Blind Item: Linguistics in the popular imagination

Dec 15 2010 Published by under Blind Item

This is a blind item, boys and girls.  Points to anyone who can tell me what famous postmodern novel this is from.  Cash money prizes to anyone who knows why I think it's so telling that this author cited Zipf (and what insight it might give us into said author).

"Roger says that now you'll count up all those words you copied down and graph them or something," brightly to head off any comment on the dart incident, which she'd rather avoid.  "Do you only do it for seances?"

"Automatic texts," girl-nervous Gloaming frowns, nods, "one or two Ouija board episodes, yes yes... we-we're trying to develop a vocabulary of curves--certain pathologies, certain characteristic shapes you see--"

"I'm not sure that I--"

"Well.  Recall Zipf's principle of Least Effort: if we plot the frequency of word P sub n against its rank-order n on logarithmic axes," babbling into her silence, even her bewilderment graceful, "we should of course get something like a straight line... however we've data that suggest the curves for certain--conditions, well they're actually quite different--schizophrenics for example tend to run a bit flatter in the upper part then progressively steeper--a sort of bow shape... I think with this chap, this Roland, that we're on to a classical paranoiac--"

"Ha."  That's a word she knows.  "Thought I saw you brighten up there when he said 'turned against.'"

"'Against,' 'opposite,' yes you'd be amazed at the frequency with this one."

"What's the most frequent word," asks Jessica.  "Your number one."

"The same as it's always been at these affairs," replies the statistician, as if everyone knew: "death."

10 responses so far

  • Bob O'H says:

    The novel is easy with a bit of googling.

    BTW, why would schizophrenics use rare words less often than expected?

  • NemaVeze says:

    Is it "telling" because this particular author is known for using so many low-frequency words?

  • arnsholt says:

    I think I'll go with Neil Gaiman. It certainly sounds familiar, even though I can't quite place it with certainty.

    • melodye says:

      Interesting guess. Gaiman has actually referenced this author in his online journal. Two hints:

      1) The author is actually quite a bit more famous than Gaiman.
      2) While the author sounds British, s/he's actually an American (w anglophilic tendencies).

  • Bryan Green says:

    Novel easy, author- reducing work for maximizing content, easy as well. Gravity's Rainbow.

    • melodye says:

      "Reducing work for maximizing content" -- what does that mean? I'm afraid I don't know the shorthand. You nailed the novel, though!

      • Bryan Green says:

        I was referring to the use of information heavy words and sentence fragments to reduce the amount of work the author has to do. I was trying to be "cute" with parodying the concept. Obviously, it did not work. 🙂

        • melodye says:

          Hmm. I hadn't thought of it that way! My insight might be more mundane...

          What I was thinking is that Pynchon's distribution might not look classically Zipfian, and that he's self-consciously noting this here. Sort of like a private joke between him and the reader.

          I wonder if anyone has plotted Gravity's Rainbow? I know some clever Swedish physicists looked at the distributions for Melville and Lawrence -- maybe I can pester them by email 😉

  • william e emba says:

    Coming in late, I recognized Pynchon Gravity's Rainbow from the characters Roger and Jessica and the overall style. It's been almost thirty years since I read it! I have no memory of Gloaming or Roland as characters.