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11.1 Shellology

There are several families of shells, most prominently the Bourne family and the C shell family which are deeply incompatible. If you want to write portable shell scripts, avoid members of the C shell family. The the Shell difference FAQ includes a small history of Posix shells, and a comparison between several of them.

Below we describe some of the members of the Bourne shell family.


Ash is often used on GNU/Linux and BSD systems as a light-weight Bourne-compatible shell. Ash 0.2 has some bugs that are fixed in the 0.3.x series, but portable shell scripts should work around them, since version 0.2 is still shipped with many GNU/Linux distributions.

To be compatible with Ash 0.2:

  • - don’t use ‘$?’ after expanding empty or unset variables, or at the start of an eval:
    echo "Do not use it: $?"
    eval 'echo "Do not use it: $?"'
  • - don’t use command substitution within variable expansion:
    cat ${FOO=`bar`}
  • - beware that single builtin substitutions are not performed by a subshell, hence their effect applies to the current shell! See section Shell Substitutions, item “Command Substitution”.

To detect whether you are running Bash, test whether BASH_VERSION is set. To require Posix compatibility, run ‘set -o posix’. See Bash Posix Mode in The GNU Bash Reference Manual, for details.

Bash 2.05 and later

Versions 2.05 and later of Bash use a different format for the output of the set builtin, designed to make evaluating its output easier. However, this output is not compatible with earlier versions of Bash (or with many other shells, probably). So if you use Bash 2.05 or higher to execute configure, you’ll need to use Bash 2.05 for all other build tasks as well.


The Korn shell is compatible with the Bourne family and it mostly conforms to Posix. It has two major variants commonly called ‘ksh88’ and ‘ksh93’, named after the years of initial release. It is usually called ksh, but is called sh on some hosts if you set your path appropriately.

Solaris systems have three variants: /usr/bin/ksh is ‘ksh88’; it is standard on Solaris 2.0 and later. /usr/xpg4/bin/sh is a Posix-compliant variant of ‘ksh88’; it is standard on Solaris 9 and later. /usr/dt/bin/dtksh is ‘ksh93’. Variants that are not standard may be parts of optional packages. There is no extra charge for these packages, but they are not part of a minimal OS install and therefore some installations may not have it.

Starting with Tru64 Version 4.0, the Korn shell /usr/bin/ksh is also available as /usr/bin/posix/sh. If the environment variable BIN_SH is set to xpg4, subsidiary invocations of the standard shell conform to Posix.


A public-domain clone of the Korn shell called pdksh is widely available: it has most of the ‘ksh88’ features along with a few of its own. It usually sets KSH_VERSION, except if invoked as /bin/sh on OpenBSD, and similarly to Bash you can require Posix compatibility by running ‘set -o posix’. Unfortunately, with pdksh 5.2.14 (the latest stable version as of January 2007) Posix mode is buggy and causes pdksh to depart from Posix in at least one respect, see Shell Substitutions.


To detect whether you are running zsh, test whether ZSH_VERSION is set. By default zsh is not compatible with the Bourne shell: you must execute ‘emulate sh’, and for zsh versions before 3.1.6-dev-18 you must also set NULLCMD to ‘:’. See Compatibility in The Z Shell Manual, for details.

The default Mac OS X sh was originally Zsh; it was changed to Bash in Mac OS X 10.2.

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