Lyndon word

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A word is a sequence of letters , that is, elements chosen from a set called an alphabet. A word is usually written as , or abbreviated by a single symbol: . The length of is equal to the number of letters in , i.e. . One may concatenate two words , , and this operation is concisely written as . Words may be ordered lexicographically; more precisely, given a total order on , one may extend it over the set of words by setting if either and or there exists an such that with and . This word order is sometimes referred to as alphabetical order. For more details, see [a1].

Lyndon words are words strictly less than any of their non-empty proper right factors (or strict suffixes), that is, is a Lyndon word if it is strictly less than for (with respect to the lexicographic order). These were introduced by R.C. Lyndon [a2] for constructing bases of the lower central series for free groups (cf. Central series of a group). From the definition one can see that letters are Lyndon words. Equivalently, is a Lyndon word if it is strictly less than any of the circular shifts (). One important characterization of these words yields a recursive process to generate them: a word is a Lyndon word if and only if there exists two Lyndon words , such that and . J.P. Duval [a3] gave a beautiful, and clever, algorithm that generates Lyndon words of bounded length over a finite alphabet. The number of Lyndon words of length over a finite alphabet of cardinality may be explicitly computed, using Witt's formula:

where is the Möbius function.

A multi-homogeneous version of Witt's formula may be found in [a4]. The central result about Lyndon words is the following Chen–Fox–Lyndon theorem: Any word can be expressed as a unique non-increasing product of Lyndon words. The preceding characterization suggests an algorithm to compute this factorization. Duval [a5] gave a simple and efficient algorithm that factorizes a word in linear time.

The applications of Lyndon words, in algebra and combinatorics, seem innumerable. For instance, there are as many Lyndon words over an alphabet of cardinality ( a prime) as there are irreducible polynomials over a finite field of characteristic ; see [a4]. The factorization theorem, when applied to permutations (considered as words without repetitions), yields a variant of the so-called Foata transform [a1], Chap. 10.

Given any Lyndon word , one may compute the factorization of as a product , where is a Lyndon word of maximal length (less than the length of ). The strict suffix (or proper right factor) can also be characterized as the smallest strict suffix of . Then is also a Lyndon word and . This factorization of is called its right standard factorization. Similarly, one may define its left standard factorization. Let be a mapping from the set of Lyndon words into the free associative algebra on by setting , and , where is its right standard factorization. The polynomial thus associated to is a Lie polynomial, and the set forms a linear basis of the free Lie algebra over (see Lie algebra, free). Note that the iterated right standard factorizations recursively define a bracketing of (see Binary tree), and thus define a Hall set. The corresponding basis is called the Chen–Fox–Lyndon basis, or simply the Lyndon basis. It is practically identical with the Shirshov basis.

A good introduction to Lyndon words is [a1], Chap. 5. For applications of Lyndon words related to free Lie algebras, see [a4].

See also Hall word; Hall set; Lazard set.


[a1] "Combinatorics on words" M. Lothaire (ed.) , Addison-Wesley (1983)
[a2] K.T. Chen, R.H. Fox, R.C. Lyndon, "Free differential calculus, IV. The quotient groups of the lower central series" Ann. of Math. , 68 (1958) pp. 81–95
[a3] J.P. Duval, "Génération d'une section des classes de conjugaison et arbre de mots de Lyndon de longueur bornée" Theor. Comput. Sci. , 60 (1988) pp. 255–283
[a4] C. Reutenauer, "Free Lie algebras" , London Math. Soc. Monographs New Ser. , 7 , Oxford Univ. Press (1993)
[a5] J.P. Duval, "Factorizing words over an ordered alphabet" J. Algorithms , 4 (1983) pp. 363–381
[a6] G. Melançon, C. Reutenauer, "Lyndon words, free algebras and shuffles" Canad. J. Math. , XLI : 4 (1989) pp. 577–591
How to Cite This Entry:
Lyndon word. Encyclopedia of Mathematics. URL:
This article was adapted from an original article by G. Melançon (originator), which appeared in Encyclopedia of Mathematics - ISBN 1402006098. See original article