Parikh's theorem

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Parikh's theorem in theoretical computer science says that if one looks only at the number of occurrences of each terminal symbol in a context-free language, without regard to their order, then the language is indistinguishable from a regular language.[1] It is useful for deciding whether or not a string with a given number of some terminals is accepted by a context-free grammar.[2] It was first proved by Rohit Parikh in 1961[3] and republished in 1966.[4]

Definitions and formal statement[edit]

Let be an alphabet. The Parikh vector of a word is defined as the function , given by[1]

, where denotes the number of occurrences of the letter in the word .

A subset of is said to be linear if it is of the form

for some vectors .

A subset of is said to be semi-linear if it is a union of finitely many linear subsets.

The formal statement of Parikh's theorem is as follows. Let be a context-free language. Let be the set of Parikh vectors of words in , that is, . Then is a semi-linear set.

Two languages are said to be commutatively equivalent if they have the same set of Parikh vectors. If is any semi-linear set, the language of words whose Parikh vectors are in is commutatively equivalent to some regular language. Thus, every context-free language is commutatively equivalent to some regular language.


Parikh's theorem proves that some context-free languages can only have ambiguous grammars[further explanation needed]. Such languages are called inherently ambiguous languages. From a formal grammar perspective, this means that some ambiguous context-free grammars cannot be converted to equivalent unambiguous context-free grammars.


  1. ^ a b Kozen, Dexter (1997). Automata and Computability. New York: Springer-Verlag. ISBN 3-540-78105-6. 
  2. ^ Håkan Lindqvist. "Parikh's theorem" (PDF). Umeå Universitet. 
  3. ^ Parikh, Rohit (1961). "Language Generating Devices". Quartly Progress Report, Research Laboratory of Electronics, MIT. 
  4. ^ Parikh, Rohit (1966). "On Context-Free Languages". Journal of the Association for Computing Machinery. 13 (4).