Zipf's Law of Abbreviation and the Principle of Least Effort: Language users optimise a miniature lexicon for efficient communication

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

The linguist George Kingsley Zipf made a now classic observation about the relationship between a word's length and its frequency; the more frequent a word is, the shorter it tends to be. He claimed that this "Law of Abbreviation" is a universal structural property of language. The Law of Abbreviation has since been documented in a wide range of human languages, and extended to animal communication systems and even computer programming languages. Zipf hypothesised that this universal design feature arises as a result of individuals optimising form-meaning mappings under competing pressures to communicate accurately but also efficiently-his famous Principle of Least Effort. In this study, we use a miniature artificial language learning paradigm to provide direct experimental evidence for this explanatory hypothesis. We show that language users optimise form-meaning mappings only when pressures for accuracy and efficiency both operate during a communicative task, supporting Zipf's conjecture that the Principle of Least Effort can explain this universal feature of word length distributions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-52
Number of pages8
JournalCognition
Volume165
Early online date8 May 2017
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2017

Keywords

  • Zipf’s Law of Abbreviation
  • Principle of Least
  • language universals
  • efficient communication
  • information theory
  • artificial language learning

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Zipf's Law of Abbreviation and the Principle of Least Effort: Language users optimise a miniature lexicon for efficient communication'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this