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GNU Emacs Lisp Reference Manual

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2.3.15 Primitive Function Type

A primitive function is a function callable from Lisp but written in the C programming language. Primitive functions are also called subrs or built-in functions. (The word "subr" is derived from "subroutine".) Most primitive functions evaluate all their arguments when they are called. A primitive function that does not evaluate all its arguments is called a special form (see section 9.2.7 Special Forms).

It does not matter to the caller of a function whether the function is primitive. However, this does matter if you try to redefine a primitive with a function written in Lisp. The reason is that the primitive function may be called directly from C code. Calls to the redefined function from Lisp will use the new definition, but calls from C code may still use the built-in definition. Therefore, we discourage redefinition of primitive functions.

The term function refers to all Emacs functions, whether written in Lisp or C. See section 2.3.13 Function Type, for information about the functions written in Lisp.

Primitive functions have no read syntax and print in hash notation with the name of the subroutine.

(symbol-function 'car)          ; Access the function cell
                                ;   of the symbol.
     => #<subr car>
(subrp (symbol-function 'car))  ; Is this a primitive function?
     => t                       ; Yes.

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