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Editors of The American Heritage Dictionaries - The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language-Houghton Mifflin (1994)

Computers—machines that some of us still think of as fast number crunch- ers—can encode, manipulate, process, and in a limited way understand language only because of the remarkable properties of natural language systems as they have evolved through a long history. In its essence, language is a hierarchically organized structure of symbols, which allows us to express a potentially infinite number of ideas through finite means. The basic building blocks of this system are very few: a set of contrastive sounds—the phonemes of the language—that we can represent by letters and letter combinations in our alphabetical writing systems. These ele- mentary building blocks are combined in highly restricted ways into the basic meaningful units, the words of the language. These words, again in accordance with systematic combinatory principles, form meaningful sequences of syntactically well-formed sentences. The entire system thus consists of combining a finite inven- tory of discrete units into a potentially infinite set of discourses, just as the ten numerals of our number system can be combined into an infinite set of different mathematical values and expressions.

This analogous organization of language and numeric systems makes it easily possible to represent linguistic units by numbers and to manipulate them as if they were mathematical objects. Having a computer find a misspelled word in our doc- ument is not magic: if the machine has a lexicon available, with words coded as numbers, it can compare the numeric code of the word we write with the numerical value of the word in its word list through a simple arithmetical operation. If no match is found, our word is not in the computer’s lexicon, and we have a good can- didate for a misspelling.

EFFICIENCY AND REDUNDANCY
But languages—as they have evolved spontaneously in communities over the ages—possess much more complex mathematical properties than those resulting from a hierarchical structure of discrete units. Languages exhibit both efficiency and redundancy, two contradictory characteristics balanced against each other to achieve both a communicational usefulness and reliability.

Consider redundancy first: of the 33 or so phonemes of English, only a small subset of their possible permutations can form actual words. Adult English speakers know, for example, that trip is an English word. But they also know that tlip is not an English word and do not have to go to a dictionary to discover that fact. Intuition tells them that no English word can begin with tl-. But when faced with trin, English speakers—though not recognizing the word—may have to seek help in a dictionary. The form trin is at least theoretically a possible English word because it does not vio- late any of the general constraints on permissible sequences of English sounds.

Of course, the constraints on the permissible sequences of sounds that are used to achieve this redundancy may differ substantially from language to language; there are many languages, for example, in which a word can begin with the initial tl- cluster prohibited in English. The same is true on higher levels. English—a config- urational language that relies on word order to signal many grammatical func- tions—imposes severe restrictions on possible sequences of words within a sentence. Languages with a “free” word order, such as Latin or Russian, allow seem- ingly endless permutations of words.

These permutations are possible because these languages have an elaborate system of inflected forms and paradigms in which a small set of endings is combined in highly restricted ways with the stems of the word to signal the syntactic relations that are achieved through word order in English.

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