What is the effect of extern "C" in C++?


Question

What exactly does putting extern "C" into C++ code do?

For example:

extern "C" {
   void foo();
}
1
1454
3/15/2018 8:35:08 AM

Accepted Answer

extern "C" makes a function-name in C++ have 'C' linkage (compiler does not mangle the name) so that client C code can link to (i.e use) your function using a 'C' compatible header file that contains just the declaration of your function. Your function definition is contained in a binary format (that was compiled by your C++ compiler) that the client 'C' linker will then link to using the 'C' name.

Since C++ has overloading of function names and C does not, the C++ compiler cannot just use the function name as a unique id to link to, so it mangles the name by adding information about the arguments. A C compiler does not need to mangle the name since you can not overload function names in C. When you state that a function has extern "C" linkage in C++, the C++ compiler does not add argument/parameter type information to the name used for linkage.

Just so you know, you can specify "C" linkage to each individual declaration/definition explicitly or use a block to group a sequence of declarations/definitions to have a certain linkage:

extern "C" void foo(int);
extern "C"
{
   void g(char);
   int i;
}

If you care about the technicalities, they are listed in section 7.5 of the C++03 standard, here is a brief summary (with emphasis on extern "C"):

  • extern "C" is a linkage-specification
  • Every compiler is required to provide "C" linkage
  • a linkage specification shall occur only in namespace scope
  • all function types, function names and variable names have a language linkage See Richard's Comment: Only function names and variable names with external linkage have a language linkage
  • two function types with distinct language linkages are distinct types even if otherwise identical
  • linkage specs nest, inner one determines the final linkage
  • extern "C" is ignored for class members
  • at most one function with a particular name can have "C" linkage (regardless of namespace)
  • extern "C" forces a function to have external linkage (cannot make it static) See Richard's comment: 'static' inside 'extern "C"' is valid; an entity so declared has internal linkage, and so does not have a language linkage
  • Linkage from C++ to objects defined in other languages and to objects defined in C++ from other languages is implementation-defined and language-dependent. Only where the object layout strategies of two language implementations are similar enough can such linkage be achieved
1420
4/26/2019 1:21:55 PM

Just wanted to add a bit of info, since I haven't seen it posted yet.

You'll very often see code in C headers like so:

#ifdef __cplusplus
extern "C" {
#endif

// all of your legacy C code here

#ifdef __cplusplus
}
#endif

What this accomplishes is that it allows you to use that C header file with your C++ code, because the macro "__cplusplus" will be defined. But you can also still use it with your legacy C code, where the macro is NOT defined, so it won't see the uniquely C++ construct.

Although, I have also seen C++ code such as:

extern "C" {
#include "legacy_C_header.h"
}

which I imagine accomplishes much the same thing.

Not sure which way is better, but I have seen both.


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