The Unprincipled Principle of Least Effort.

October 7, 2007

In 1949 George Zipf, a Harvard linguistics professor, published Human Behaviour and the Principle of Least Effort: An Introduction to Human Ecology. What became known as Zipf’s law inversely relates the ‘size’ of an occurrence of an event to it’s ‘rank’. For example, he sought to determine the ‘size’ of the 3rd or 8th or 100th most common word. Size here does not denotes the length of the word itself, but the frequency of use of the word in some English language text. Zipf’s law states that the size of the r’th largest occurrence of the event is inversely proportional to it’s rank

Zipf coined the expression, ‘principle of least effort’ to describe this relationship.

I have always been deeply attracted to the principle of least effort. I believe it to be related in some deep sense to Maupertuis’ principle of least action which states that in attaining a given state, any physical system seeks to minimize the ‘action’ involved – ie, the consumption of energy, time, and space. I sense here that we are being offered some metaphysical justification for the laziness that afflicts us. How does laziness manifest itself in language to minimize the need to make an effort in line with Zifp’s law? Consider the following:

  • “Hi” say the Americans vastly economizing on the time-consuming, insincere and inefficient “how do you do?” of the British.
  • “Ciao” say the Italians rather than the circumlocutional “it was so nice seeing you” of the British.
  • A labour-saving “unh-hunh” now replaces “thank you so much” by those who sense an opportunity cost looming.
  • In writing, the Americans sign off “sincerely” thus beating the British time-wasting “yours sincerely” and the profligate French “Veuillez agreer cher monsieur l’expression de mes meilleurs sentiment”.

But I have to ask myself, where has aristocracy gone in all this? Efficiency, after all is a lowly bourgeois concept, whether expressed in money or in the coin of words Aristocracy has always been built on waste, conspicuous consumption, potlash, etc. Louix the Fourteenth of France clearly understood this, an judiciously exploited the aristocratic urge to waste to bring his own under control. He also encouraged French aristocrats to express themselves in excessively long-winded ways, a habit that, being ignorant of Zipf’s law, they have proudly kept to this day.

The ultimate proletarization of the written discourse, however, comes to us in the form of text messaging. Zipf failed to understand that in communication, the effort involved is divvied up between speaker and hearer. It’s effectively a zero-sum game. When the effort is successfully minimized by the speaker (or writer) it is only because it has been successfully inflicted on the hearer – and probably amplified. Since, with text messaging you cannot see the hearer, you can opportunistically do away with the vowels and let the destination go figure. The result? Soliloquies masquerading as dialogues. Moral? The principle of least effort is, well, unprincipled.

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