Language and Communication

By George A. Miller | Go to book overview

Chapter 4 THE STATISTICAL APPROACH

Of all the acts of human behavior the stream of speech alone seems to constitute a continuum which with the minimum of distortion can be isolated from the total background of behavior and at the same time be labelled and studied statistically with a high degree of accuracy.

-- G. K. ZIPF

The work of the statistician has been likened to that of the map maker who presents a traveler with a sketch of the important highways, the locations of towns, and the major geographical features. The interesting details and beautiful scenery are deliberately omitted. Towns are dots and rivers are lines, and all features of human interest which constitute the traveler's real goals are missing. But just as the map is an aid to reaching these goals, so the statistical facts of a science provide an orientation for the workers in the science. The statistician gives averages, trends, variabilities, correlations, and the particular details are lost in the abstract summary. When we turn to statistical methods, therefore, we do so to gain a general orientation, and not to explain a particular event.

The statistical approach is most helpful when we have large masses of data to analyze. For example, it is impossible to remember the income of every individual in the United States. This great mass of figures is replaced by a few statistics that can be remembered and that are sufficient for most purposes. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that statistical methods are valuable in the study of verbal behavior. The quantity of verbiage spoken daily by the average citizen is so great that detailed analysis of his every utterance is almost unthinkable. Nothing less powerful than the simplifying abstractions of statistics can deal with the data.

What do people say? Even after we specify which people and under what conditions, the question is a hard one. It is not that we cannot record what they say, or that we cannot understand what they say, but that they say so much. Statistical simplification is imperative. We might make up a list that contained all the sentences we heard from the particular people under the given circumstances and check the appropriate sentence each time it occurred. If we did this for long, we should discover that some sentences occur relatively often, while others are rare, and some combinations of words do not occur at all. People do not often say, 'The green kangaroo writes text-

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Language and Communication
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Preface to Revised Edition vi
  • Preface vi
  • Contents ix
  • Foreword to the Teacher xi
  • Chapter 1 - By Way of Introduction 1
  • Chapter 2 - The Phonetic Approach 10
  • Selected References 46
  • Chapter 3 - The Perception of Speech 47
  • Selected References 79
  • Chapter 4- The Statistical Approach 80
  • Selected References 99
  • Chapter 5 - Rules for Using Symbols 100
  • Selected References 118
  • Chapter 6 - Individual Differences 119
  • Selected References 139
  • Chapter 7 - The Verbal Behavior of Children 140
  • Selected References 158
  • Chapter 8 - The Role of Learning 159
  • Selected References 173
  • Chapter 9 - Verbal Habits 174
  • Selected References 198
  • Chapter 10 - Some Effects of Verbal Habits 199
  • Selected References 222
  • Chapter 11 - Words, Sets, and Thoughts 223
  • Selected References 248
  • Chapter 12 - The Social Approach 275
  • Bibliography 276
  • Index 287
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