Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Friday, August 3, 2012

Blind Spot

XKCD is smarter than me. I can't speak for you.
I think I'm a pretty smart guy, an opinion which on more than one occasion has got me exactly what I had coming to me. This morning I read the above XKCD comic. So, being a fan of language and all that it entails (witness this blog) I Googled "formal languages." Hey, I like to be in on the joke! What I could glean from the rat king of a Wikipedia entry on Formal Languages was that formal languages are the structures of language stripped of meaning. 

This boggled me. I boggled.

I get that there is a point to analyzing the formal structures of language in order to...wait, what, again? There seems to be, in my head, a complete block on this one. I try to think about it or read about it, and my brain slides around it like a blind spot. I'd love some explanation of which I could make sense. Meaning seems to me to be of absolute necessity in language. Without meaning, the structure becomes useless. Since any given, functioning structure would do the trick for the communication of meaning, the structure seems to me a formality. If you don't have anything meaningful to communicate, then no structure will suffice to create that meaning. This may be a chicken and egg thing, and I freely admit to possibly missing the point.

This may be why I was never able to get my head around programming languages, though I loved the concept of futuristic machines that did our bidding. I was always better at story problems than solving formulas, better at playing music than taking tests on rules for composition, better at writing than memorizing rules of grammar and spelling. I'm sure I'm not unique in this. It may be simple laziness, a brain unused to a certain type of abstract thought unwilling to stretch at this late date.

Regardless, anybody who knows anything about this type of thing, anyone with a more scientific, abstract turn of mind, I'd love to hear from you. What do we do with Formal Languages? What are they for? What do they help us discover? And why, please God, why, is the above comic funny?

UPDATE: I think I get formal languages. The use of language when communicating with a computer obviates the expectation of meaning. In other words, when you're talking with people, you can speak about meaning. When you are sending commands to a computer that are undeniable, no meaning is needed or expected. The only pertinent question is whether the language is able to be parsed. Then structure becomes paramount. "Meaningful" means "able to be executed" and only language structured correctly becomes "meaningful." Structure becomes meaning.

Which still doesn't tell me why the comic is funny.

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