Brevity law

In linguistics, Brevity law (also called Zipf's law of abbreviation) is a linguistic law that qualitatively states that the more frequently a word is used, the ‘shorter’ that word tends to be, and vice versa.[1] This is a statistical regularity that can be found in natural languages and other natural systems and that claims to be a general rule.

Brevity law was originally formulated by the linguist George Kingsley Zipf in 1945 as a negative correlation between the frequency of a word and its size. He analyzed a written corpus in American English and showed that the average lengths in terms of the average number of phonemes decreases as the frequency word increases. He completed this observation showing that, for a Latin corpus, there is a negative correlation between the number of syllables and the frequency of appearance of words. This observation says that the most frequent words in a language are the shortest, e.g. the most common words in English are: the, be (in different forms), to, of, and, a; all of them short words that contain only 1 to 3 letters. He claimed that this Law of Abbreviation is a universal structural property of language, hypothesizing that it arises as a result of individuals optimising form-meaning mappings under competing pressures to communicate accurately but also efficiently.[2][3]

Since then, the research on this linguistic law has continued and it has been empirically verified for almost a thousand languages of 80 different linguistic families when studying the relationship between the size of words measuring them in terms of number of characters in texts and their frequencies.[4] The Brevity law shows to be universal and has also been observed acoustically when word size is measured in terms of word time duration,[5] and recent evidence even suggests that this law also holds in the acoustic communication of other primates.[6]

The origin of this statistical pattern seems to be related to optimization principles and derived by a mediation between two major constrains: the pressure to reduce the cost of production and the pressure to maximize transmission success. This idea is very related with the principle of least effort, which postulates that animals, people, even well-designed machines will naturally choose the path of least resistance or "effort". This principle of reducing the cost of production might also be related to principles of optimal compression of based in information theory.[7]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Zipf GK. 1949 Human behavior and the principle of least effort. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley
  2. ^ Zipf GK. 1935 The Psychobiology of language, an introduction to dynamic philology. Boston, MA: Houghton–Mifflin
  3. ^ Zipf GK. 1949 Human behavior and the principle of least effort. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley
  4. ^ Bentz C, Ferrer-i-Cancho R. 2016 Zipf’s Law of abbreviation as a language universal. Universitätsbibliothek Tübingen.
  5. ^ Tomaschek F, Wieling M, Arnold D, Baayen RH. 2013 Word frequency, vowel length and vowel quality in speech production: an EMA study of the importance of experience. In Proc. of the 14th Annual Conf. of the International Speech Communication Association (INTERSPEECH 2013), Lyon, France, 25–29 August (eds F Bimbot et al.), pp. 1302–1306
  6. ^ Gustison ML, Semple S, Ferrer-i-Cancho R, Bergman TJ. 2016 Gelada vocal sequences follow Menzerath’s linguistic law. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, E2750-E2758
  7. ^ Kanwal J, Smith K, Culbertson J, Kirby S. 2017Zipf’s Law of abbreviation and the principle of least effort: language users optimise a miniature lexicon for efficient communication. Cognition 165, 45-52. (doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2017.05.001)