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ConTeXt is a TeX format: an elaborate collection of macros defining a TeX 'dialect', a higher-level typesetting interface that runs on TeX's ca. 300 primitive commands. Next to ConTeXt, other well-known TeX formats are LaTeX and Plain TeX.

A format is precompiled, and loaded by TeX when you run it. ConTeXt ships with its source files, and keeps its compiled format inside the texmf-cache. In fact, ConTeXt has more than one format: the English, Dutch, etc. interfaces are all separate formats.

$CONTEXTROOT/tex/texmf-context/tex/context/base                    # source files
$CONTEXTROOT/tex/texmf-cache/luatex-cache/context/.../cont-en.fmt  # compiled English format

When you alter any of the source files, you have to manually remake the format(s) using the context script:

context --make          # remake all mkiv formats
context --make cont-en  # remake the English mkiv format
texexec --make          # remake all mkii formats
texexec --make cont-en  # remake the English mkii format

See also