I saw a trick for implementing associative arrays in a shell script. For example print array["apples"] could be scripted as echo \$array$key where key=apples.

However, there was no mention of how to generate the keys to iterate over the array. The only way I could think of was to store the keys in a variable delimited by spaces so I could use a for-loop to iterate over the array.

So, is there some other way to store the keys for later use?

  • 5
    If you're trying to use associative arrays in a shell script it could be possible that your project is too complex for a shell script :) – Martin von Wittich Jan 29 '14 at 0:09
  • @MartinvonWittich why? I have a shell script that executes a SQL script on one of 3 possible DB schemas. The required schema is included in filename with an abbreviation. I need a mapping between this abbreviation and the real schema name. What better way than an associative array, considering the actual schema names (not the abbreviation) may differ between environments, so an array variable (whose values can be set just once) is perfect – Slav Nov 19 '14 at 14:16
  • 2
    @Slav I'm not arguing against associative arrays, just against shell scripts where such complexity is needed. But that's just my personal preference; I often catch myself starting to write a shell script and then immediately rewriting it in Perl when I realize that I'm exceeding a certain complexity threshold. – Martin von Wittich Nov 19 '14 at 22:50

Shells with associative arrays

Some modern shells provide associative arrays: ksh93, bash ≥4, zsh. In ksh93 and bash, if a is an associative array, then "${!a[@]}" is the array of its keys:

for k in "${!a[@]}"; do
  echo "$k -> ${a[$k]}"

In zsh, that syntax only works in ksh emulation mode. Otherwise you have to use zsh's native syntax:

for k in "${(@k)a}"; do
  echo "$k -> $a[$k]"

${(k)a} also works if a does not have an empty key.

In zsh, you could also loop on both keys and values at the same time:

for k v ("${(@kv)a}") echo "$k -> $v"

Shells without associative arrays

Emulating associative arrays in shells that don't have them is a lot more work. If you need associative arrays, it's probably time to bring in a bigger tool, such as ksh93 or Perl.

If you do need associative arrays in a mere POSIX shell, here's a way to simulate them, when keys are restricted to contain only the characters 0-9A-Z_a-z (ASCII digits, letters and underscore). Under this assumption, keys can be used as part of variable names. The functions below act on an array identified by a naming prefix, the “stem”, which must not contain two consecutive underscores.

## ainit STEM
## Declare an empty associative array named STEM.
ainit () {
  eval "__aa__${1}=' '"
## akeys STEM
## List the keys in the associatve array named STEM.
akeys () {
  eval "echo \"\$__aa__${1}\""
## aget STEM KEY VAR
## Set VAR to the value of KEY in the associative array named STEM.
## If KEY is not present, unset VAR.
aget () {
  eval "unset $3
        case \$__aa__${1} in
          *\" $2 \"*) $3=\$__aa__${1}__$2;;
## Set KEY to VALUE in the associative array named STEM.
aset () {
  eval "__aa__${1}__${2}=\$3
        case \$__aa__${1} in
          *\" $2 \"*) :;;
          *) __aa__${1}=\"\${__aa__${1}}$2 \";;
## aunset STEM KEY
## Remove KEY from the associative array named STEM.
aunset () {
  eval "unset __aa__${1}__${2}
        case \$__aa__${1} in
          *\" $2 \"*) __aa__${1}=\"\${__aa__${1}%%* $2 } \${__aa__${1}#* $2 }\";;

(Warning, untested code. Error detection for syntactically invalid stems and keys is not provided.)


I'm not sure what you mean by store, but you can iterate over the keys using the ${!array[@]} syntax:

$ typeset -A foo=([key1]=bar [key2]=baz);
$ echo "${!foo[@]}" 
key2 key1

So, to iterate:

$ for key in "${!foo[@]}"; do echo "$key : ${foo[$key]}"; done
key2 : baz
key1 : bar

I found a nice, short tutorial on this here.

As pointed out in the comments below, associative arrays were added in bash version 4. See here for a Linux journal article on the subject.

  • 1
    (bash version 4 only) That's an important thing to note. Traditionally, bash arrays are numeric only. – Ricky Beam Jan 28 '14 at 23:07
  • 1
    You might want to use typeset instead of declare in your examples. That would make them portable between bash 4 and ksh93 which first implemented shell associative arrays. – jlliagre Jan 29 '14 at 1:00

Shells without associative arrays

It's not that hard when keys are restricted to [0-9A-Za-z_] (numbers, letters, underscore).

The trick is instead of storing to array[$key], store to variables array_$key.


eval "array_$key='$value'"


value=`eval echo '$'array_$key`

Note: Values cannot contain ' (single quote).


this works in bash

declare -A assoc_array=(["cert"]="${cert}" ["web"]="${web}")
echo "first is" ${assoc_array[cert]}
echo "second is" ${assoc_array[web]}


for i in "${assoc_array[@]}"
   echo "$i"

No need to use eval afaik

  • I believe that you've missed the point of the question. – G-Man Mar 14 at 0:21

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