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formal language

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noun
a language designed for use in situations in which natural language is unsuitable, as for example in mathematics, logic, or computer programming. The symbols and formulas of such languages stand in precisely specified syntactic and semantic relations to one another
logic a logistic system for which an interpretation is provided: distinguished from formal calculus in that the semantics enable it to be regarded as about some subject matter
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Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

MORE ABOUT FORMAL LANGUAGE

What is formal language?

A formal language is a language designed for use in specific situations, such as math or computer programming.

A natural language is a language that has been developed naturally over time by its users. We use natural languages, such as English, Spanish, Hindi, and Japanese, to communicate with each other. Natural languages constantly change and evolve.

Formal languages, on the other hand, are planned and designed. They are created to serve a specific purpose and, as a result, have very strict rules from the beginning. They often use symbols, numbers, and characters that natural languages do not. You’ll find formal languages used most often in mathematics and computer programming.

A formal language does have some things in common with a natural language:

  • A formal language has an alphabet. For example, math uses specific symbols and characters (such as, 1, a, +, =) in the same way that English uses specific letters. Rather than “words,” formal languages use their alphabets to form strings.
  • A formal language has syntax, meaning that the order and placement of strings matters. If the syntax isn’t followed, you get nonsense. For example, “2+2=4” is acceptable according to the syntax of math whereas “1-=+%32” is not.
  • A formal language has semantics. That is, the strings have specific meanings. Just as top and pot mean different things in English, “2-x” and “x-2” have different meanings in math. Similarly, we know that in math the symbol “+” and the symbol “-” have different meanings.

However, while natural languages tend to have a lot of ambiguity and redundancy, formal languages do not. For example, the symbol “H” in chemistry means “hydrogen” and never anything else. Formal languages mean exactly what they say.

Why is formal language important?

The first records of formal language, meaning a contrast to a natural language, come from around 1926. The philosophy and theory behind formal languages is thought to be older and is often traced back to the work of mathematicians Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716).

You will find formal languages used in fields such as mathematics, logic, and computer programming. Unless you regularly use calculus or solve logical proofs, the last of these is the one you are most likely to come into contact with. Programming languages such as HTML, JavaScript, Python, and C++ are commonly used in many different computer applications. It’s highly likely that any website you visit is using more than one of these formal languages to properly display their content and make the site function.

Did you know ... ?

It is often thought that the first formal language was created by mathematician Gottlieb Frege, in his book Begriffsschrift (1879). In the book, Frege unsuccessfully attempted to create a formal language that proved mathematics could be reduced to logic.

What are real-life examples of formal language?

This image shows a computer screen displaying JavaScript, a formal language used in computer programming.

Mathematicians and computer programmers are two examples of professionals who are likely to use a formal language.

 

What other words are related to formal language?

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

Formal languages are created to be used for a specific purpose.

How to use formal language in a sentence

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