Menzerath’s Law: what it is and how it describes communication

Have you ever heard of language laws? Generally speaking, we can say that these are laws that establish how the language works and how it is structured. Two of the most important, in human language, are: Menzerath’s Law (or Menzerath-Altmann Law) and Zipf’s Patent Law.

On the other hand, we have seen how these laws can also be applied to communication between primates, for example through their gestures and their cries. In this article we will focus on Menzerath’s law, And we’ll tell you what science says about it, based on three studies that link communication between primates to these two laws.

    Menzerath’s Law: what is it and what does it establish?

    Menzerath’s Law, also called Menzerath-Altmann’s Law (by its discoverers, Paul Menzerath and Gabriel Altmann) is a linguistic law, which holds that, the longer a sentence (or a linguistic construct), the shorter its constituents (And vice versa).

    This law also extends to words; thus, the longer a word, the shorter its syllables or morphemes (and vice versa, the shorter the word, the longer its syllables). In other words, according to this law, longer language units are made up of shorter components.

    This law was first described by Paul Menzerath in 1954. The contributions of Slovak linguist Paul Menzerath have stimulated research in quantitative linguistics. In this way, his discoveries were generalized in this branch of linguistics.

    Later, the Menzerath Law was reformulated by Gabriel Altmann (1980 and 1984), also a Slovak linguist, so it was called the Menzerath-Altmann Law.

    Linguistic laws: Menzerath and Zipf

    Linguistics is that scientific discipline, responsible for studying the origin, evolution and structure of language.. From him are born the linguistic laws, which are those which govern the language.

    But … how do linguistic laws come into being? It is the language specialists (in particular the quantitative linguists) who do this work and produce these laws, on the basis of different formal models.

    Formal models, in turn, are based on the parameters and components of the language (More precisely in four: phonetics, semantics, morphology and syntax). Finally, these laws are observed in all languages ​​(that is, they are “universal”, regardless of the language).

    The two laws that predominate in all human languages ​​are: the aforementioned Menzerath Law and the Zipf Patent Law. In addition, these two laws also govern the communication of a small number of primate species. In this article, we’ll mention (and explain) two recent studies that talk about it.

    However, it is not so clear whether, in addition, these two laws also affect, in the case of primates, their vocal communication at long distance.

      Study: the gestures of chimpanzees

      According to a 2019 study carried out by a team of British scientists and published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, where they analyzed the gestures of chimpanzees, they are subject to Menzerath law, that is to say to the same law which governs human speech.

      Thus, according to this study, the gestures used by chimpanzees to communicate with each other follow the same laws that govern human speech. This study, in particular, focused on two laws: Zipf’s law of contraction and Menzerath’s law.

      The first, that of Zipf, states that the length of a word is inversely proportional to the frequency at which that word is used (i.e. the longer the word, the less it is used, and vice versa) . The second, that of Menzerath, we have already explained.

      Thus, in general, what this study reveals is that the language of apes and humans, follows the same rules.

        Methodology: the gestures of chimpanzees

        Following their goal, to find out if the chimpanzees’ gestures obey the same laws that govern our language, the study scientists analyzed a total of 359 communication clips, from up to 48 different chimpanzees.

        Through these 359 clips, they identified a total of 2,137 different gestures, which in turn were divided into 58 types of gestures.

        After analyzing all these gestures, they observed how 873 of them made up separate units, while the others formed groups of gestures (between 2 and 45 per group).


        With regard to the two laws studied, Zipf’s law of contraction and Menzerath’s law, it was observed that the first was not confirmed; however, they observed how an inverse relationship occurred between the duration of the gesture and its frequency of use, in the case of a subset of shorter gestures.

        As for the second law, Menzerath’s law, the researchers observed how chimpanzees communicated gestures if they obeyed this law, that is, the law was obeyed.

        Thus, the conclusion reached by the researchers of this study was as follows: the gestural communication of chimpanzees is subject (in part) to the laws governing natural human languages, As in this case the law of Menzerath.

        The authors also added in their conclusions the importance of continuing to study these evolving communication models.

        More studies: other primate species

        Another study, also from 2019, which also alludes to the Menzerath Law, states that the morning cries of a family of primates, the gibbons (Hylobatidae), follow this law, As well as another: the Zipf patent law (already mentioned in the previous study).

        So, as the researchers observed in this study, the longest sequences of their calls consisted of shorter average calls.

        Finally, alluding to another study, this time developed by the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, a team of scientists verified that Menzerath’s law is also fulfilled in a kind of Ethiopian primate called gel (Theropithecus gelat).

        In this species, males perform fairly long call sequences (specifically, 25 calls composed of 6 different types of sequences).

        Bibliographical references:

        • Gabriel, A. (1980). Prolegomena to Menzerath’s Law. Glottometry 2: pages 1-10.
        • Heesen, R., Hobaiter, C., Ferrer-i-Cancho, R. and Semple, S. (2019). Linguistic laws in the gestural communication of chimpanzees. Collection of the Royal Society. Biological Sciences.
        • Hernández-Fernández, A. (2014). The laws of linguistics in communication systems. Doctoral thesis, University of Barcelona.
        • Huanga, M., Ma, H., Ma, Ch., Garber, PA and Fan, P. (2019). Morning calls for male gibbons conform to Zipf’s Law of Brevity and Menzerath’s Law: Knowledge of the Origin of Human Language. Animal behavior, ScienceDirect.
        • Wentian, L. (2012). Menzerath’s Law at the gene-exon level in the human genome. Complexity 17 (4): 49-53.

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