The Loh Down On Science

Word Search

"Domesticated feline"? Or "cat"?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with The Loh Down on Science, wondering: When speaking, why do people use short words more than long ones? Seven decades ago, Harvard scholar George Zipf argued it's simply because short words are easier to say.

But if that were true, you'd never say "kindergarten" or "electricity," and we'd all talk like Scrabble players. Li: Chinese currency. Ae: Hawaiian lava.

MIT's Steven Piantadosi's idea? Language is a real-time information stream. Listening involves continually anticipating where the speaker's going next.

Example: "How do you...?"
What...
"Do"?

"How do you do?"

Not very meaningful.

"How do you prestidigitate?"? More syllables... Much more specific ... but much less predictable.

Piantadosi Googled the vocabularies of 11 European languages. Turns out long words aren’t necessarily rarer than short ones. But they're more specific ... making them less predictable.

Maybe long words are long to give the listener extra time to process them.

Let's play again. "How do you...?" "Spell 'antidisestablishmentarianism'?" Betcha didn't see that coming.



The Loh Down on Science, online, at lohdown.org. Produced by 89.3 KPCC and the California Institute of Technology, and made possible by TIAA-CREF.

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