BASH Programming

Bash Variables In-Depth

A variable is a place to store an object in the computer’s memory. This article explains how to declare a variable using the builtin command called to declare. It then describes the meaning of variable attributes and gives some examples. After that, some predefined variables are talked about.

The name of a variable is the name given to by the programmer. The following script gives examples of variable declarations with assignments:

    declare num=2.5

    declare str1=books

    declare str2='the books'

    declare arr=(zero one 2 "three ccc")

    echo $num
    echo $str1
    echo $str2
    echo ${arr[3]}

The output is:



the books

three ccc

A number is assigned without quotes. A word as a value can be assigned without quotes. More than one word as value is allocated with single or double quotes. There should be no space on the left or the right of the assignment operator. To read the value of a variable down in the script, the variable should be preceded by $. The reading of an array value has a special syntax.

The array declared above is an indexed array. An associative array would be declared as follows:

declare -A arr=([aa]=zero [bb]=one [cc]=2 [dd]='three ccc')

Here, ‘-A’ is an example of an attribute. It means arr is an associative array and not an indexed array. ‘A’ in ‘-A’ does not mean attribute. A variable attribute is a subset of what is called command options.

A variable can be declared and have its value assigned after, as the following script shows:

    declare num
    declare str1
    declare str2
    declare -A arr

    str2='the books'
    arr=([aa]=zero [bb]=one [cc]=2 [dd]='three ccc')

    echo $num
    echo $str1
    echo $str2
    echo ${arr[dd]}

The output is:



the books

three ccc

When assigning later, the variable name is not preceded by $.

Article Content

– Introduction – see above

– Variable Attributes

– read Command

– Some Predefined Variables

– Conclusion

Variable Attributes

A variable attribute, gives more precision for the variable. For example, in:

declare -A arr=([aa]=zero [bb]=one [cc]=2 [dd]='three ccc')

the option ‘-A’ to the declare builtin command, precise that arr is an associative array. ‘-A’ is an attribute to the variable, arr. ‘-a’ in the following command, precise that arr is an indexed array:

declare -a arr=(zero one 2 "three ccc")

‘-a’ is optional. Without it, arr would be considered as an indexed array.

Some Variable Attributes


Used for arrays – see above


Used for arrays – see above


The variable is to hold an integer. The following code segment will produce an error message because 2.5 is not an integer.

declare -i num=2.5

echo $num

The following code segment will output, 2 :

declare -i num=2

echo $num


Allows lowercase characters in lowercase, but converts any uppercase character to lowercase, as in the following code segment:

declare -l str=abcDEF

echo $str


Allows uppercase characters in uppercase, but converts any lowercase character to uppercase, as in the following code segment:

declare -u str="abc DEF"

echo $str

The output is: ABC DEF


Makes variable, read-only (constant). A value assigned to the variable cannot be changed later down in the script. In the following code segment, the first two lines operate well; but the last line issues an error message because an attempt is made to change the value of the constant variable:

declare -r num=56

echo $num


– n

Creates a reference to a memory location. The following code illustrates this:

declare var=56

declare -n ref1=var

declare -n ref2=var

echo $var

echo $ref1

echo $ref2

The output is:




If the value of any of the variables is changed, the rest are changed to that value; because they refer to the same memory location.

read Command

The read command reads a line of text from the console. Assume that the following three values are to be read:

one two beta three

Where “one” is one value, “two beta” is the second value, and “three” is the third value. Note that the second value is two words, separated by a space. This line of values will have to be typed as follows:

one two\ beta three

That is, the space between “two” and ”beta” has to be escaped with a backslash for the two words to appear as one value. So, if any value consists of more than one word, each space in it must be escaped. To read these three values, the read command should be something like:

read aa bb cc

Where aa, bb, and cc are variables chosen by the programmer.

When the read command is executed, it flashes the cursor for the user to input a line and press Enter. If the user inputs the above line with the space of interest escaped, then the effect would be equivalent to:


bb="two beta"


If there are more values than variables, the remaining values are assigned to the last variable. If there are more variables than values, the remaining variables are assigned empty values.

Values can be read into an index array, where each index corresponds to one value. Again, any space that joins two words must be escaped. The following code illustrates this:

read -a arr

size=${#arr[*]} #array size

for ((i=0; i < $size; ++i)); do

echo ${arr[i]}


If the input was,

one two\ beta three

The output would be,


two beta


Some Predefined Variables

These variables should be preceded by $ to be used as an argument to the echo command.


In the author’s computer,

echo $BASH

gave the output,


This is the full pathname to the bash interpreter.


This is to do with Bash Startup Files. In the author’s computer,

echo $BASH_ENV

gave null for the output


A process is a program or script that is running on the computer. The operating system identifies a process with a number. In the author’s computer,


gave the output,


Which was the process ID (PID) of the bash script running.


This gives the version number of the current instance (running process) of Bash; e.g.



The Unix Epoch is 1st January 1970 00:00:00 UTC. This variable should give the number of seconds since Unix Epoch.


This variable gives the effective numeric user ID of the current user, something like 1000.


The current user can be a member of a list of groups. This gives an array variable of that list. If used as follows,

echo ${GROUPS[*]}

the result may be something like this:

1000 24 27 30 46 116 126 4


This is the directory of the current user. It is something like:


Of which the name of the user is Smith.


The hostname is the name that precedes the prompt when the prompt is displayed at the terminal. This variable gives the name of the current host. It is something like:



This is the type of machine Bash is running on. It can be something like:



A host file is a plain text file that maps IP addresses to hostnames. This variable gives the path and filename for the host file, which may be something like:


However, a password may be needed to open the file.


This variable can be set to a filename or a directory name. Bash should use it to inform the user when a mail arrives.


IFS stands for Internal Field Separator. It is used to separate a string into various pieces. Consider the following code:

declare -a arr=(" one" " two" " three")


echo "${arr[*]}"

The output is:

one, two, three

IFS has been set with ‘,’. So, the display of the array values has been separated by ‘,’. The output appears as if a comma and space separated the values. This is not really the case. It seems so because each value in the array has been preceded with space.


It is possible to have a process and a child process. The process is the parent process. PPID is the process ID of the parent of the shell (Bash). In the author’s computer.

echo $PPID




This is the current working directory.


This is similar to the BASH variable – see above


This is the real numeric ID of the current user. In the author’s computer,

echo $UID




A variable holds a value. A variable can also reference the location in memory that has the value. When a variable is set (assigned a value), it is not preceded by $. When the value of a variable is read, it is preceded by $. With the declare command, variables can have attributes. A variable attribute is an option to the command. A variable attribute results in a particular behavior of the variable. Attributes that the reader is likely to use often are: -a, -A, -i, -l, -u, -r, and -n. There are predefined variables. The ones the reader is likely to use often have been given in the previous section.

About the author

Chrysanthus Forcha

Discoverer of mathematics Integration from First Principles and related series. Master’s Degree in Technical Education, specializing in Electronics and Computer Software. BSc Electronics. I also have knowledge and experience at the Master’s level in Computing and Telecommunications. Out of 20,000 writers, I was the 37th best writer at I have been working in these fields for more than 10 years.