Re: chomsky and compiler development

"Michael J. Fromberger" <>
17 Nov 2001 00:39:01 -0500

          From comp.compilers

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From: "Michael J. Fromberger" <>
Newsgroups: comp.compilers
Date: 17 Nov 2001 00:39:01 -0500
Organization: Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, USA
References: 01-11-081
Keywords: parse, history
Posted-Date: 17 Nov 2001 00:39:01 EST

"GenericInfoService" <> writes:

>Is anyone familiar with how Chomsky's Universal Grammar impacted the
>development of modern computer compilers? We're trying to find a good
>summary - like an essay - for the Software Literate which illustrates
>the key applications of his Linguistic Theory in writing Compilers.

>Any information or referrals to good sources would be much appreciated.

>Please reply here or via email.

>[Although linguists were working at the same time as some of the
>early compiler work, and there's a lot of overlap in the concepts,
>e.g., a linguist's phrase structure grammar is the same as a
>compiler's context free grammar, there's been remarkably little
>cross-fertilization. I took a course in transformational grammars in
>about 1974 and at the time it struck me as trying to create nuclear
>energy by rubbing two sticks together, with a lot of debate about the
>shape of the sticks and details of wrist motion. I don't think the
>universal grammar, the idea that people all have a grammar for
>language hard-wired in our brains, affected computing at all. -John]

I agree with this last point, that UG has had no effect at all on
research in computation.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that most linguistics research,
even in areas that focus closely on the syntactic structure of natural
languages, in the Chomskyan "principles & parameters" tradition, makes
woefully unsophisticated use of grammatical formalism. We could
probably argue all day about whether the formalisms we use to reason
about computational structures have anything to offer our
understanding of human languages, but the fact remains, a rather fine
body of research on syntactic structure is being by the linguistic
community as, more or less, a blunt pounding instrument.

One of the things I'm personally interested in, is how the principles
of natural human languages can be applied to produce more intuitive
computer languages -- but I don't see much research in that area.
Much of the work in computational linguistics seems to have focused
more on areas like machine translation, phonetic transcription, and
voice recognition. In the traditional "T-diagram" sense, we are
writing translators from one natural language modality to another,
using a computer language. I'd like to see more steps toward putting
natural language on the third corner. (Although admittedly, that is a
long, long way off, by any reasonable metric).

Michael J. Fromberger Software Engineer, Thayer School of Engineering
    sting <at>

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