent a signature polymorphic call site internally, we synthesize a method type based on the types at the call site. One can imagine the original signature-polymorphic method as being infinitely overloaded, with each individual overload only being brought into existence as needed.

For details, see the pull request.

The path not taken

Along the way we explored an alternative approach, suggested by Jason, which involved rewriting each call site to include a cast to a structural type containing an appropriately typed method.

In that version, the replace call-site in the example above was rewritten from:

mh.invokeExact("daddy", 'd', 'n'): String


  MethodHandle {
    def invokeExact(a0: String, a1: Char, a2: Char): String
].invokeExact("daddy", 'd', 'n')

(The actual rewrite was applied to in-memory ASTs, rather than to source code.)

The transformed code could be written and read as TASTy without trouble. Later in compilation, we detected which call sites are the product of this transform, drop the cast, and emit the correct bytecode.

In the end, we didn’t go with this approach. As Sébastien Doeraene pointed out, although this approach avoided adding a new TASTy tag, it also gave new semantics to existing tags that older compilers wouldn’t understand. Therefore the work still couldn’t ship until the next minor version of the compiler. Besides, avoiding the new tag complicated the implementation.

Questions? Discussion?

These are welcome on the Scala Contributors forum thread.