Language Counts

Fall 2013 quarter

Taught by

mathematics, computer science

This program links together computer science and linguistics through the written forms and grammars of languages. First, we’ll consider writing: what do the world’s alphabets, syllabaries and pictographic writing systems tell us about the structure of human languages? Are some writing systems particularly appropriate for some languages, or is it possible to represent any language with any writing system? Ciphers deliberately conceal information without removing it. What does cryptography tell us about the nature of information?

Second, we’ll look at the grammars of human and computer languages. The syntax of a computer language can be described precisely, while human languages have exceptions. Yet there have been many attempts to model human language with computers, and to create ways for computers to “read” and “listen” to human languages. To what extent have automatic translation programs and Internet search engines been successful? Why is it that humans can handle ambiguity, but computers have such a difficult time?

Major topics of the program

  • Cryptography: We’ll study a variety of ciphers and program some of them using Python.
  • Transformational grammars: We’ll study regular, context-free, context-sensitive and probabilistic grammars.
  • Phonology: We’ll introduce the sound systems of human languages.
  • Writing systems: We’ll compare how alphabets, syllabaries and pictographic systems encode phonological and morphological information; we’ll study how writing systems have developed over time.
  • Morphology and syntax: We’ll introduce aspects of word formation and word arrangement in human languages.
  • Pragmatics: We’ll study aspects of human language in use, including the information structure of discourse (i.e., theme, rheme and focus), implicature and context-dependent expressions.

Students will participate in lectures, seminar, labs and workshops on linguistics, programming and computation. They will be evaluated on quizzes, exams, papers and programs. 

Program Details

Fields of Study

Preparatory for studies or careers in

linguistics, computer science, mathematics, and communications. This program serves as a feeder into Computer Science Foundations or Inside Language.

Location and Schedule

Campus location



Offered during: Day


Buy books for this program through Greener Bookstore.

Online Learning

Hybrid Online Learning < 25% Delivered Online:

Registration Information

Credits: 16 (Fall)

Class standing: Freshmen–Senior; 25% of the seats are reserved for freshmen

Maximum enrollment: 42


Course Reference Numbers

Fr (16 credits): 10186
So - Sr (16 credits): 10189
(1-16 credits): 10473

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