Another look at namespaces

Simon St.Laurent simonstl at
Mon Sep 20 07:52:18 BST 1999

At 11:59 AM 9/20/99 +0800, James Tauber wrote:
>> I think you're both (James and Paul) overstating the distinction between
>> natural languages and formal languages
>All I was trying to do was point out that there is a definition of
>"language", which is the one normally used by computer scientists, more
>accurately called a formal language, which requires a grammar. This is the
>sense of the word I think Paul meant. I think it is entirely acceptable for
>him to use the term in that sense. Most introductory CS books and I would
>guess almost all books on compilers and parsing would use the word
>"language" in that way.

So we're having problems connecting the signifier 'language' to a meaning
common across the participants of this list.

>> I think I have to suggest that there is a difference between HTML 4.0 (the
>> formally specified, designed-by-experts version) and HTML (the one that's
>> used in real life) - and do what we can to improve HTML, the real-life
>> version.  If XHTML wants to design changes, they'd do well do consider
>> the public will actually adopt, not try to force an odd notion of formal
>> grammars mapping to namespaces upon that public.
>"Odd notion of formal grammars"? What is odd about the EBNF in XML 1.0? What
>is odd about a DTD? What is odd about a DDML document? What is odd about an
>XML Schema Description?

The odd notion is of "formal grammars mapping to namespaces", not of
"formal grammars", which range from useful to utterly useless.  Some of
them are indeed odd, but it's not 'formal grammar' I'm questioning here.

>These are all called "grammars". They all define things called "languages".
>They are not "grammars" and "languages" the way Noah Webster used those
>words or the way you seem to use them. They are "grammars" and "languages"
>the way computer scientists use those words.

Meaning one grammar + vocabulary -> language? Where the quantities are all
one?  I think in practice you may find multiple grammars used within the
same language, even a formal one, and (yuck for some) not just subsets
(once you let ANY in the door, it all goes).  Trying to keep it all
exclusively singular seems to be a common dream throughout computing, but
one I hope we can leave behind more and more over time. 

>Paul wasn't overstating any distinction between formal and natural
>languages, he was merely using the words "grammar" and "language" in their
>formal sense. Rick and you were using those terms in perhaps a different
>sense. No one is more right that the other, you were just using different
>senses of the words.

Well, perhaps Paul should have left Chomsky out of it...

I think we might do well to ponder whether XML is really about creating
formal languages or for encoding information already represented in natural
languages.  If it's the latter, the results might be more interesting.

Simon St.Laurent
XML: A Primer (2nd Ed - September)
Building XML Applications
Inside XML DTDs: Scientific and Technical
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