I don't know why I can't use env array variable inside a script ?
In my ~/.bashrc or ~/.profile

export HELLO="ee"
export HELLOO=(aaa bbbb ccc)

in a shell :

> echo $HELLO
> echo $HELLOO
> echo ${HELLOO[@]}
aaa bbbb ccc

in a script :

#!/usr/bin/env bash
echo $HELLO
echo $HELLOO
echo ${HELLOO[@]}
# Return 

Why ?


A bash array can not be an environment variable as environment variables may only be key-value string pairs.

You may do as the shell does with its $PATH variable, which essentially is an array of paths; turn the array into a string, delimited with some particular character not otherwise present in the values of the array:

$ arr=( aa bb cc "some string" )
$ arr=$( printf '%s:' "${arr[@]}" )
$ printf '%s\n' "$arr"
aa:bb:cc:some string:

Or neater,

arr=( aa bb cc "some string" )
arr=$( IFS=:; printf '%s' "${arr[*]}" )
export arr

The expansion of ${arr[*]} will be the elements of the arr array separated by the first character of IFS, here set to :. Note that if doing it this way, the elements of the string will be separated (not delimited) by :, which means that you would not be able to distinguish an empty element at the end, if there was one.

An alternative to passing values to a script using environment variables is (obviously?) to use the command line arguments:

arr=( aa bb cc )

./some_script "${arr[@]}"

The script would then access the passed arguments either one by one by using the positional parameters $1, $2, $3 etc, or by the use of $@:

printf 'First I got "%s"\n' "$1"
printf 'Then  I got "%s"\n' "$2"
printf 'Lastly there was "%s"\n' "$3"

for opt in "$@"; do
    printf 'I have "%s"\n' "$opt"
  • btw, printf cycles through its args, printf 'I have "%s"\n' "$@".
    – jthill
    Oct 6 '18 at 2:21
  • See fish or rc and derivatives for shells that can export arrays (each with their own encoding understood by themselves only). Nov 1 '18 at 11:02
  • Another aproach is to use export array_exported="$(printf '%q ' "${array[@]}")" and re-import (in the same locale) with typeset -a "array=($array_exported)" or eval, though like in your approach, that wouldn't preserve the indices of sparse arrays. Nov 1 '18 at 11:05
  • @StéphaneChazelas I see what you're getting at now. Good. Yes.
    – Kusalananda
    Nov 1 '18 at 11:18
  • Re: printf %q, that should be ((${#array[@]} == 0)) || printf '%q '..., or it would be wrong for an array with no element. Anyway, using typeset -p array would be better and preserve indices. That rings a bell, so there may be a duplicate of this Q&A here. Nov 1 '18 at 11:25

Arrays are bash specific. Environment variables are name-value pairs.

Read the specifications on environment variables, which says, in part:

The value of an environment variable is a string of characters. For a C-language program, an array of strings called the environment shall be made available when a process begins. The array is pointed to by the external variable environ, which is defined as:

extern char **environ;

These strings have the form name=value; names shall not contain the character '='.

  • Ok thk, in short, what I have to do ?
    – lescaudr
    Sep 19 '17 at 4:16
  • @MathieuLescaudron, um...don't use arrays for things you want to pass via environment variables? I don't really know what you're trying to achieve. You asked why you can't do a specific thing; I explained. The inability to pass arrays via environment variables has never stopped me.
    – Wildcard
    Sep 19 '17 at 4:22
  • thk, I now use string.
    – lescaudr
    Sep 19 '17 at 4:49
  • OP has a clear objective which can be solved with BASH_ENV environment script. So a command can be executed like BASH_ENV=~/array.sh ~/command.sh. So basically the bash evironment can be declared inside bash script and declarations within the script can therefore be called environment declarations. Oct 23 at 21:41

Current Array Export Situation 10/2021

Array export is not fully implemented yet. You can clone the source code with command git clone https://git.savannah.gnu.org/git/bash.git ~/bash-src. Look into the bash source ~/bash-src/config-top.h for the commented line 154:

/* Define to 1 if you want to be able to export indexed arrays to processes
   using the foo=([0]=one [1]=two) and so on */
/* #define ARRAY_EXPORT 1 */

and furthermore the code section in ~/bash-src/variables.c at line 429 which says

#if defined (ARRAY_VARS)
      /* Array variables may not yet be exported. */
      if (*string == '(' && string[1] == '[' && string[strlen (string) - 1] == ')')
      string_length = 1;
      temp_string = extract_array_assignment_list (string, &string_length);
      temp_var = assign_array_from_string (name, temp_string, 0);
      FREE (temp_string);
      VSETATTR (temp_var, (att_exported | att_imported));
      array_needs_making = 1;
#  endif /* ARRAY_EXPORT */

so basically some more work has to be put into this issue.


Meanwhile you can export the BASH_ENV variable which can point to an environment script. I put mine into /etc/bash.environment and declare system-wide arrays there. Your ~/.bashrc could contain something like export BASH_ENV="~/.bash.environment", now every bash process executed by the current user will source this file.

As @they mentioned below an according ~/.bashrc configuration to take effect on interactive AND noninteractive shells is needed:

[ -r "~/.bash.environment" ] \
&& source "~/.bash.environment" \
&& export BASH_ENV="~/.bash.environment"

And finally your environment:

# ~/.bash.environment
export HELLO="ee"
export HELLOO=(aaa bbbb ccc)

Best wishes

  • 1
    Note that BASH_ENV is only used for noninteractive shells, i.e. scripts.
    – they
    Oct 22 at 20:45

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