Evidence of Zipfian distributions in three sign languages

Inbal Kimchi, Lucie Wolters, Rose Stamp, Inbal Arnon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


One striking commonality between languages is their Zipfian distributions: A power-law distribution of word frequency. This distribution is found across languages, speech genres, and within different parts of speech. The recurrence of such distributions is thought to reflect cognitive and/or communicative pressures and to facilitate language learning. However, research on Zipfian distributions has mostly been limited to spoken languages. In this study, we ask whether Zipfian distributions are also found across signed languages, as expected if they reflect a universal property of human language. We find that sign frequencies and ranks in three sign language corpora (BSL, DGS and NGT) show a Zipfian relationship, similar to that found in spoken languages. These findings highlight the commonalities between spoken and signed languages, add to our understanding of the use of signs, and show the prevalence of Zipfian distributions across language modalities, supporting the idea that they facilitate language learning and communication.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)154-188
Number of pages35
Issue number2
StatePublished - 31 Dec 2023

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© 2024 John Benjamins Publishing Company.


  • Zipfian distributions
  • sign language
  • universal properties of language


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