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Beyond Zipf's law: Modeling the structure of human language

M. Angeles Serrano, Alessandro Flammini, and Filippo Menczer
Arxiv ID: 902.0606Last updated: 2/5/2009
Human language, the most powerful communication system in history, is closely associated with cognition. Written text is one of the fundamental manifestations of language, and the study of its universal regularities can give clues about how our brains process information and how we, as a society, organize and share it. Still, only classical patterns such as Zipf's law have been explored in depth. In contrast, other basic properties like the existence of bursts of rare words in specific documents, the topical organization of collections, or the sublinear growth of vocabulary size with the length of a document, have only been studied one by one and mainly applying heuristic methodologies rather than basic principles and general mechanisms. As a consequence, there is a lack of understanding of linguistic processes as complex emergent phenomena. Beyond Zipf's law for word frequencies, here we focus on Heaps' law, burstiness, and the topicality of document collections, which encode correlations within and across documents absent in random null models. We introduce and validate a generative model that explains the simultaneous emergence of all these patterns from simple rules. As a result, we find a connection between the bursty nature of rare words and the topical organization of texts and identify dynamic word ranking and memory across documents as key mechanisms explaining the non trivial organization of written text. Our research can have broad implications and practical applications in computer science, cognitive science, and linguistics.

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