Newfound Appreciation: Noam Chomsky

Posted by Craig Jorgensen
Craig Jorgensen

We have all been there, sitting in class thinking to ourselves, "I will never use this in real life." However, life has a way of proving us wrong.

Enter Noam Chomsky

Learn definition highlighted in red in the dictionary

As a computer science graduate, I took quite a bit of math and computing classes. One name that I heard over and over was Noam Chomsky. In class, he seemed to be this vague, academic figure that created some structures to define a language, aka the hierarchy of languages and theories of automata.

Now that I've had some time away from school, and have spent a little more time in the real world of software development, I've developed an appreciation for Noam Chomsky as a person, what he accomplished, and his contributions to modern computing.

Who is Noam Chomsky
In 1956, Chomsky developed a way to quantify language into a simplified rule, a universal grammar that underlies all languages. He went a step further and broke language down into categories based on the number of constraints placed on it.

According to Chomsky's rule, all languages can fit into one of 4 categories:

  • Recursively enumerable
  • Context-sensitive
  • Context-free
  • Regular

chomsky blog

You can find out more about these levels of language here:

For me, this was an interesting academic point, but not particularly useful. The idea that all language, across all the history of humanity, could be boiled down to some fundamental truths is interesting, but I'm no linguist, and it didn't change my day-to-day.

When things came together for me was in the practical application of theory in a course where we were required to build a compiler. A compiler is a tool that converts a programming language into a set of machine instructions.

To achieve this, I had to create a language that contained all my necessary instructions, was understandable for an end-user to read, and was never ambiguous. If I learned one thing from that course, it's that ambiguity is the enemy, if your instruction is unclear in any way, how is the compiler going to know what to do with it? During this assignment is where understanding how language and grammar work at a fundamental level really pays off.

My main take away from this duo of courses was all programming languages fall into these categories and leverage the context and syntax rules Chomsky created. These languages can be classified into the above categories and utilized in different ways, based on what you are trying to accomplish as a programmer.

Moral of the story: surprise, surprise, your teachers know what they are talking about and how it will help you. While at the time, I may have thought, "Why bother?" I now have a profound and deep respect for the foundation Chomsky laid in linguistics and how it has advanced the world as a whole.

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Craig Jorgensen

Written by Craig Jorgensen

I'm a recent graduate from South Dakota State University with a degree in Computer Science. For me programming is both a passion and an occupation, but have been broadening my horizons as Customer Success Manager with Query.AI, where we are using Natural Language Processing to allow users to “talk to your data”.