Battling Zipf's law

1 April 2018

I read the words again, carefully, enunciating them letter by letter, and still they didn't make any sense. I may have even turned the paper upside down at some point, although I will no longer admit to doing it. It was no use. The sheaf of dot matrix-printed papers that my father left behind remained a mystery.

My parents, both busy people, taught me to read and write somewhere around preschool. I thoroughly enjoyed practicing both skills, which turned out to be a mixed blessing for everyone involved. Boring white walls of our flat came to life with colourful crayon graffiti (a great improvement in my eyes but, surprisingly, not greeted with much enthusiasm by the rest of the residents.) On the other hand, I started spending a lot of time reading anything I could lay my hands on, which meant I was quiet and not covered with mud, so that was a win for the family.

Reading kept me out of my parent's hair until the day when at age seven I found my father's scientific reports. In a foreign language: English. And refused to give up.

Surely, I thought, if I counted the words on the page, selected the most common one, and asked my father for an explanation, I would be able to understand the majority of the text. And so I would continue, with the second and third and fourth... until at some point, finally, I would know. (Zipf laughed from beyond the grave.)

And so:

"Dad? What does 'the' mean?"

I had no concept of grammar yet, and Polish language in general has no equivalent to 'the', so providing an analogy was right out.

Half an hour later, greatly confused and no closer to understanding the mysterious paper, I developed a horrible suspicion that my father wasn't the best at explaining words one-by-one.

"Dad? You're not making any sense. You have to teach me English, properly!"

Close to thirty years later, I am happy to tell you: Zipf may have won the battle, but - eventually - I won the war. The paper summarised results of particle detector research. I'm not sure I would have understood much of that at age seven, either...

Tags: intro language