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Word Correlations

July 27, 2012

When you mention "word" to a computer person, he will think of something far different from what springs into the minds of "ordinary" people. A computer word is the group of bits that can be handled at one time by a central processor or its memory. A word can be just a single bit, as in some bit slice microcontrollers. The first microprocessor, the Intel 4004, had a word length of four bits.

The 4004 was followed by the venerable Intel 8080 and Zilog Z80, which were eight bit microprocessors. Now it's common for desktop computers to have 64-bit words, and for supercomputers to process 128-bit words. For those who need to cut slices of reality very thin for simulation and analysis, 128-bits is equivalent to about three parts in 1039.

Captain Zilog, 1979

The next Hollywood blockbuster?

This is the cover of a comic book that Zilog produced in 1979 to promote its microprocessors.

The Zilog Z80 quickly took market share from the Intel 8080 for a number of hardware improvements, including operation from a single +5 volt power supply, fewer "glue" chips, and an onboard dynamic memory refresh controller. The Z80 also had an expanded instruction set that included block moves of bytes from one memory location to another.

(Author's copy. (Click for larger image.)

Let's retreat from computerdom and move to the usual definition of a word. The Oxford English Dictionary contains about 600,000 words. It would be difficult memorizing such a large number of words, so English-speaking people use only about 10,000 of these.

We know quite a few other words, but these usually aren't spoken. They might be technical, or unusual words found only in reading. Many such cromulent words[1] can be found in the works of Shakespeare. One concordance of Shakespeare's complete works has 28,827 words, although many of these are a hyphenated combination of other words.

Poets and novelists are not the only people who have fun with the written word. Scientists have done some interesting statistical analyses of word frequency and other word statistics. I wrote about some of these in two previous articles (Word Extinction, August 17, 2011 and Lexical Distance, June 27, 2011).

As can be expected, some words are much more often than others. The word, "the," is the word used most often, and "of" is used about 60% as frequently as "the." The words, "and," "to," and "in" are used about 53%, 46% and 31% as frequently as "the." The following figure shows the relative frequency of the thousand most common words found in texts on Project Gutenberg. A source file of data (CSV format) can be found here.

Word Frequencies (Project Gutenberg)

Frequencies of the thousand most common words on the Project Gutenberg web site.

The first 25 words comprise about a third of all texts, and the first hundred words comprise about half of all texts.

(Graphed using Gnumeric)

Another interesting result is that most words in the English languages are eight, or nine, characters long. I would have expected far shorter, since the average word length of the preceding sentence is less than five characters. However, who can argue when the data look so nice, as in the following figure.

Distribution of English word lengths.

Distribution of English word lengths. Data from Table 7 of ref. 2.[2]

Most words are 8-9 letters long. My blog must be easy to understand, since I seem to use shorter words.

(Graphed using Gnumeric)

A piece of text, of course, will supposedly have a value greater than just that of its aggregate words. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems (Dresden, Germany) and the Department of Mathematics of the Università di Bologna (Bologna, Italy) have just published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which they look for long-range correlations of keywords and other text attributes in a variety of English corpora, including a translation of "War and Peace."[3-4]

One reason why it's generally easy to make sense of a scientific paper in a foreign language is that the message is contained in keywords. There are many words that embellish and glue these keywords together, but they are not as important in getting the message across. The Dresden/Bologna team found that keywords appear more frequently in certain passages of text; and that such passages, although distant from each other, use the same words and letters.[4]

Keywords tend to appear in bursts; that is, they will be used repeatedly is a certain section of text, and they will be nearly absent in the rest of the text. Frequently used words are more representative of the context of a section of text. Going to an especially abstract level, the Dresden/Bologna team encoded text as a binary string in which vowels were designated by a one, and consonants were designated by a zero.[3] In that case, the mathematical tools to determine correlation are simplified.[4]

The authors state that their approach could be useful for Internet search, and to identify plagiarism.[4]


  1. The derived meaning of the word, cromulent, is fine, valid, or acceptable. In a search for a possible etymology of cromulent, I found nothing reasonable. The closest Latin word is crumena/crumina, or "purse." The closest Greek words are krommyon (κρομμυον, "onion") and chroma (χρωμα, "surface of a body; skin; complexion).
  2. Reginald D. Smith, "Distinct word length frequencies: distributions and symbol entropies," arXiv Preprint Server, July 15, 2012; appears, also, in Glottometrics, vol. 23 (2012), pp. 8-23.
  3. Eduardo G. Altmann, Giampaolo Cristadoro and Mirko Degli Esposti, "On the origin of long-range correlations in texts," Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., vol. 109, no. 29 (July 17, 2012), pp. 11582-11587.
  4. In search of the key word - Bursts of certain words within a text are what make them keywords, Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems Press Release, July 17, 2012

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