by Ross Eckler
Word Ways, 1983


From the standpoint of an algebraist, words are nothing but ordered sequences of letters, each letter being a member of an allowable alphabet of such letters. Any sequence of letters is permitted, and he is often interested in deriving theorems about the existence or non-existence of certain letter patterns.

A survey of the mathematics of letter-sequences of this type is contained in a recently-published book, Combinatorics on Words (Addison-Wesley, 1983), Volume 17 of the Encyclopedia of Mathematics and its Applications. Although the book is touted as an elementary text, its results are understandable only to those having at least an undergraduate major in mathematics. The first chapter, for example, immediately defines such concepts as morphisms, free monoids, conjugacy, equidivisibility and left factors. The book is, in fact, a series of definitions and theorems presented at a hightly-abstract level with no hint of real-world applications. To give the Word Ways reader a slight appreciation of its contents, I describe below a couple of easily-grasped concepts, the square-free word and cadences of words.

A square-free (or nonrepetitive) word is defined as a word which does not contain any repeated sequences of the form aa, abab, abcabc, etc.; in logological terms, the word contains no internal tautonyms. What is the shortest word-length such that all words of that length are not square-free? For an alphabet of size two, the answer is 4; all words of length 4 or more must contain aa, bb, abab or baba. However, for an alphabet of size three, there exist arbitrarily long words which do not contain such patterns as aa, caca or bacbac. A sequence of ever-longer square-free words can be constructed by iteratively replacing a with ab and b with ba:

a, ab, abba, abbabaab, abbabaabbaababba, ...

and then replacing the sequences a, ab, abb with c, b and a, respectively:

c, b, ac, abcb, abcacbac, abcacbabcbacabcb, ...

It can be mathematically proved that no matter how long this word is made, it will never contain any repeated patterns.

Mathematicians have generalized the concept of a square-free word to an Abelian square-free (or strongly nonrepetitive) word. This is defined as a word which does not contain any repeated sequences after allowing for permutations: for example, bacadcabda can be rearranged to form bacadbacad by rearranging its last five letters. Again, what is the shortest word-length such that all words of that length are not Abelian square-free? For an alphabet of size three, the answer is 8; there are no Abelian square-free words longer than 7 letters, and the only 7-letter Abelian square-free words are abcbabc, abacaba and abacbab. For an alphabet of size four, the answer is not known, but it is conjectured that arbitrarily-long Abelian square-free words can be constructed. Mathematicians have constructed ones up to 1600 letters long with the aid of a computer. For an alphabet of size five, it has been proved that there is no limit to the size of Abelian-square-free words; one construction is given in P.A.B. Pleasants, "Non-Repetitive Sequences," Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 68 (1970), pp 267-74.

A word contains a cadence (more precisely, an arithmetical cadence of specified length) if it has a sequence of n identical letters that are spaced at equal intervals within the word. For example the capitalized letters in bAAAbc, cAbAcAa and AbbAcaAbc are all cadences of length three, and there are no other ones of this length present. For alphabets of various sizes, what is the shortest possible word-length such that all words of that length have cadences of length n? The answer is trivial for cadences of lengths 1 or 2 for all alphabet sizes, and for any cadence-length for a one-letter alphabet. However, the answer to this question is known for only four non-trivial cases. For alphabets of size two, cadences of length 3, 4 and 5 must appear in all words of lengths 9, 35, and 178, respectively, and for alphabets of size three, cadences of length 3 must appear in all words of length 27. Rephrasing the first result, the longest words containing only two different letters and no cadences of length 3 are only 8 letters long; the only examples of such words are aabbaabb, abbaabba and ababbaba.

It is of interest to logologists to apply these concepts to English words. Are there any 7-letter Abelian square-free words in English? The only known ones are Sereser (or Sarasar) from the Douay Bible, patapat (defined as a repeated patting), cachašha (white rum), and tathata (suchness in Webster's Third). The longest dictionary words that are not square-free are electroencephalo-graphicaLLy and ethylenediaminETETrAAcetate.

Although pneumOnoultramicrOscopicsilicOvolcanokoniOsis is an Abelian square-free word, it contains one cadence of length 4 (capitalized) and four of length 3 (on O, on I, twice on C). Does any other English word have this many cadences of length 3 or more? Zenzizenzizenzic from the OED does, but this is a rather special case. SupercalIfragIlistIcexpIlidocious also has a cadence of length 4, and barely misses one of length 5. The longest dictionary words with no cadences of length 2 or more are, obviously, the isograms dermatoglyphics and uncopyrightable. What is the longest dictionary word with no cadences of length 3 or more? It appears to be the 31-letter chemical term dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane from the Random House Unabridged dictionary.

How long a cadence can be found in an English word? Cadences with spacings of two were investigated by Ralph Beaman in the May 1971 Word Ways; he called them alternating monotonies. The longest alternating monotony is the word humuhumunukunukuapuaa in Webster's Third. It is unlikely that this can be equalled in a cadence with a spacing of three or more.

In pair isograms (words containing exactly two of each letter) all letters participate in cadences of length two. Is it possible to find pair isograms containing one cadence of each spacing? Eight-letter pair isograms with the following patterns have cadences with spacings one, two, three and four:

aabcdbdc abcacbdd abacbddc

aabcdcbd abcbacdd abbcadcd

However, the only English words known to match one of these patterns are appeases and appearer. Ten-letter pair isograms with the following patterns have cadences with spacings of one, two, three, four and five:

aabcdcebde abcbdacdee abbcdacede abcacdbeed

aabcdbeced abcadbdcee abacdbceed abbcadedce

However, none of these patterns corresponds to a Websterian word. Can anyone find a non-Websterian example such as a placename?

Back to Word Ways articles
Back to Word Ways home