What Is a Natural Language?

Jumble of words and letters

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A natural language is a human language, such as English or Standard Mandarin, as opposed to a constructed language, an artificial language, a machine language, or the language of formal logic. Also called ordinary language.

The theory of universal grammar proposes that all-natural languages have certain underlying rules that shape and limit the structure of the specific grammar for any given language.

Natural language processing (also known as computational linguistics) is the scientific study of language from a computational perspective, with a focus on the interactions between natural (human) languages and computers.


  • "The term 'natural language' is used in opposition to the terms 'formal language' and 'artificial language,' but the important difference is that natural languages are not actually constructed as artificial languages and they do not actually appear as formal languages. But they are considered and studied as though they were formal languages 'in principle.' Behind the complex and the seemingly chaotic surface of natural languages there are — according to this way of thinking — rules and principles that determine their constitution and functions. . . ." (Sören Stenlund, Language and Philosophical Problems. Routledge, 1990)

Essential Concepts

  • All languages are systematic. They are governed by a set of interrelated systems that include phonology, graphics (usually), morphology, syntax, lexicon, and semantics.
  • All natural languages are conventional and arbitrary. They obey rules, such as assigning a particular word to a particular thing or concept. But there is no reason that this particular word was originally assigned to this particular thing or concept.
  • All natural languages are redundant, meaning that the information in a sentence is signaled in more than one way.
  • All natural languages change. There are various ways a language can change and various reasons for this change. (C. M. Millward and Mary Hayes, A Biography of the English Language, 3rd ed. Wadsworth, 2011)

Creativity and Efficiency

"The apparent fact that the number of utterances in a natural language is unbounded is one of its more widely remarked upon properties and a core tenet of modern linguistic theory. The classic argument for creativity uses the idea that one can continually add further adjuncts to sentences to establish that there can be no longest sentence and therefore no finite number of sentences (see Chomsky, 1957). . . .
"This conventional argument for the creativity of natural language is overly strained: who has actually heard a 500-word sentence? In contrast, anyone who studies [natural language] generation has available a far more reasonable and commonsense account of creativity, namely that one continually uses new utterances because one is continually faced with new situations... The counterbalance to creativity is the 'efficiency' of language (Barwise & Perry, 1983): the fact that many utterances do reoccur countless times (e.g., 'Where did you go for dinner last night?')." (David D. McDonald, et al., "Factors Contributing to Efficiency in Natural Language Generation." Natural Language Generation, ed. by Gerard Kempen. Kluwer, 1987)

Natural Imprecision

"Natural language is the embodiment of human cognition and human intelligence. It is very evident that natural language includes an abundance of vague and indefinite phrases and statements that correspond to imprecision in the underlying cognitive concepts. Terms such as 'tall,' 'short,' 'hot,' and 'well' are extremely difficult to translate into knowledge representation, as required for the reasoning systems under discussion. Without such precision, symbolic manipulation within the computer is bleak, to say the least. However, without the richness of meaning inherent in such phrases, human communication would be severely limited, and it is therefore incumbent on us (to attempt) to include such facility within reasoning systems..." (Jay Friedenberg and Gordon Silverman, Cognitive Science: An Introduction to the Study of Mind. SAGE, 2006)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Natural Language?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-natural-language-1691422. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). What Is a Natural Language? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-natural-language-1691422 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Natural Language?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-natural-language-1691422 (accessed March 27, 2023).