Go is a statically typed language, where do dynamic types come in?

I’ll attempt to answer this question by building a mental model of Go’s type system which in turn will help us reason about its program structure. Warning: this blog is the result of speculation based on empirical data. It is not based on any internal knowledge of Go. If any Go experts are reading this, please feel free to comment and correct.

Static Types (recap)

First lets set the context for the rest of the discussion by doing a quick recap of static types.

type AudioPlayer struct {
    Volume int
ap := AudioPlayer{Volume: 10}

The variable ap has two characteristics:

  • Its type is AudioPlayer
  • Its value is the AudioPlayer object


Interfaces introduce the concept of dynamic types in Go.

type Player interface {
    Play(content string)
func (ap AudioPlayer) Play(content string) {
    fmt.Printf("Playing audio %v at volume %d\n", content, ap.Volume)
ap := AudioPlayer{Volume: 10}
var p Player = ap

The variable p has three characteristics (as opposed to two characteristics of ap):

  • Its type is Player.
  • Its value is some sort of pointer to ap, much like vtable pointers in C.
  • Its dynamic type is the same as the type its value is pointing to, which is AudioPlayer.

Reflecting on p will always give its dynamic type, i.e., fmt.Println("%T", p) will print AudioPlayer. And calling p.Play("hello world") will call AudioPlayer's Playmethod. In other words, the receiver of Play will be the dynamic type of p. To clarify this point further, if there was another struct that had also implemented the Playerinterface, and at runtime Go encountered a Player variable calling Play, how will it know which Play to invoke?

type VideoPlayer struct {
    Brightness int
func (vp VideoPlayer) Play(content string) {
    fmt.Printf("Playing video %v at brightness %d\n", content, vp.Brightness)
func doSomething(p Player) {
    p.Play("which Play will be invoked?")

Go will look at the dynamic type of p which might get set at runtime, and invoke the appropriate method.

func main() {
    var p Player
    if os.Args[1] == "video" {
        p = VideoPlayer{Brightness: 10}    
    } else if os.Args[1] == "audio" {
        p = AudioPlayer{Volume: 10}

This code will result in Go calling the Play method depending on user input.

Dynamic Dispatch

For static types like structs, Go already knows at compile time whether or not a method is implemented by it. But dynamic types, a.k.a interfaces, can have their values set to any compatible struct (or any other type) at runtime. Like in the example above, p can be assigned to either a VideoPlayer or an AudioPlayer. Go does not have this information at compile time. This is why when a method is invoked, instead of looking for it in the value of p itself, the Go runtime follows the pointer in p's value to land on the actual object that will have the method implemented. This seems similar to how virtual functions are implemented in C++.

Type Assertions

If we need to figure out the dynamic type of an interface at runtime, we can use type assertions.

func doSomething(p Player) {
    if paudio, ok := p.(AudioPlayer); ok {
        paudio.Volume = 20
        paudio.Play("play music")
    } else if pvideo, ok := p.(VideoPlayer); ok {
        pvideo.Brightness = 20
        pvideo.Play("watch video")

Go uses special syntax for that which looks like iface.(ConcreteType). For a detailed explanation of type assertions see the relevant language spec page. In the above code, the type of paudio will be AudioPlayer regardless of whether the dynamic type of p is AudioPlayer or not. If it is not, then ok will be false and the value of paudio will be nil. In fact, the above scenario is so common that Go has (yet another) special syntax for this called type switching.