Despite language being an ability we use constantly, the average person’s understanding of its intricacies is, well, average at best. For example, did you know 60 per cent of the words we say and use are comprised of “the”? Or that when you concatenate the 20 most common English words, the resulting sentence is almost intelligible?
Language is the topic of Michael Stevens’ latest Vsauce clip, where he tackles something known as “Zipf’s Law”. But before we get onto that, what are those 20 words?
The Of And To A In Is I That It For You Was With On As Have But Be They
It’s like terrible Shakespeare. I’m sure scholars could plum the depths of that sentence and come up with a meaning. Or they might recognise it for the gibberish it is.
But yes, Zipf’s Law. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
Zipf’s law states that given some corpus of natural language utterances, the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. Thus the most frequent word will occur approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, etc.
The crux of it is that simple rules can — mostly — explain complex systems. Stevens describes it in more detail in the video, so do give it a watch.