Can this really be true? The frequency of occurrence of words in English text is governed by mathematical rule? We have grown accustomed to accepting that natural processes all dance to mathematical rules, but text too? Shady Characters takes us through the calculations, and attempts, not unsuccessfully, to extend the law to cover punctuation too.

As plus.maths.org tells us “Zipf’s law arose out of an analysis of language by linguist George Kingsley Zipf, who theorised that given a large body of language (that is, a long book — or every word uttered by Plus employees during the day), the frequency of each word is close to inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. That is:

$ P_ n \propto 1/n^ a $ where a is close to 1. . . The jury remains out as to whether there is any significance in Zipf’s law — does it cast light on the way we structure language and how language evolved? Or is it simply a statistical artifact?”

No doubt philosophers have knocked this sort of thing on the head long ago, but it all makes me wonder if science’s obvious basis in mathematics is nothing more than a consequence of our brains’ fundamental inability to work in any way other than the mathematical. In other words, is “mathematics” nothing more than our word for the way our brains can think? Is it all nothing more than observer bias?

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