A formal language is a language that has been designed for specific situations, such as for use in math or computer programming.
A natural language is one that has been developed over time organically by its users shaped by usage alone. Natural languages, like English, Spanish, Hindi, and Japanese, are used to help people communicate with each other. Natural languages change and evolve constantly.
On the other hand, formal languages are planned and designed and are created to serve a specific purpose. Because of this, they have very strict rules from the very beginning. They often use numbers, characters, and symbols that natural languages do not.
A formal language does have certain characteristics in common with a natural language:
- A formal language has an alphabet to represent it. For example, mathematics uses specific symbols and characters (like 1, a, +, =) in the same way that natural languages use specific letters. Instead of using traditional words, formal languages make use of their alphabets to form strings.
- They have syntax, which means that the placement and order of strings matter a lot. If the syntax is not followed, you get nonsense. This can be seen as grammar in natural languages.
- They have semantics. This means that is, the strings have specific meanings.
However, unlike in the case of natural languages which tend to have a lot of redundancy and ambiguity, formal languages do not. For example, “H” in chemistry only means “hydrogen” and never anything else – they mean exactly what they say.
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