Sander Lestrade at LEL Research Seminars

Posted on October 9, 2017 by

After a gap in the seminar programme on October 10th, the LEL Research Seminar returns on Tuesday, October 17th with Dr Sander Lestrade (Nijmegen). In his talk, Sander will be discussing a recent paper of his published in PLOS ONE. The paper tackles one of the most intriguing phenomena in natural language called ‘Zipf’s law’ (i.e., in very basic terms, that in every language the most frequent word occurs twice as often as the second most frequent word, and a ranked word frequency list of all languages yields an exponential ‘Zipfian’ curve like the one shown in the featured image). On October 17th, Sander will summarise for us how he set out to ‘unzip’ Zipf’s law with a computational model. Here’s the abstract of the talk:

Unzipping Zipf’s law

(Sander Lestrade – Radboud University Nijmegen)

George Kingsley Zipf (1902-1950) famously observed that the frequency of occurrence of words is neither uniformly nor normally distributed, but inversely related to their frequency rank instead (i.e., frequency=C/rank, with C dependent on the size of the text). In spite of decades of theorizing, the origins of Zipf’s law remain elusive. I propose that a Zipfian distribution straightforwardly follows from the interaction of syntax (word classes differing in class size) and semantics (words having to be sufficiently specific to be distinctive and sufficiently general to be reusable). These factors are independently motivated and well-established ingredients of a natural-language system. Using a computational model, it will be shown that neither of these ingredients suffices to produce a Zipfian distribution on its own and that the results deviate from the Zipfian ideal only in the same way as natural language itself does.


This talk promises to be especially interesting for people interested in syntax, semantics, and computational approaches to linguistic (and, more generally, textual) analyses. The talk is once again open to students and staff of LEL, as well as other departments (in and outside of the school).

The details are as usual:

Room Booked: Sam Alex_A201
Time: 16:15 – 17:30

Afterwards, there will be a short reception and we will take our speaker out for dinner. We hope to see you there!

(Sander has also given a layman’s summary of the paper in an interview with the Radboud University news page. You can read it here.)