Formal Languages
An Introduction

This article introduces one of the core concepts of theoretical computer science to readers who want to learn about it. Good knowledge of formal languages is required for a thorough understanding of computability and complexity theory.

Written by Claus Volko
Vienna, Austria, Europe

Contact: cdvolko (at) gmail (dot) com

A formal language is a set of words. This set can be either finite or infinite. If a formal language is finite, it can be specified by listing all words that belong to it. This is not possible if it is infinite. How can an infinite formal language be defined?

A formalism is required. The type of formalism depends on the type of the language. Unfortunately no formalism is known that would enable one to specify any language. But for special sets of languages there are diverse elegant formalisms. The sets of formal languages form a hierarchy. This hierarchy is named after the American linguist Noam Chomsky. Higher languages are proper subsets of lower languages in this hierarchy. There are the following relations:

Regular languages
are a subset of Context-free languages
are a subset of Context-sensitive languages
are a subset of Recursive languages
are a subset of Recursively enumerable languages
are a subset of General languages,

Recursive langagues
are a subset of Co-recursively enumerable languages
are a subset of General languages.

All finite languages are regular. Moreover, languages that allow an unlimited repetition of parts of a word belong to the set of regular languages as well. Regular languages can be defined by regular expressions, that is strings which in addition to literals (characters that belong to the word) may also contain parentheses and two peculiar symbols. One of these symbols is usually expressed as the plus sign, the other as the multiplication sign.

The plus sign signifies that the preceding part of the word may be omitted. Due to this, the regular expression ab+c stands for the two words ac and abc. The plus sign is usually only applied to the previous literals, except in case several literals were embraced by a parenthesis, in which case the plus sign relates to the part of the word between the parentheses. The regular expression a(bc)+d for example stands for the two words ad and abcd. With the multiplication sign it is quite similar; its meaning is that the marked part of the word can be repeated an unlimited number of times. The regular expression a(bc)*d creates an infinite set of words, containing the words ad, abcd, abcbcd, abcbcbcd, abcbcbcbcd and infinitely many more.

Some readers might raise the question how this is related to computer science; well, actually formal languages are a central concept of theoretical computer science. Each formal language corresponds to a decision problem: Does a particular word belong to the formal language or not? The belonging to a certain set of formal languages can be decided by a computational model, a theoretical formalism that mimicks the behaviour of a computer. In general any decision problem that can be solved by a computer can also be solved by a Turing machine and vice versa. However, a Turing machine is not able to decide any conceivable language - it is only suitable for recursively enumerable languages. There is no known formalism for more general languages. I will talk about Turing machines later on, but now let us come back to regular languages.

Regular languages can be modelled as finite automata. An automaton is a set of states with defined transitions. There is exactly one starting state and at least one finishing (accepting) state. Any automaton begins at the starting state and reads the first literal. If there is a transition from the current state to another state with this transition accepting the literal, the transition to the new state can be made. Otherwise execution stops. A word is considered an element of the given formal language if and only if all literals have been accepted in the given order and a finishing state has been reached this way. Note that there may be more than one transition from the current state that accepts a given literal. If there are several different transitions accepting the same input, such an automaton is called non-deterministic. If such an automaton is used to check if a word is in a given language, all possible paths of execution must be considered; it is enough if a single path leads to an accepting state. The other type of automata is called deterministic; with deterministic finite automata, it is sufficient to execute them once to solve a decision problem. As the intelligent reader might suspect, deterministic automata are usually more complex than non-deterministic ones; they consist of more states. Is it possible to construct a deterministic automaton for any decision problem that can be solved by a non-deterministic automaton? Yes, it is. Since a deterministic automaton is actually a special type of a non-deterministic automaton, the opposite relation applies as well. Deterministic and non-deterministic automata have the same strength of expression. In many cases, however, it is easier to construct a non-deterministic finite automaton that accepts a given language.

The next level in the hierarchy is occupied by context-free languages. These languages can be specified by context-free grammars. There are various notations for these, one of the better known ones being the Extended Backus-Naur-Form (EBNF). It has the following syntax:

rule -> literal* rule* literal*

Again the multiplication sign means that the preceding element can be repeated an unlimited time, including zero times. This enables one to define rules such as

A -> abc,

which means that any occurence of the rule A may be replaced by the string abc, but also rules such as

A -> a B de,
B -> B c,

which mean that B may be replaced by an arbitrary number of literals c and A by literal a, followed by rule B and literals de. What distinguishes this from regular languages is that several possibilities can be defined for each rule. It holds:

A -> B|C

is equal to

A -> B,
A -> C.

So it is possible to choose an option, and this makes it possible to describe languages that cannot be defined by regular expressions. For instance, the context-free grammar

A -> a A b|e,

where e signifies the empty word, enables one to form the following words: e, ab, aabb, aaabbb etc. There is no regular expression for this language. For this reason this is not a regular, but a context-free language.

Context-free languages can be defined by automata as well. For this purpose pushdown automata are used. These work with a stack, that is a data structure that enables one to push anything onto the top of the stack any time and to derive (“pop”) the upmost element of the stack, by which this element is removed from the stack, but not to directly access any other element of the stack. Stacks are also called LIFO memories (last in, first out). A pushdown automaton uses the topmost value of the stack as an additional criterion to decide whether a particular transition is allowed. Moreover, each transition may push a new element onto the top of the stack. With such an automaton it is possible to decide whether a given word is an element of the context-free language which is represented by that automaton.

It is easy to show that such an automaton is able to model a context-free language: If the right-hand side of a rule contains only literal, the stack is not needed. If there are references to other rules on the right-hand side, the stack can be used to save where the automaton should continue after processing the rule that is referred to. For instance, if the rule A contains a reference to the rule B, the automaton processes the word following rule A until the reference is reached. Then it saves on the stack where it must continue as soon as the processing of the rule B is finished, and goes on by processing the rule B. Once that is finished, the automaton looks up on the stack to see where it must continue. After finishing the processing of the rule A it realizes that the stack is empty and ends at an accepting state.

What is missing is the proof that such a pushdown automaton is only able to process context-free languages and not also languages that appear in the next level of the Chomsky hierarchy. Of course it is possible to show that a pushdown automaton is not able to process context-sensitive languages which are not context-free at the same time. Context-sensitive languages can be defined by grammars in which literals may also appear on the left-hand side, for example

a A b -> b C d.

I leave the proof to the readers as an exercise. A hint: It is related to the sequential processing of the input (one literal after the other in the very order they appear in the input word). Why may this be a problem with context-sensitive languages? Would it, in theory, be possible using pushdown automata to jump back to literals that have already been processed? Why does this not suffice to define context-sensitive languages by means of pushdown automata?

A formalism that allows to jump back to already processed literals while saving the additional pieces of information needed to process context-sensitive languages ia Turing machines. Turing machines are far more powerful than automata. They can have different states, process the input from left to right as well as in the other direction, and overwrite the input. A Turing machine is represented by states and transitions just like an automaton, exactly one state being the starting state and at least one state being a finishing (accepting) state. The input word is accepted when such a finishing state is reached. Which transitions are possible depends on the current state on the one hand and on the literal located at the current position of the input/output head on the other. Each transition not only defines the following state but also the value the current input data element is overwritten with and the direction where the input/output head will move next.

Turing machines allow to describe more general languages than just context-sensitive ones. Turing machines which have to either accept or reject an input but must not enter an infinite loop are also called Turing deciders. Turing deciders represent recursive (also called decidable) languages. If you allow a Turing machine to enter an infinite loop if the word does not belong to the language but demand from it that it accepts the word in any other case, the set of languages that can be represented is called the set of recursively enumerable or semi-decidable languages. By contrast, if the Turing machine must always reject the word if it is not in the language but may either accept or enter an infinite loop otherwise, these languages are called co-recursively enumerable; and the set of recursive languages is the intersection of recursively enumerable and co-recursively enumerable languages.

Claus Volko

This essay was first published in MATHEMATIQ 10, in 2013.