Alphabets and the Principle of Least Effort

Marcel Danesi


Alphabet systems have made the recording of information an efficient matter. As a consequence, they have made it possible for human civilizations to progress quickly and expansively. Alphabet characters are derivatives of pictographs, allowing for a more condensed means of recording and transmitting knowledge. The purpose of this paper is to argue that alphabets came about, in fact, to do just this - namely, to make knowledge representation efficient. One of the first to study the "efficient" nature of letters empirically was the Harvard linguist George Kingsley Zipf, who demonstrated that there is universally a correlation between the length of a specific word (in number of letters) and its rank order in a language. This paper will look at Zipf's work and assess its importance to semiotic theory, especially as it relates to the nature of signs and how they express meaning.


alphabets; semiotic theory; communication theory; Zipf' s Law; principle of least effort; quantitative linguistics


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Copyright (c) 2017 Marcel Danesi

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Studies in Communication Sciences | ISSN: 1424-4896