Hapax Legomena and Zipf’s Law

Students of the Hebrew Bible are familiar with hapax legomena. A hapax legomenon is a word that appears only once in the Bible. These words are difficult to translate into English because, in most cases, their meanings are unknown. And there are many hapax legomena in the Hebrew Bible.

Recently, Samuel Arbesman, a senior scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, wrote an article in which he said that the occurrences of hapax legomena can be explained by Zipf’s Law. He wrote:

“When a corpus is all (or nearly all) we have for an entire language, such as the Bible in the case of ancient Hebrew, hapax words can be quite vexing, to such a degree that we often have little idea of their meaning. For example, גְּבִינָה (gvinah) and זְכוּכִית (zechuchit) are hapax words in the Hebrew Bible (both from the Book of Job), but are common words in modern Hebrew, the former meaning “cheese” and the latter “glass.” We know what they mean now, but it’s not always clear what they meant thousands of years ago.”

“But more than just curiosities, hapax legomena aren’t strange statistical flukes. Not only are they more common than we might realize, but they are predicted from certain mathematical rules of language. Hapax legomena must exist as long as Zipf’s Law holds true.”

To know how Zipf’s Law helps explain the occurrences of hapax legomena, read Arbesman’s article here.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This entry was posted in Biblical Hebrew and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Hapax Legomena and Zipf’s Law

  1. Duane says:

    Claude,

    Thanks for bring this to our attention. As you may know, I think those of us in the humanities fail both our discipline and out subject when we fail to consider mathematical, particularly probabilistic, approaches. Arbesman comments are good to see.

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