A common question: “Is Python interpreted or compiled?” Usually, the asker has a simple model of the world in mind, and as is typical, the world is more complicated.
In the simple model of the world, “compile” means to convert a program in a high-level language into a binary executable full of machine code (CPU instructions). When you compile a C program, this is what happens. The result is a file that your operating system can run for you.
In the simple definition of “interpreted”, executing a program means reading the source code a line at a time, and doing what it says. This is the way some shells operate.
In Python, the source code is compiled into a much simpler form called bytecode. These are instructions similar in spirit to CPU instructions, but instead of being executed by the CPU, they are executed by software called a virtual machine. (These are not VM’s that emulate entire operating systems, just a simplified CPU execution environment.)
Here’s an example of a short Python function, and its bytecode:
>>> import dis
>>> def example(x):
... for i in range(x):
... print(2 * i)
2 0 SETUP_LOOP 28 (to 30)
2 LOAD_GLOBAL 0 (range)
4 LOAD_FAST 0 (x)
6 CALL_FUNCTION 1
>> 10 FOR_ITER 16 (to 28)
12 STORE_FAST 1 (i)
3 14 LOAD_GLOBAL 1 (print)
16 LOAD_CONST 1 (2)
18 LOAD_FAST 1 (i)
22 CALL_FUNCTION 1
26 JUMP_ABSOLUTE 10
>> 28 POP_BLOCK
>> 30 LOAD_CONST 0 (None)
The dis module in the Python standard library is the disassembler that can show you Python bytecode. It’s also the best (but not great) documentation for the bytecode itself. If you want to know more about how Python’s bytecode works, there are lots of conference talks about bytecode. The software that executes bytecode can be written in any language: byterun is an implementation in Python (!), which is useful only as an educational exercise.
An important aspect of Python’s compilation to bytecode is that it’s entirely implicit. You never invoke a compiler, you simply run a .py file. The Python implementation compiles the files as needed. This is different than Java, for example, where you have to run the Java compiler to turn Java source code into compiled class files. For this reason, Java is often called a compiled language, while Python is called an interpreted language. But both compile to bytecode, and then both execute the bytecode with a software implementation of a virtual machine.
Another important Python feature is its interactive prompt. You can type Python statements and have them immediately executed. This interactivity is usually missing in “compiled” languages, but even at the Python interactive prompt, your Python is compiled to bytecode, and then the bytecode is executed. This immediate execution, and Python’s lack of an explicit compile step, are why people call the Python executable “the Python interpreter.”
By the way, even this is a simplified description of how these languages can work. “Compiled” languages like Java and C can have interactive prompts, but they are not at the center of those worlds in the same way that Python’s is. Java originally always compiled to bytecode, but then it pioneered just-in-time (JIT) techniques for compiling to machine code at runtime, and now Java is sometimes compiled entirely to machine code, in the C style.
This shows just how flimsy the words “interpreted” and “compiled” can be. Like most adjectives applied to programming languages, they are thrown around as if they were black-and-white distinctions, but the reality is much subtler and complex.
Finally, how your program gets executed isn’t a characteristic of the language at all: it’s about the language implementation. I’ve been talking here about Python, but this has really been a description of CPython, the usual implementation of Python, so-named because it is written in C. PyPy is another implementation, using a JIT compiler to run code much faster than CPython can.
So: is Python compiled? Yes. Is Python interpreted? Yes. Sorry, the world is complicated...