One of the main features that put humans far above other animals is the ability to communicate cogently. Animals with their growls, hisses and mewls can communicate concepts like “danger close” or “I’m going to fight you” but clearly can’t present complicated concepts and explanations. However it is still interesting to see whether linguistic patterns persist in animal’s communication as well as in human’s. The study of these language patterns is a main focus of quantitative linguistics which has produced ideas such as Zipf’s law which states that the frequency that words are used is inversely proportional to their location on a table of common words. In other words the word “the” is used twice as much as the word “of” and three times as much as the word “and” and these three words are first, second and third in the frequency table. This law appears to be universal and applies to all languages regardless of alphabet or basic form.
Of course from a purely physics perspective auditory communication is about three things: frequency, energy and time. These three things define the sound wave and so can be seen as the essence of verbal communication. Of course this means it is possible to apply these numerical language laws, not to words, but to the much more intrinsic sound wave itself. This has been the aim of this study, to study the acoustic analogues of linguistic laws as to see whether animal communication, which is perceived as a sound wave, has any trends or similarities with human communication. First it is important to really see how accurately the sound wave recreates the linguistic laws.
Looking at Zipf’s law, which has already been mention, as well as Gutenberg–Richter law which is normally about frequency compared to magnitude of earthquakes but worked well for the energy of the waves; Heap’s law which is about the vocabulary of a document compared to its size and was used for when sound waves were produced with a range of frequencies; and finally the brevity law which simply says that more common words are shorter and means that more frequent elements of the wave existed for shorter periods. These laws were all shown to hold up when the sound waves of over 16 different languages were analysed including some logosyllabic languages. This research now makes it possible for universal aspects of language to be analysed by their sound waves meaning that a later study can examine the sound waves that animals produce to see if they follow these basic language laws.
Paper links: Emergence of linguistic laws in human voice