Zipfian Distributions in Child-Directed Speech

Ori Lavi-Rotbain*, Inbal Arnon

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Across languages, word frequency and rank follow a power law relation, forming a distribution known as the Zipfian distribution. There is growing experimental evidence that this well- studied phenomenon may be beneficial for language learning. However, most investigations of word distributions in natural language have focused on adult-to-adult speech: Zipf’s law has not been thoroughly evaluated in child-directed speech (CDS) across languages. If Zipfian distributions facilitate learning, they should also be found in CDS. At the same time, several unique properties of CDS may result in a less skewed distribution. Here, we examine the frequency distribution of words in CDS in three studies. We first show that CDS is Zipfian across 15 languages from seven language families. We then show that CDS is Zipfian from early on (six-months) and across development for five languages with sufficient longitudinal data. Finally, we show that the distribution holds across different parts of speech: Nouns, verbs, adjectives and prepositions follow a Zipfian distribution. Together, the results show that the input children hear is skewed in a particular way from early on, providing necessary (but not sufficient) support for the postulated learning advantage of such skew. They highlight the need to study skewed learning environments experimentally.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1-30
Number of pages30
JournalOpen Mind
StatePublished - 24 Jan 2023

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  • Child-Directed Speech
  • Zipfian distribution
  • language learning


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