Behind this sentence lies a solid bedrock of mathematics, one that has been shown to govern all human languages.
Linguists have found the hoots and hollers, gestures and expressions used by chimpanzees obey some of the same basic principles, demonstrating the foundations of language have deep evolutionary roots.
A study led by the University of Roehampton in the UK analysed hundreds of video recordings of chimpanzees living in Uganda’s Budongo Forest reserve, categorising and measuring the characteristics of 58 types of playful gesture.
They were looking for hints of two rules common to all forms of human communication – Zipf’s law of abbreviation, and Menzerath’s law on the complexity of linguistic constructs.
Research had already been carried out on chimpanzee hooting and panting, showing these rules at work. But in closer quarters chimps communicate with more visual signs, leaving researchers a whole other linguistic system to analyse.
Zipf’s law describes an inverse relationship between how often we use a word, and it’s ranking in respect to other words. For example, the second most repeated word in any language will be used half as often as the first.
This quirk was figured out by a linguist named George Kingsley Zipf, who also noticed the higher a word happens to be in this list, the more abbreviated it happens to be.
Take the top five words in the English language as an example – the, be, and, of, and a. They’re pretty snappy compared to the words ranked at 500 – value, international, building, and action.
This doesn’t only apply to every other language spoken by humans; it’s been shown to be at work in the vocalisations of macaques and dolphins, suggesting efficiency lies at the core of many forms of animal communication.
Read more: Science Alert