Letter frequency  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The frequency of letters in text has been studied for use in cryptanalysis, and frequency analysis in particular, dating back to the Iraqi mathematician Al-Kindi (c. 801–873 AD), who formally developed the method (the ciphers breakable by this technique go back at least to the Caesar cipher invented by Julius Caesar, so this method could have been explored in classical times). Letter frequency analysis gained additional importance in Europe with the development of movable type in 1450 AD, where one must estimate the amount of type required for each letterform, as evidenced by the variations in letter compartment size in typographer's type cases.

Linguists use letter frequency analysis as a rudimentary technique for language identification, where it's particularly effective as an indication of whether an unknown writing system is alphabetic, syllablic, or ideographic. For example, the Japanese Hiragana syllabary contains 46 distinct characters, which is more than most phonetic alphabets; by contrast, the English and Hawaiian alphabets have only 26 and 13 letters, respectively.

No exact letter frequency distribution underlies a given language, since all writers write slightly differently. However, most languages have a characteristic distribution which is strongly apparent in longer texts. Even language changes as extreme as from old English to modern English (regarded as mutually unintelligible) show strong trends in related letter frequencies: over a small sample of Biblical passages, from most frequent to least frequent, enaid sorhm tgþlwu (æ)cfy ðbpxz of old English compares to eotha sinrd luymw fgcbp kvjqxz of modern English, with the most extreme differences concerning letterforms not shared.

Linotype machines for the English language assumed the letter order, from most to least common, to be etaoin shrdlu cmfwyp vbgkjq xz based on the experience and custom of manual compositors. The equivalent for the French language was elaoin sdrétu cmfhyp vbgwqj xz.

Arranging the alphabet in Morse into groups of letters that require equal amounts of time to transmit, and then sorting these groups in increasing order, yields e it san hurdm wgvlfbk opxcz jyq. Letter frequency was used by other telegraph systems, such as the Murray Code.

Similar ideas are used in modern data-compression techniques such as Huffman coding.


Letter frequencies, like word frequencies, tend to vary, both by writer and by subject. One cannot write an essay about x-rays without using frequent Xs, and the essay will have an idiosyncratic letter frequency if the essay is about the use of x-rays to treat zebras in Qatar. Different authors have habits which can be reflected in their use of letters. Hemingway's writing style, for example, is visibly different from Faulkner's. Letter, bigram, trigram, word frequencies, word length, and sentence length can be calculated for specific authors, and used to prove or disprove authorship of texts, even for authors whose styles are not so divergent.

Accurate average letter frequencies can only be gleaned by analyzing a large amount of representative text. With the availability of modern computing and collections of large text corpora, such calculations are easily made. Examples can be drawn from a variety of sources (press reporting, religious texts, scientific texts and general fiction) and there are differences especially for general fiction with the position of 'h' and 'i', with 'h' becoming more common.

Herbert S. Zim, in his classic introductory cryptography text "Codes and Secret Writing", gives the English letter frequency sequence as "ETAON RISHD LFCMU GYPWB VKJXQ Z", the most common letter pairs as "TH HE AN RE ER IN ON AT ND ST ES EN OF TE ED OR TI HI AS TO", and the most common doubled letters as "LL EE SS OO TT FF RR NN PP CC".

Also, to note that different dialects of a language will also affect a letter's frequency. For example, an author in the United States would produce something in which the letter 'z' is more common than an author in the United Kingdom writing on the same topic: words like "analyze", "apologize", and "recognize" contain the letter in American English, whereas the same words are spelled "analyse", "apologise", and "recognise" in British English. This would highly affect the frequency of the letter 'z' as it is a rarely used letter elsewhere in the English language.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Letter frequency" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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