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Zipf's law


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n.

1 A law of linguistics stating that the rank (r) of a word on a frequency list multiplied by the frequency (f) with which the word is used is a constant (C), hence rf = C. For example, in the London-Lund corpus of spoken English, the words see, which, and get are the 45th, 55th, and 65th most frequently used words, and their frequencies are 674, 563, and 469 respectively; thus 45 × 674 = 30,330, 55 × 563 = 30,965, and 65 × 469 = 30,485; in each case rf = 30,500 approximately. This relationship has been confirmed in many languages, but it is now known that it tends to break down for words at both extremes of the frequency range.

2 A law of linguistics stating the existence of an inverse relation between the lengths of words and their frequency, resulting presumably from the fact that frequently used words tend to be shortened, so that pianoforte becomes piano, omnibus becomes bus, television becomes telly, zoological garden becomes zoo, and so on. [Named after the US philologist George Kingsley Zipf (1902–50) who formulated both laws]

Subjects: Psychology.


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