Linguistic descriptions are programs
Horses for courses
order to be commercially viable, high-level programming languages
and the interpreters or compilers
they depend on, will almost inevitably be general purpose tools for handling
a wide range of problems. But in principle, of course, there is no such
A high-level language could be designed for an extremely specific task.
In fact, if you are a linguist, you will already know such a language.
A language for linguists
linguistic description would normally be thought of as a set of explicit
about the linguistic forms used in a natural language, or perhaps as a way
of characterising the notion
possible sentence. But - because it aims to be explicit - a
can also quite naturally be interpreted as a collection of instructions
for constructing (i.e. literally generating) linguistic forms or,
for analysing them. Interpreted in this way a linguistic description can
be seen as a kind of program. What makes it possible to guarantee that
the instructions of this program are unambiguously interpretable
is that they
are written in a very restricted
language. To put it differently, then, the notational conventions used in
linguistic description together make up a specialised high-level programming
It just happens that this language is missing a readily available interpreter
(or compiler) which would allow us to run the description on a
Treating descriptions as programs
If we could treat linguistic descriptions literally as programs expressed
in a narrowly focused high-level language there would be considerable
advantages. Given an appropriate
interpreter to translate the linguistic program into a form the
the painstaking and, in practice, sometimes careless manual checking
of a linguistic description could be replaced by much faster, more
and accurate testing. At the same time, the demands of the interpreter (viz.
that the linguistic specification is absolutely unambigious) would ensure that
linguist takes an objective view of his descriptive framework. Is it really
is as precise, as fully formalised,
as he imagined? He might even be persuaded on occasions under this sort
of pressure to modify it!
Making the best of the situation
Of course, an off-the-shelf interpreter to convert
linguistic descriptions into machine code is just pie in the sky. But notice
that there is nothing to prevent us from taking a more indirect route - writing
an interpreter for ourselves in another carefully chosen high-level language.
All that will happen in this scenario is that any linguistic
need to be reduced to the language
of the machine in two steps rather than one.
STEP 1 STEP 2
custom interpreter commercial interpreter
linguistic program --> high-level language --> machine code instructions
The computer certainly will not worry about this extra work load.