Gustav Herdan

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Born on January 21, 1897 in Brno (Moravia; mother Anna, father Adolf, merchant); died on November 16, 1968 in Bournemouth. Jurist, statistician and linguist.

Attended the first German secondary school in Brno, school-living certificate 1915, high school diploma at the Staatsgymnasium Brno. Studies in jurisprudence in Wien und Prague at the German University, in between 2 years military service; PhD at the German University, Prague (at that time, law students did not write PhD theses. Subsequently, he worked at the county court Brno. From 1933 he studied in the first place Chinese in Berlin, London (diploma in classical Chinese), Prague, and Wien. He finished his studies with an PhD in sinology (east Asian languages) and English philology. In 1938, he emigrated to England; Studies in mathematics and statistics. From 1939 to 1045, he placed his knowledge in statistics in service for wartime economy. Later, he worked as a statistician in the industrial economy. From 1948, “Lecturer in Statistics” at the Faculty of Medicine of the University Bristol. Member of the American Statistical Society, Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, member of the Linguistic Society of America.

Herdan’s importance for linguistics consists of the fact that he was apparently the first to present an overall view of quantitative linguistics. An essential aspect of his work is the development and the testing of mathematically formulated language laws (“statistical laws”). His conception of such laws is reflected in the citation “The masses of linguistic forms...are a part of the physical universe, and as such are subject to the laws which govern mass assemblies of any kind... This is how the need for statistical linguistics arises“ (Herdan 1960a: 3).

Resuming Saussure’s dichotomy langue-parole and using methods from information theory and cybernetics, he became, together with Pierre Guiraud and Charles Muller, mover of the upsurge of quantitative linguistics in the decade from 1950 to 1960 (Aichele 2005: 18). He dealt with a great variety of themes: authorship determination, stylometrics, language change and blending, applications of information theory, type-token relation, word length and frequency distributions, interrelations between text length and vocabulary size, and between stylistics and language typology. Another topic is the German language of the Nazis (Herdan 1960a: 263ff). He presents in his works numerous language laws, among others the Zipf and Zipf-Mandelbrot, the Poisson, and the lognormal distributions. Even if not every detail is viewed in the same way today, Herdan remains one of the pioneers of quantitative linguistics. In connection with many of his studies, he collected together with his students a plentitude of data, which can be used also from the point of view of modern theoretical considerations (cf. z.B. Best & Zhu 2001: 103ff.).

Herdan studied rather philology than linguistics and adhered — as did many linguists at that time — to the teachings of de Saussure und those of the Prague structuralism. This background opened up to him several perspectives but at the same time it barred him from new horizons. 40 years after his death and taking into account the development of modern quantitative linguistics; it is easy to detect his mistakes. Detractors reviewing his work from the linguistic point of view criticized in the first place his “non-linguistic view” on language phenomena and how he interpreted them, more often than his methods. Nevertheless, he produced quite a number of approaches whose continuation could open up new vistas in linguistics.

Herdan committed himself to struggle against the “qualitative” linguistics and attacked in particular the proponents of the school of generative grammar, which began to develop at that time, on any occasion. Diplomacy was not his strong point. At his time, he could not resolve the argument in his sense; today, the situation is considerably different. Unfortunately, he had a negative attitude also towards proponents of quantitative linguistics. He brusquely refused Zipf and his “principle of least effort” as well as Zipf’s law (which has found its place in at least 20 scientific disciplines meanwhile). Today, Zipf’s discoveries build a fundament of synergetic linguistics, and his principle, taken as an axiom, was split up in numerous special cases.

A wealth of ideas can be found in Herdan’s writings. The most valuable heritage is formed by the rich source of problems and questions he brought into discussion — rather than specific methods or approaches. Some of them may be more or less inadequately solved or even pseudo problems but they can serve to recognize perspectives. Herdan is still being cited frequently (cf. vgl. e.g. Köhler, Altmann & Piotrowski 2005; Nikitopoulos 1980). Perhaps he relied in his linguistic efforts too much on his own linguistic knowledge, and avoided any cooperation with linguists – as opposed to his activities in medicine, where he concentrated on statistics and cooperated with other scientists.


  • Aichele, Dieter (2005). Quantitative Linguistik in Deutschland und Österreich. In: Köhler, Reinhard, Altmann, Gabriel, & Piotrowski, Rajmund G. (Hrsg.), Quantitative Linguistik - Quantitative Linguistics. Ein internationales Handbuch:. 16-23. Berlin/ N.Y.: de Gruyter.
  • Best, Karl-Heinz, Altmann, Gabriel (2007). XXX. Gustav Herdan (1897-1968). Glottometrics 15, 92-96.
  • Best, Karl-Heinz, & Zhu, Jinyang (2001). Wortlängenverteilungen in chinesischen Texten und Wörterbüchern. In: Best, Karl-Heinz (Hrsg.), Häufigkeitsverteilungen in Texten: 101-114. Göttingen: Peust & Gutschmidt.
  • Chrétien, C. Douglas (1962/63). A New Statistical Approach to the Study of Language? Romance Philology 16, 290-301. (Review Article zu Herdan, Language as Choice and Chance, 1956).
  • Grayston, K., & Herdan, G. (1959/60). The Authorship of the Pastorals in the Light of Statistical Linguistics. New Testament Studies VI, 1-15.
  • Heilmann, Luigi (1969). Gustav Herdan. Lingua e Stile 4, 93-96.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1937). Die Reduplikationen des Chih Ching (Diss.phil., Wien, nur 1 Ex., das lt. Mitteilung v. 14.2.07 in der Fachbereichsbibliohtek Ostasienwissenschaften der Universität Wien noch vorhanden ist.).
  • Herdan, Gustav (1940). The Mathematical Analysis of Linguistic Behavior. Thesis.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1941). Factorial Analysis of Recorded Speech. Thesis.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1952). Heisenberg’s uncertainty relation as a case of stochastic dependence. Die Naturwissenschaften 39, 350.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1953). Language in the Light of Information. Metron XVII, 89-125.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1953). Language in the Light of Information II. Metron XVII, 93-122.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1954). Informationstheoretische Analyse als Werkzeug der Sprachforschung. Die Naturwissenschaften 41, 293-295.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1955). A new derivation of Yule’s characteristic K. Zeitschrift für angewandte Mathematik und Physik/ Journal of Applied Mathematics and Physics/ Journal de Mathématiques et de Physique appliqées VI, 332-334.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1956). Chaucer’s Authorship of the Equantorie of the Planets. The Use of Romance Vocabulary as Evidence. Language 32, 254-259.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1956). Language as Choice and Chance. Groningen: Noordhoff.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1957). The Numerical Expression of Selective Variation in the Vowel-Consonant Sequence in English and Russian. In: Pulgram, Ernst (ed.), Studies presented to Joshua Whatmough on his sixtieth birthday (S. 91-104). ‘s-Gravenhage: Mouton.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1958). An Inequality Relation between Yule’s Characteristic K and Shannon’s Entropy H. Zeitschrift für angewandte Mathematik und Physik/ Journal of Applied Mathematics and Physics/ Journal de Mathématiques et de Physique appliqées IX, 69-73.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1958). The mathematical relation between Greenberg’s index of linguistic diversity and Yule’s characteristic. Biometrika 45, 268-270.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1958). The Relation between the Functional Burdening of Phonemes and the Frequency of Occurrence. Language and Speech 1, 8-13.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1958). The relation between the dictionary distribution and the occurrence distribution of word length and its importance for the study of quantitative linguistics. Biometrika 45, 222-228.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1959). The Hapax Legomenon: A Real or Apparent Phenomenon? Language and Speech 2, 26-36.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1960). Linguistic Philosophy in the Light of Modern Linguistics. Language and Speech 3, 78-83.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1960a). Type-Token Mathematics. A Textbook of Mathematical Linguistics. ‘s-Gravenhage: Mouton.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1961). A Critical Examination of Simon’s Model of Certain Distribution Functions in Linguistics. Applied Statistics 10, 65-76.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1961). Rev. zu: Pierre Guiraud, Problèmes et méthodes de la statistique linguistique. Language 37, 120-125.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1961). Vocabulary statistics and Phonology: A Parallel. Language XXXVII, 247-255.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1962). The Calculus of Linguistic Observations. ‘s-Gravenhage: Mouton.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1962). The Patterning of Semitic Verbal Roots Subjected to Combinatory Analysis. Word XVIII, 262-268.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1962). Statistics of phonemic systems. Proceedings of the Fourth International Congress of Phonetic Sciences held at the university of Helsinki, 4-9 September 1961 (S. 435-439). Ed by Antti Sovijärvi & Pentti Aalto. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1963). Mathematical models of linguistic distribution functions. Études de Linguistique Appliquée II, 47-64.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1963). A method for the quantitative analysis of language mixture. Statistical Methods in Linguistics 2, 110-123.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1964). The Structuralistic Approach to Chinese Grammar and Vocabulary. Two Essays. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1964). On communication between linguists. Linguistics 9, 71-76.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1964). Mathematics of genealogical relationship beween languages. Proceedings of the 9th international Congress of Linguistics, Cambridge, Mass., August 27-31, 1962 (S. 51-60). Ed. by Horace G. Lunt. London/ The Hague/ Paris: Mouton.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1964). Quantitative Linguistics. London: Butterworths. (ital.: Linguistica quantitativa. Bologna: Il Mulino 1971)
  • Herdan, Gustav (1964). Quantitative linguistics or generative grammar? Linguistics 4, 56-65.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1964). Reply. Archivum Linguisticum XVI, 82-84.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1965, 41971). Eine Gesetzmäßigkeit der Sprachenmischung. Mit einem Exkurs über Goethes ‚West-östlichen Divan‘. Mathematik und Dichtung. Versuche zur Frage einer exakten Literaturwissenschaft: 85-106. Zusammen mit Rul Gunzenhäuser hrsg. von Helmut Kreuzer. 4. durchgesehene Auflage. München: Nymphenburger.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1965). Lexicality and its statistical reflection. Language and Speech VIII, 190-196.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1965). Suitable and unsuitable mathematical models in language statistics, and their consequences. Proceedings of the Fifth International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, held at the University of Münster. Ed. by Eberhard Zwirner & Wolfgang Bethge (S. 61-81). Basel: Karger.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1966). The advanced theory of language as choice and chance. Berlin/ Heidelberg/ New York: Springer.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1966). Chinese – a conceptual or a notational language? Linguistics 28, 59-73.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1966). Haeckels biogenetisches Grundgesetz in der Sprachwissenschaft. Zeitschrift für Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung 19, 321-338.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1966). La lessicalità e il suo riflesso statistico. Lingua e Stile 1, 135-142.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1966). Letter to the editor. Revue Roumaine de Linguistique XI, 401-402.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1966). How can quantitative methods contribute to our understanding of lan¬¬guage mixture and language borrowing? In: Statistique et analyse linguistique. Colloque de Strasbourg (20-22 avril 1964) (S. 17-39). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1967). Il calcolo della frequenza delle parole. Forme della parola o lem-matizzatione? Lingua e Stile 2, 47-50.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1967). Chinese – A conceptual or a notational language? Monumenta Serica 26, 47-75.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1967). The crisis in modern general linguistics. La Linguistique 2, 27-37.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1967). L’elemento formale matematico nelle lingue naturali. Lingua e Stile 2, 277-289.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1967). The jig-saw puzzle of Saussurian and quantitative linguistics. Lingua e Stile 4, 69-76.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1967). Principi generali e metodi della linguistica matematica. Il Verri. Rivista di Letteratura 24, 87-99.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1968). „Götzendämmerung“ at M.I.T. Zeitschrift für Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung 21, 223-231.
  • (Herdan) Cherdan, Dž. (1968). Krisis sovremennogo obščego jazykoznanija. Voprosy jazy-koznanija, H. 2, 112-117.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1968). Rezension zu: Charles Muller, Étude de statistique lexicale: le vocabulaire du théâtre de Pierre Corneille. Language 44, 659-664.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1968). Zur Verfasserfrage in den Isländersagas. Zeitschrift für Deutsche Philologie 87, 97-99.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1969). Mathematical models of language. Studium Generale 22, 191-196.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1969). About some controversial results of the quantitative method in linguistics. Zeitschrift für Romanische Philologie 85, 376-384.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1969). The mathematical theory of verse. Zeitschrift für Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung 22, 225-234.
  • Herdan, Gustav (1969). Vokabularstruktur und Semantik. Phonetica 19, 142-155.
  • Köhler, Reinhard, Altmann, Gabriel, & Piotrowski, Rajmund G. (Hrsg.), Quantitative Linguistik - Quantitative Linguistics. Ein internationales Handbuch. Berlin/ N.Y.: de Gruyter.
  • Krallmann, Dieter. (1969). Necrologium: Gustav Herdan 1898-1968. Phonetica 20, 232-233.
  • Krámský, Jiří (1969). Gustav Herdan – An Obituary. Philologia Pragensia 12, 175.
  • Meier, Georg F. (1970). Nachruf: Gustav Herdan. Zeitschrift für Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung 23, 110-111.
  • Nikitopoulos, Pantelis (1980). Sprachstatistik. In: Althaus, Hans Peter, Henne, Helmut, & Wiegand, Herbert Ernst (Hrsg.), Lexikon der germanistischen Linguistik. 2., vollständig neu bearbeitete und erweiterte Auflage. S. 792-797. Tübingen: Niemeyer 1980.
  • Zasorina, L.N., & Tisenko, E.V. (1972). Statističeskaja koncepcija G. Cherdana. Naučnye Doklady Vysšej Školy - Filologičeskie nauki 15, H. 2 (68), 99-109.

Note: Herdan published, partly together with others, a large number of additional studies, mainly on Hinweis: Herdan hat allein oder mit anderen zusammen eine ganze Reihe weiterer Untersuchungen veröffentlicht, vor allem zu medizinischen Themen.

Für Unterstützung bei den Recherchen ist herzlich zu danken: Fachbereichsbibliothek Ostasienwissenschaften der Universität Wien (Maja Fuchs), Svitlana Kiyko (Czernowitz), Jürgen Udolph (Leipzig), Ludmila Uhlířová (Prag), Universitätsarchiv Wien (Johannes Seidl), Universitätsbibliothek Wien (Ingrid Ramirer), Andrew Wilson (Lancaster).

Karl-Heinz Best, Göttingen

Gabriel Altmann, Lüdenscheid


English version of: Karl-Heinz Best, Gabriel Altmann: Glottometrics 15, 2007, 92-96

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