Polymeric macromolecules, when viewed abstractly as strings of symbols, can be treated in terms of formal language theory, providing a mathematical foundation for characterizing such strings both as collections and in terms of their individual structures. In addition this approach offers a framework for analysis of macromolecules by tools and conventions widely used in computational linguistics. This article introduces the ways that linguistics can be and has been applied to molecular biology, covering the relevant formal language theory at a relatively nontechnical level. Analogies between macromolecules and human natural language are used to provide intuitive insights into the relevance of grammars, parsing, and analysis of language complexity to biology. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Biopolymers 99: 203–217, 2013.