Does Go Have Subtyping?

October 19, 2023 code go language

I’ve been noodling on a static type system for my current hobby language. To try to keep the language as simple as possible, I’m trying to see if I can live without subtyping. Since most of my programming experience is in object-oriented languages, I’ve been learning more about languages that lack—or at least claim to lack—subyping, to see how they work.

The most intriguing one to me is Go because the authors say it doesn’t have subtyping, but when you look at interfaces, it does seem to have something really close to subtyping. Is it subtyping just under another name, or is there really something different going on?

This post is the answer to that question as best as I can tell. The short answer is that no, Go doesn’t have subtyping. But also, yes, it sort of does.

What is subtyping?

If you’re reading my blog, you probably already know what subtyping is, but let’s make sure we’re all starting from the same place. Subtyping defines a relation between two types. Given two types A and B, it might be the case that B is a subtype of A, or it might not be.

Since subtyping is a relation between a pair of types, it only comes into play in a language in places where two types are involved. The main place is assignment. You have a variable with type A and you’re assigning the result of an expression of type B to it. Is that assignment allowed?

Programming language folks usually generalize “assignment” to mean any place where a variable is given some value. That includes assignment expressions, but also covers initialized variable declarations and function calls where argument values are bound to parameters at the top of the function.

There are a couple of other places where subtyping comes into play, usually around type inference, but assignment is the main one: You have a context that requires some type A and a value of some type B. What are the types A and B where that code is valid?

That question is the heart of what a type checker does. The main user interface of a static system is compile errors, and the most common compile error is “I expected a value of this type but you gave me a value or this other type”.

Why have subtyping?

You have a context that expects type A and you give it a value of type B. In languages without subtyping, that’s only OK if A and B are the exact same type. In Pascal, if you declare a variable with type int, the only thing you can initialize it with is a value of type int. Subtyping exists largely to loosen that restriction—to allow multiple different types to flow into some context. Why might a language want to permit that?

The reason is polymorphism: Subtyping lets you write a piece of code and reuse that same code with a range of different (but related) types. In languages without subtyping, you can often find yourself copy/pasting the same function to work with multiple different input types. (Generics can help, but that’s another form of polymorphism that we’ll ignore for this post.)

In say, Java, if you define a method that takes an Iterable, then you can pass a List to it, a Stack, etc. You get to amortize the usefulness of that method across all types that implement the Iterable interface. Subtyping is a force multiplier for your code.

(Of course, that benefit isn’t without significant costs in terms of language complexity, which is why I’m hoping to avoid it.)

Does Go have subtyping?

If you search the (extremely well-written!) Go language spec for “subtype”, you get zero results. So the answer is a clear “no” at the textual level.

Java does have subtyping. Now, if you were to make a new language named “Blava” that was a literal copy/paste of the Java language specification with every use of “subtype” replaced with “blubtype”, would you say that Blava has subtyping? It behaves indistinguishably from a language with subtyping, so I’d be inclined to say yes.

The Go spec doesn’t mention “subtype”, but it does have a notion of “assignability”. When you have a context that expects some type and you give it a value of some other type, assignability determines which set of other types are allowed. Concretely, the rules are:

  • A non-interface type T is assignable to an interface type I if T implements I.

  • An interface type A is assignable to interface type B if A’s methods are a subset of B’s.

You know, that sounds an awful lot like subtyping. Is “assignable to” just Rob Pike’s idiosyncratic way of saying “subtype of”? Does Go have subtyping in everything except name? To fully answer that, we’ll need to look at all of the kinds of types in a program.

Composite types and variance

If the only types in Go’s type system were primitives like numbers, structs, and interface then I think you’d have a good argument that Go does have subtyping, just spelled differently. But once you start looking at slice types and function types, the story changes. (And array and channel types too, but slices and functions are enough to make the point.)

The thing that these latter kinds of types have in common is that they contain other types. A slice type has an inner type for the slice elements. A function type has a list of parameter types and a list of return types.

You ready for some more computer science jargon? We’ve been talking about relations on pairs of types like “is subtype” and “is assignable”. But now we have types that contain other types. That raises the question of whether a relation on the inner types of two composite types says anything about the relation between the two outer types.

For example, let’s say we have two slice types []E1 and []E2 that are slices of elements of E1 and E2, respectively. If E1 is assignable to E2 does that mean that []E1 is assignable to []E2? Does the assignability “propagate” from the inner types to the outer types?

Computer scientists call this property (meta-property?) variance. They phrase the question like “how does assignability of slice types vary with respect to their element types?”. There are a few possible answers to a question like this.

Variance of slice types

For slice types in Go specifically, there are a handful of assignability rules, but the only one that can apply to slice types is:

  • V and T are identical.

In other words, for two slice types to be assignable, they have to be the exact same type. That in turn means they must have the exact same element types. Even if two element types are assignable, slices of those two types are not.

Judging by an endless series of confused people asking questions on StackOverflow, that behavior is unintuitive to programmers, both in Go and in other languages. Let’s say you have this Go program:

type Dog struct {
  name string

type Barker interface {

func (d Dog) Bark() {

Here we have a Dog concrete type, which is assignable to the interface Barker. So this is fine:

func speak(barker Barker) {

func main() {

Given that, you might expect this to work too:

func speakAll(barkers []Barker) {
  for _, barker := range barkers {

func main() {
  dogs := []Dog{Dog{"Sparky"}, Dog{"Fido"}}

But, no. The type system giveth and the type system taketh away:

example.go:29:11: cannot use dogs (variable of type []Dog) as
[]Barker value in argument to speakAll

If the type system didn’t yell at you, this program would be fine at runtime. So what’s the deal? In this case, the program is coincidentally fine because speakAll() is only reading from the slice. But what if we wrote:

type Tree struct {
  species string

func (t Tree) Bark() {
  fmt.Println("Rough (but not ruff)!")

func appendTree(barkers []Barker) []Barker {
  return append(barkers, Tree{"Elm"})

There’s nothing wrong with this appendTree() function. It adds a Tree to the given slice. Since Tree is assignable to Barker, that’s fine. But if you were to call this and pass in a []Dog, you’d end up with an array of dogs that had a tree stuck in it! That would violate the soundness of the language.

This is why Go only treats two slice types as assignable if they have the exact same element types. In PL parlance, slice types are invariant with respect to their element types. And, for a mutable data structure like slices, that rule makes sense.

(A reasonable person might wonder then why Java and C# don’t have this rule and instead say that array types are assignable if their element types are. And then, because as you can see, it isn’t safe to do so, they have to add runtime checks if you try to stuff an element of the wrong type into the array.)

So, OK, it makes sense for slice (and array) types to be invariant. What about function types?

Variance of function types

To keep things simple, first we’ll consider just functions that don’t take any parameters and have a single return type. Given two function types like that, when are they assignable? Again, the only rule in the Go language spec that matches function types is V and T are identical. So two function types are only assignable if they have the exact same return types. Even if the return types are themselves assignable, if they are different types, the functions aren’t assignable.

Do we need to be that strict to preserve soundness? Actually, no! Here’s an example:

func returnDog() Dog {
  return Dog{"Rex"}

func useCallback(callback func() Barker) {
  barker := callback()

func main() {

So we have a function, returnDog that returns a value of type Dog. We pass a reference to that function that expects a function that returns a Barker. The Dog type does implement Barker. If this program were run, it would be perfectly safe. And, in fact, there’s nothing you could put inside useCallback() that would make passing returnDog violate the soundness of the type system.

It’s theoretically safe… but Go disallows it:

./prog.go:49:14: cannot use returnDog (value of type func() Dog) as
func() Barker value in argument to useCallback

Every other language I know that has subtyping and function types allows this. A function type A is a subtype of another function type B if the return type of A is a subtype of the return type of B. So the subtyping relation of the return types propagates out to determine the subtype relation of the function types. We call this covariance and say that function types are covariant in their return types. The “co-” prefix means that the subtyping relation between the inner types goes in the “same direction” as the subtyping relation it implies about the outer types.

That direction matters because relations like subtyping and assignability aren’t symmetric. The Dog type is assignable to Barker, but Barker is not assignable to Dog. The underlying value might be a Tree!

Are there cases where the variance of an inner type doesn’t go in the same direction as the outer types? Indeed there is, and they’re right there next to us. Instead of return types, let’s look at parameter types. Now let’s say we only care about functions that accept a single parameter and return nothing. Here’s an example:

func acceptBarker(barker Barker) {

func useCallback(callback func(Dog)) {

func main() {

Note that the parameter types are flipped compared to the return type example. Here, the callback type in useCallback() takes a more precise type of Dog. The function we pass to it, acceptBarker has a parameter whose type is Barker.

You may feel a slight disorientation here. The code feels weird and sort of backwards. Wait a minute and the dizziness will pass. Dramamine might help.

While this definitely isn’t as intuitive as return types being covariant, if you think about it carefully, you’ll see that the above program is completely sound. In other languages with subtyping, function type A is a subtype of function type B if the parameter types of B are subtypes of the parameter types of A. Note how A and B are reversed in the second half of that sentence. The variance of parameter types is reversed. In technical terms, we say that function types are contravariant in their parameter types. The prefix “contra-” means “against”.

(You might wonder what happens when you have a function type with a parameter whose type is itself a function type with some parameter type. How does that flow out? When there’s two levels of nesting it flips around to going in the same direction as the outermost type. The way I think about it is that contravariance is a 180° flip in the direction of the relation. If you nest contravariant types, you flip it twice and get back to the original direction.)

Contravariant parameter types are sound, but again Go doesn’t allow them. Two function types are only assignable if their parameter types are exactly the same.

Invariance in Go

In every language I know with subtyping, function types are covariant in their return types and contravariant in their parameter types. But in Go, function types are invariant.

Go is not a language known for getting in the programmer’s way when they want to do something, so why are function types more restrictive than would be necessary for soundness?

It’s not just function types either. All composite types are invariant in Go: arrays, slices, channels, maps, functions. So ground types—types that don’t contain any other type—have some subtype-like notion of assignability. But once you wrap a type in another, any notion of assignability goes away.

Why did the designers of Go do that? If you’re going to bother having interfaces and assignability, why not go all the way and have assignability for functions and other composite types where its sound?

If all the designers cared about was semantic correctness and having a beautiful elegant specification written in LaTeX, then they probably would have supported variance, at least for functions. (The other types all should be invariant since they are mutable. When types can flow both in and out, any other variance isn’t sound.)

But Go was designed from day one to be a high-performance systems language. It’s the exact opposite of an ivory tower language designed for proofs and publications. The goal of the language is to let real users ship real applications. And, importantly, be able to ship fast applications and reason about the performance of their code.

Representing values

Up to this point, we’ve only been concerned with how types flow through the type checker at compile time. But—assuming there are no compile errors—the compiler eventually excretes some code which gets executed at runtime. When that happens, all of the types the type checker poked at have cracked out of their chrysalides and emerged as beautiful runtime value butterflies flitting around in memory.

The choice of how values of different types are represented in memory has a massive effect on performance. So how do the rules around assignability and subtyping interact with those representation choices?

In many object-oriented languages (Java, C#, Python, etc.) values of object types are represented by pointers to a heap-allocated structure. That structure has some header information for garbage collection and runtime type tracking, maybe some kind of pointer to a vtable for virtual method dispatch, then (finally!) the memory used to store the instance’s fields.

There are differences between language implementations, of course, but objects are generally both:

  1. Slow to create since they are allocated on the heap.

  2. Fairly large with some additional bookkeeping information stored for every single object.

  3. Indirect, where a variable or field whose type is an object holds only a pointer to that object, which is always on the heap. Accessing state on an object always requires a pointer indirection which can be slow due to poor locality and cache misses.

Struct types

Those are unnacceptable costs for a systems language like Go. When you want runtime polymorphism, of course, you have to pay for it somehow. But if you’re just storing data in memory, Go doesn’t want to make you pay for something you aren’t using. To that end values of struct types in Go store just the bytes needed for the struct’s own fields.

If a field of a struct is itself some struct type, the inner struct’s fields are splatted directly into the surrounding struct’s contiguous memory. If you have a local variable of a struct type, the fields are stored right on the stack (unless you take a pointer to the struct which escapes the function).

This reduces memory overhead for structs and (probably more importantly for performance) reduces pointer indirections. In a typical Java program, the heap ends up being a huge spiderweb of tiny objects all pointing to each other and the poor CPU an exhausted spider traipsing all over that web trying to find the actual bits of data it wants to eat.

In a typical Go program, more state is stored directly on the stack, and the heap is “chunkier” with fewer, larger blobs of memory. The CPU does fewer hops around the heap and chews on bigger cookies of data every time it does. That makes memory access more cache friendly and also lightens the load on the garbage collector since there are fewer individual allocations to traverse.

(Java does something similar for primitive types, as does C# for struct types.)

Interface types

So structs are fast, great. But Go does feature runtime polymorphism in the form of interfaces. How does interface method dispatch work if a value is stored directly inline with no extra data to track its runtime type or method implementations?

The answer is that interfaces have a completely different runtime representation. A variable of interface type takes up two words:

  1. A pointer to the type information used for runtime dispatch of the interface methods (in other words, basically a vtable).

  2. A pointer to the actual data used by the concrete type implementing the interface. (In cases where the data is just a single word, I think it’s stored inline.)

The cute industry term for a representation like this is “fat pointer”: instead of a single word with a single pointer, it’s a pair of them, one for data and one for some kind of metadata or bookkeeping information.

One of the really cool things about Go is that you only use this representation—you only pay for the increased memory and indirection cost of this representation—when you ask for it and when you need it. In places where you need some virtual dispatch, you use an interface type and accept the overhead of a fat pointer and indirection. But in places where you just want to store a single concrete type, you use its underlying type and the memory is stored directly inline.

C# supports a similar distinction with classes and structs. But that’s mostly a “declaration time” choice. Once you’ve decided something is a class, every variable of that class’s type will store it as a reference to a heap-allocated object. Conversely, if you’ve declared something as a struct, it will always be stored inline on the stack or in the containing object (unless you go out of your way to box it).

In Go, the distinction between stored inline versus stored indirectly is made at each use site. That leads to some additional complexity for the user: they always have to think “should I use an interface, pointer, or struct type here?”, but it gives them more fine-grained control over how they spend memory and pointer indirection costs.

Implicit conversions

We’re close to understanding why Go lets you assign a struct to an interface but not a slice of those same structs to a slice of that same interface.

If structs and interfaces have entirely different memory representations, how does assignability work at all? When you do:

type Dog struct{
  name string

type Barker interface {

func main() {
  var barker Barker = Dog{"Rex"}

Shouldn’t that just mangle memory when it tries to treat the memory representation of a struct as if it were an interface? The answer is of course no. When compiling your code, Go knows the type of every variable and every expression. At every assignment, variable declaration, or parameter binding, it reports an error if the value isn’t assignable to the destination.

When the value is assignable, it still also knows whether or not those types are the same. If they’re exactly identical, then the assignment can be compiled to a single register move or memory copy. When they are different but still assignable types, the compiler silently inserts code to convert the value type’s memory representation to the destination type’s representation.

When you assign a value of a struct type to an interface type, the compiler inserts code to build a fat pointer, wire up its method table pointer to the right interface implementation, move the struct’s data onto the heap, etc.

Likewise, if you assign one interface type to another, the compiler inserts code to copy the data pointers over but look up the correct method table for the destination interface given the type information of the value’s interface type.

This right here is the reason that all composite types are invariant in Go. When assigning a single value to a related but different type, the compiler can easily insert fixed-cost code to convert the value’s runtime representation to the destination type’s. But to convert a slice of some struct type to a slice of an interface type would require an O(n) traversal of the entire slice to convert each element.

Function types are even harder. In order to support covariant return types and contravariant parameter types, the compiler would need to insert conversion code somewhere, but there’s no right place to put it. Putting it inside the function itself doesn’t work because it might be called with a variety of different parameter types and we don’t know what to convert it from. Putting it at the callsite before the parameters are passed likewise wouldn’t work because we don’t know what types every callback might require.

There is potentially something clever you could do by supporting multiple entrypoints to functions for each pair of source and destination types, but with multiple parameters you quickly run the risk of exponential code size explosions.

This is why languages that do support subtyping and variance almost always have a uniform memory representation for all objects that participate in the subtype hierarchy.

Does Go have subtyping?

If you make it this far, congratulations. This ended up being a much deeper dive than I expected. I learned a lot exploring this corner of the language space and I hope you learned something too.

Getting back to the original question, I think we could accurately describe Go’s subtyping story in two equivalent ways:

I started digging into this not because I’m an active Go user and want to know what’s going on under the hood. My job and hobby is designing programming languages, so I want to know how other languages work to see what good ideas are out there to be harvested.

So the question always on my mind at this point is, “Why did they design it this way and does that choice make sense in other languages?” And for this specific design choice, I think it’s pretty cool. You can imagine a language wanting three things:

Those are all nice to have features, but it’s really hard to get all three at once. Most object-oriented languages sacrifice the first one to get the other two. That gives you flexibility and expressiveness but at a pervasive runtime cost spread throughout the entire program.

Some simpler statically-typed languages like C, Pascal, and SML give up polymorphism and variance which can give you more efficient representations at the cost of less code reuse.

Languages like C++ and Rust more or less give you all three at the expense of the compiler monomorphizing and generating specialized versions of every function that can work with multiple types, which makes compilation much slower and can have some runtime costs from all of the extra code sitting around in memory.

Go is aiming for a sweet spot where they give you fast compiles, efficient runtime execution, and as much flexibility as they can get away with. It sacrifices variance but keeps polymorphism at the individual value level. That married with implicit conversions enables non-uniform representation. Of the three, variance is probably the least valuable for users, so I think that’s a pretty smart trade-off.