Menzerath’s Law: What It Is And How It Describes Communication

Menzerath's Law

Have you ever heard of linguistic laws? Broadly speaking, we can say that these are laws that establish how language works and how it is structured. Two of the most important, in human language, are: Menzerath’s Law (or Menzerath-Altmann Law) and Zipf’s Law of Brevity.

On the other hand, it has been seen how these laws can also be applied to communication between primates, for example through their gestures and cries. In this article we will focus on Menzerath’s Law and we will tell you what science says about it, based on three studies that relate communication between primates with these two laws.

Menzerath’s law: what is it and what does it establish?

Menzerath’s Law, also called Menzerath-Altmann Law (after its discoverers, Paul Menzerath and Gabriel Altmann) is a linguistic law, which maintains that, the longer a phrase (or linguistic construct) is, the shorter its constituents are (and vice versa).

This law also extends to words; Thus, the longer a word is, the shorter its syllables or morphemes are (and vice versa; the shorter the word, the longer its syllables). In other words, according to this law, longer language units are made up of shorter components

This law was described for the first time by Paul Menzerath in 1954. The contributions of Paul Menzerath, a Slovak linguist, promoted the research of quantitative linguistics. In this way, his findings were generalized to this branch of linguistics.

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Later, Menzerath’s Law was reformulated by Gabriel Altmann (1980 and 1984), also a Slovak linguist, so it ended up being called the Menzerath-Altmann Law.

Linguistic laws: Menzerath and Zipf

Linguistics is that scientific discipline, in charge of studying the origin, evolution and structure of language From it, linguistic laws are born, which are those that govern language.

But… how do linguistic laws arise? It is language scholars (specifically, quantitative linguists) who do this work, and produce these laws, based on different formal models.

Formal models, in turn, are based on the parameters and components of the language (specifically in four: phonetics, semantics, morphology and syntax). Finally, these laws are observed in all languages ​​(that is, they are “universal”, regardless of the language).

The two laws that predominate in all human languages ​​are: the aforementioned Menzerath’s Law, and Zipf’s Law of Brevity. Furthermore, these two laws have been found to also govern the communication of a small number of primate species. In this article we will mention (and explain) two recent studies that talk about this.

However, it is not so clear whether, in addition, these two laws also affect, in the case of primates, their long-distance vocal communication.

Study: the gestures of chimpanzees

According to a 2019 study carried out by a team of British scientists and published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society Bwhere they analyzed the gestures of chimpanzees, they are subject to Menzerath’s Law, that is, the same law that governs human speech.

Thus, according to this study, The gestures used by chimpanzees, in order to communicate with each other, follow the same laws that govern human speech This study, specifically, focused on two laws: Zipf’s Law of Contraction, and Menzerath’s Law.

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The first, Zipf’s, establishes that the length of a word is inversely proportional to the frequency with which said word is used (that is, the longer the word, the less it is used, and vice versa). The second, that of Menzerath, we have already explained.

In this way, broadly speaking, what this study reveals is that the language of monkeys and humans follows the same rules.

Methodology: the gestures of chimpanzees

Following their purpose, to discover whether chimpanzees’ gestures obey the same laws as those that govern our language, the study scientists analyzed a total of 359 communication clips, from up to 48 different chimpanzees.

Through these 359 clips, they identified a total of 2,137 different gestures, which in turn were divided into 58 types of gestures.

After analyzing all these gestures, they observed how 873 of them constituted separate units, while the rest constituted groupings of gestures (between 2 and 45 per group).

Results

Regarding the two laws studied, Zipf’s Law of contraction, and Menzerath’s Law, it was observed how the first was not confirmed; However, they did observe how an inverse relationship occurred between the duration of the gesture and its frequency of use, in the case of a subgroup of shorter gestures.

Regarding the second law, Menzerath’s Law, the researchers observed how the communicative gestures of the chimpanzees did obey said law, that is, the law was fulfilled.

Thus, the conclusion reached by the researchers of this study was the following: chimpanzee gestural communication is (partially) subject to the laws that govern natural human languages as is in this case Menzerath’s Law.

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The authors also added in their conclusions the importance of continuing to study these evolutionary communication patterns.

More studies: other primate species

Another study, also from 2019, and which also refers to Menzerath’s Law, establishes that the morning cries of a family of primates, the gibbons (Hylobatidae), follow this law as well as another: Zipf’s law of brevity (already mentioned in the previous study).

Thus, as the researchers observed in this study, the longer sequences of their cries are made up of shorter calls, on average.

Finally, referring to another study, this time developed by the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, a team of scientists verified that Menzerath’s Law is also fulfilled in a species of Ethiopian primates, called geladas (Theropithecus gelada).

In this species, males emit quite long sequences of calls (specifically, 25 calls made up of 6 different types of sequences).