All the Emacs commands which parse words or balance parentheses are controlled by the syntax table. The syntax table says which characters are opening delimiters, which are parts of words, which are string quotes, and so on. Each major mode has its own syntax table (though sometimes related major modes use the same one) which it installs in each buffer that uses that major mode. The syntax table installed in the current buffer is the one that all commands use, so we call it "the" syntax table. A syntax table is a Lisp object, a vector of length 256 whose elements are numbers.
To display a description of the contents of the current syntax table,
type C-h s (
describe-syntax). The description of each
character includes both the string you would have to give to
modify-syntax-entry to set up that character's current syntax,
and some English to explain that string if necessary.
For full information on the syntax table, see section `Syntax Tables' in The Emacs Lisp Reference Manual.