Double articulation is a fascinating linguistic
phenomenon because it explains how language has the
ability to describe everything in the world, and because
it can be applied to other fields of knowledge as well.
The double articulation of language
According to linguist André Martinet (1),
language can be broken down in smaller elements on two
- First, a sentence can be broken down into minimal
meaningful units called morphemes. Minimal meaningful units are usually words,
or parts of words. For example, 'bigger' contains two
monemes: one for 'big', and one for 'more'.
- Second, a moneme can be further divided in minimal
phonological units, which have no meaning. Minimal
phonological units are called phonemes, and they often
correspond to letters in English, but not always. The
moneme 'letter' contains 6 letters and only 4 phonemes, because 'tt' is
pronounced as one t and "er" is usually pronounced as one sound (2). On the contrary, "axis" contains 4 letters and 5 phonemes.
What is powerful here is that this two-level system
allows for expressing every imaginable nuance and meaning
using a very small set of sounds (English has about 40
or 50 phonemes). The second articulation combines these
sounds to form thousands of different words, which have
a meaning but produce nothing: if you say
chicken to someone, he will learn nothing and
wait for you to say something more. The first articulation
combines the meanings of these words to build an infinite
number of sentences, which do have an effect: if you say
Why did the chicken cross the road?, your
interlocutor will understand you and give you an
Compare this to the code of road signs. Here, one
sign has exactly one meaning, and cannot be articulated in
smaller or bigger units. This code is very easy to learn
and read, but its power is extremely limited. This is a
good thing, because I don't want a road sign to look like
it's been written by James Joyce.
Semioticians have tried to apply the theory of double
articulation to other kinds of communication, such as
movies or painting, with little success. What I find
surprising is that few people tried to apply it to computer
languages. Consider the following statement:
Humans and computers will, consciously or not, read it
in a two-level procedure:
- Combine letters to form words, or tokens (second
This is the lexical analysis. Compilers usually perform
this step with 'lex'. The letters belong to a fixed set
(ASCII), and the tokens have a well-defined meaning
('printf' is documented as a formatting function, the
double-quote token is a string delimiter, etc), but they
have no effect by themselves: a computer will do nothing if
you just say 'printf' to it.
- Then the tokens are combined into statements or
expressions (first articulation). This is the
syntactical analysis, which is performed by 'yacc'. The
resulting statement will be understood by the computer and
will produce something (the message will probably be
printed on the screen), just like human sentences.
So the computer language designers spontaneously
created double-articulated languages. Even more, although
they probably had no knowledge of Martinet's theories, they
invented compilers that followed exactly the two-step
procedure of double articulation.
They were so successful that nobody found anything better
since: despite all the research that has been done on
computer programming languages in the last 40 years,
double articulation is still the basis for the most recent
programming languages: see Java or C#.
(1) André Martinet, Eléments de linguistique
générale, Colin, Paris, 1960.
(2) Thanks to Cletus the Foetus for pointing out an error here. I thought "er" were two phonemes because I am not a native English speaker, and I haven't mastered all the mysteries of English pronunciation...