Zipf-Mandelbrot’s Law Recoded With Finite Memory. Cybernetics, Mathematicians and Language in Postwar France - Université Paris-Est-Créteil-Val-de-Marne Access content directly
Book Sections Year : 2016

Zipf-Mandelbrot’s Law Recoded With Finite Memory. Cybernetics, Mathematicians and Language in Postwar France

Abstract

Although the so-called “Zipf-Mandelbrot law” of word frequencies gained immediate fame in the 1950s, its symbolic aura may vary depending on the academic or practical coordinates from which it is considered. Also, the interest it raised has fluctuated throughout the decades. Therefore, writing the history of this scientific law should include a careful mapping and clarification of the various frames of reference involved, since these are likely to shape the perception and historicization of such an object with disciplinary values and expectations. In other words: from their respective vantage points, a linguist, a mathematician, a computer scientist, a communication engineer, or a philosopher, will probably not see ZML with the same “eyes”; and so on for linguists (or mathematicians, etc.) of different schools and periods. Among the accounts of Benoît Mandelbrot’s contribution to this law that have been or could be written, it is worth noticing that the mathematician himself repeatedly wrote about it. Besides his notorious taste for actively constructing his public figure and tendency to downplay some of his influences, it is fair to expect that, in general, autobiographical accounts can both bring valuable contextual information and introduce specific biases in this inform­ation. This paper aims at contributing to the history of ZML in two respects: in the first sections, a comparison of Mandelbrot’s early and late statements about the meaning of his work shows a shift in perspective: whereas, after the emerg­ence of fractal geometry, the mathematician presents ZML in retrospect as a precursor application of fractals, early 1950s papers and talks unambiguously claim another unifying framework, that of cybernetics (that Mandelbrot did not reduce to “information theory”, but rather wanted to reconstruct as a general science of behaviour). The last section of the paper broadens to the context of postwar France to better assess the originality of Mandelbrot’s scientific gesture among the interest of mathematicians for language at the time.
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hal-04049064 , version 1 (28-03-2023)

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  • HAL Id : hal-04049064 , version 1

Cite

Ronan Le Roux. Zipf-Mandelbrot’s Law Recoded With Finite Memory. Cybernetics, Mathematicians and Language in Postwar France. Jacqueline Léon; Sylvain Loiseau. History of Quantitative Linguistics in France, RAM-Verlag, pp.157-172, 2016, Studies in Quantitative Linguistics, 978-3-942303-48-4. ⟨hal-04049064⟩

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