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Optimization of morpheme length: a cross-linguistic assessment of Zipf’s and Menzerath’s laws

  • Matthew Stave ORCID logo EMAIL logo , Ludger Paschen , François Pellegrino and Frank Seifart ORCID logo
From the journal Linguistics Vanguard


Zipf’s Law of Abbreviation and Menzerath’s Law both make predictions about the length of linguistic units, based on corpus frequency and the length of the carrier unit. Each contributes to the efficiency of languages: for Zipf, units are more likely to be reduced when they are highly predictable, due to their frequency; for Menzerath, units are more likely to be reduced when there are more sub-units to contribute to the structural information of the carrier unit. However, it remains unclear how the two laws work together in determining unit length at a given level of linguistic structure. We examine this question regarding the length of morphemes in spoken corpora of nine typologically diverse languages drawn from the DoReCo corpus, showing that Zipf’s Law is a stronger predictor, but that the two laws interact with one another. We also explore how this is affected by specific typological characteristics, such as morphological complexity.

Corresponding author: Matthew Stave, Univ Lyon and Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (UMR 5596), Dynamique du Langage, Lyon, France, E-mail:


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Received: 2019-11-01
Accepted: 2020-10-23
Published Online: 2021-04-21

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