Formal language
In mathematics, computer science, and linguistics, a formal language consists of [|words] whose letters are taken from an alphabet and are well-formed according to a specific set of rules.
The alphabet of a formal language consist of symbols, letters, or tokens that concatenate into strings of the language. Each string concatenated from symbols of this alphabet is called a word, and the words that belong to a particular formal language are sometimes called well-formed words or well-formed formulas. A formal language is often defined by means of a formal grammar such as a regular grammar or context-free grammar, which consists of its formation rules.
The field of formal language theory studies primarily the purely syntactical aspects of such languages—that is, their internal structural patterns. Formal language theory sprang out of linguistics, as a way of understanding the syntactic regularities of natural languages.
In computer science, formal languages are used among others as the basis for defining the grammar of programming languages and formalized versions of subsets of natural languages in which the words of the language represent concepts that are associated with particular meanings or semantics. In computational complexity theory, decision problems are typically defined as formal languages, and complexity classes are defined as the sets of the formal languages that can be parsed by machines with limited computational power. In logic and the foundations of mathematics, formal languages are used to represent the syntax of axiomatic systems, and mathematical formalism is the philosophy that all of mathematics can be reduced to the syntactic manipulation of formal languages in this way.
History
The first formal language is thought to be the one used by Gottlob Frege in his Begriffsschrift, literally meaning "concept writing", and which Frege described as a "formal language of pure thought."Axel Thue's early semi-Thue system, which can be used for rewriting strings, was influential on formal grammars.
Words over an alphabet
An alphabet, in the context of formal languages, can be any set, although it often makes sense to use an alphabet in the usual sense of the word, or more generally a character set such as ASCII or Unicode. The elements of an alphabet are called its letters. An alphabet may contain an infinite number of elements; however, most definitions in formal language theory specify alphabets with a finite number of elements, and most results apply only to them.A word over an alphabet can be any finite sequence of letters. The set of all words over an alphabet Σ is usually denoted by Σ^{*}. The length of a word is the number of letters it is composed of. For any alphabet, there is only one word of length 0, the empty word, which is often denoted by e, ε, λ or even Λ. By concatenation one can combine two words to form a new word, whose length is the sum of the lengths of the original words. The result of concatenating a word with the empty word is the original word.
In some applications, especially in logic, the alphabet is also known as the vocabulary and words are known as formulas or sentences; this breaks the letter/word metaphor and replaces it by a word/sentence metaphor.
Definition
A formal language L over an alphabet Σ is a subset of Σ^{*}, that is, a set of words over that alphabet. Sometimes the sets of words are grouped into expressions, whereas rules and constraints may be formulated for the creation of 'well-formed expressions'.In computer science and mathematics, which do not usually deal with natural languages, the adjective "formal" is often omitted as redundant.
While formal language theory usually concerns itself with formal languages that are described by some syntactical rules, the actual definition of the concept "formal language" is only as above: a set of finite-length strings composed from a given alphabet, no more and no less. In practice, there are many languages that can be described by rules, such as regular languages or context-free languages. The notion of a formal grammar may be closer to the intuitive concept of a "language," one described by syntactic rules. By an abuse of the definition, a particular formal language is often thought of as being equipped with a formal grammar that describes it.
Examples
The following rules describe a formal language over the alphabet Σ = :- Every nonempty string that does not contain "+" or "=" and does not start with "0" is in .
- The string "0" is in .
- A string containing "=" is in if and only if there is exactly one "=", and it separates two valid strings of .
- A string containing "+" but not "=" is in if and only if every "+" in the string separates two valid strings of .
- No string is in other than those implied by the previous rules.
Constructions
For finite languages, one can explicitly enumerate all well-formed words. For example, we can describe a language as just = . The degenerate case of this construction is the empty language, which contains no words at all.However, even over a finite alphabet such as Σ = there are an infinite number of finite-length words that can potentially be expressed: "a", "abb", "ababba", "aaababbbbaab", .... Therefore, formal languages are typically infinite, and describing an infinite formal language is not as simple as writing L = . Here are some examples of formal languages:
- = Σ^{*}, the set of all words over Σ;
- = ^{*} =, where n ranges over the natural numbers and "a^{n}" means "a" repeated n times ;
- the set of syntactically correct programs in a given programming language ;
- the set of inputs upon which a certain Turing machine halts; or
- the set of maximal strings of alphanumeric ASCII characters on this line, i.e.,
Language-specification formalisms
Formal languages are used as tools in multiple disciplines. However, formal language theory rarely concerns itself with particular languages, but is mainly concerned with the study of various types of formalisms to describe languages. For instance, a language can be given as- those strings generated by some formal grammar;
- those strings described or matched by a particular regular expression;
- those strings accepted by some automaton, such as a Turing machine or finite-state automaton;
- those strings for which some decision procedure produces the answer YES.
- What is their expressive power?
- What is their recognizability?
- What is their comparability?.
Operations on languages
Certain operations on languages are common. This includes the standard set operations, such as union, intersection, and complement. Another class of operation is the element-wise application of string operations.Examples: suppose and are languages over some common alphabet.
- The concatenation consists of all strings of the form where is a string from and is a string from.
- The intersection of and consists of all strings that are contained in both languages
- The complement of with respect to consists of all strings over that are not in.
- The Kleene star: the language consisting of all words that are concatenations of zero or more words in the original language;
- Reversal:
- * Let ε be the empty word, then, and
- * for each non-empty word , let,
- * then for a formal language,.
- String homomorphism
Applications
Programming languages
A compiler usually has two distinct components. A lexical analyzer, sometimes generated by a tool likelex
, identifies the tokens of the programming language grammar, e.g. identifiers or keywords, numeric and string literals, punctuation and operator symbols, which are themselves specified by a simpler formal language, usually by means of regular expressions. At the most basic conceptual level, a parser, sometimes generated by a parser generator like yacc
, attempts to decide if the source program is syntactically valid, that is if it is well formed with respect to the programming language grammar for which the compiler was built.Of course, compilers do more than just parse the source code – they usually translate it into some executable format. Because of this, a parser usually outputs more than a yes/no answer, typically an abstract syntax tree. This is used by subsequent stages of the compiler to eventually generate an executable containing machine code that runs directly on the hardware, or some intermediate code that requires a virtual machine to execute.
Formal theories, systems, and proofs
In mathematical logic, a formal theory is a set of sentences expressed in a formal language.A formal system consists of a formal language together with a deductive apparatus. The deductive apparatus may consist of a set of transformation rules, which may be interpreted as valid rules of inference, or a set of axioms, or have both. A formal system is used to derive one expression from one or more other expressions. Although a formal language can be identified with its formulas, a formal system cannot be likewise identified by its theorems. Two formal systems and may have all the same theorems and yet differ in some significant proof-theoretic way.
A formal proof or derivation is a finite sequence of well-formed formulas each of which is an axiom or follows from the preceding formulas in the sequence by a rule of inference. The last sentence in the sequence is a theorem of a formal system. Formal proofs are useful because their theorems can be interpreted as true propositions.
Interpretations and models
Formal languages are entirely syntactic in nature but may be given semantics that give meaning to the elements of the language. For instance, in mathematical logic, the set of possible formulas of a particular logic is a formal language, and an interpretation assigns a meaning to each of the formulas—usually, a truth value.The study of interpretations of formal languages is called formal semantics. In mathematical logic, this is often done in terms of model theory. In model theory, the terms that occur in a formula are interpreted as objects within mathematical structures, and fixed compositional interpretation rules determine how the truth value of the formula can be derived from the interpretation of its terms; a model for a formula is an interpretation of terms such that the formula becomes true.