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Formal Languages Are Easier to Compute Than Natural Languages

Computers aren't reliable translators of human communication, but humans can translate simple aspects of their various affairs into the patois of computers. We call these expressively impoverished languages formal languages, which makes them sound a lot better than they are. Virtually everything that computers do for our civilization involves the use of formal languages.

If you think you are unfamiliar with formal languages, you are mistaken. Dialing a telephone number constitutes a kind of formal utterance; telephone numbers have a rigid syntax that constitutes a kind of formal language. Around the globe, different localities use different formal languages for controlling the behavior of telephone switches. In North America, for example, one of the syntactic rules of the local formal language for dialing telephone numbers is that, in order to reach a telephone whose number is outside the local area but still within North America, a 1 must be the first digit dialed when the dial tone is heard. This syntactic rule is not very expressive, but, like most of the features of most formal languages, it's simple, deterministic, and highly computable. It's so easily understood by machines, in fact, that this simple syntactic rule has been enforced by telephone switches in North America for decades.5

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