If I had to write the Huffman encoding as a recursion in terms of the cost $C_{ij}$, given weights/frequencies $W = [w_1,\ldots,w_n]$, how would I do it? (where this is creating a minimum cost tree, $C = \sum_i w_i \cdot \mathrm{depth}_i$).

I am going off of Dasgupta's Huffman procedure:

procedure Huffman(f)

Input: An array f[1···n] of frequencies

Output: An encoding tree with n leaves

let H be a priority queue of integers, ordered by f

for i = 1 to n:   insert(H,i)

for k = n+1 to 2n–1:

  i = deletemin(H),   j = deletemin(H)

  create a node numbered k with children i,j

  f[k] = f[i] + f[j]


It should be something like the matrix multiplication order minimization algorithm, which seeks to minimize the total number of components calculated when multiplying a string of matrices,

$$ C_{ij} = \min(C_{ik} + C_{k+1,j}+(m_i-1) \cdot m_k \cdot m_j) $$

Where $m_i,m_j$ are the dimensions of the matrix multiplication at the level directly below the node...

I wrote something like:

$$ aC_{ij} = \min((a+1)C_{ik} + (a+1)C_{k+1,j}),\text{ for all } i,j,k $$

With base case: $C_{ii} = w_i$

Knowing full well that this is probably incorrect. But I don't understand how I should write it. I mean, I have the algorithm fine—just Huffman + DFS afterward (which always turns left, then right) to find out the order of the elements. But I don't understand how the recursion notation works in this situation.

  • $\begingroup$ ... there must be a word for when one returns to a question 4 years later and has no clue what the hell he was talking about, and no recollection having ever asked it $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Mar 17, 2020 at 0:45

1 Answer 1


Huffman's algorithm uses the greedy heuristic, which is different from the dynamic programming approach in the other problem you mention. However, we can still define the cost recursively.

There are actually several options. In all cases, given a distribution $p_1,\ldots,p_n$, we will find a formula for $C(p_1,\ldots,p_n)$, which is the optimal cost of a prefix code.

Let's start with Huffman's algorithm itself:

  1. $C(1) = 0$.
  2. $C(p_1,\ldots,p_n) = p_i + p_j + C(p_1,\ldots,\widehat{p_i},\ldots,\widehat{p_j},\ldots,p_n,p_i+p_j)$, where $p_i,p_j$ (for $i < j$) are the two smallest probabilities (i.e. $\max(p_i,p_j) \leq p_k$ for all $k \neq i,j$), and $\widehat{p_i}$ signifies that $p_i$ is removed.

The proof that this recurrence is correct is not immediate.

If we want a Huffman-like recurrence whose correctness is immediate, we need to tweak this only slightly:

  1. $C(1) = 0$.
  2. $C(p_1,\ldots,p_n) = \min_{i<j} [p_i + p_j + C(p_1,\ldots,\widehat{p_i},\ldots,\widehat{p_j},\ldots,p_n,p_i+p_j)]$.

This recurrence holds since (i) given a code for $p_1,\ldots,\widehat{p_i},\ldots,\widehat{p_j},\ldots,p_n,p_i+p_j$ we can get a code for $p_1,\ldots,p_n$ which is worse by $p_i+p_j$ by splitting the node corresponding to $p_i+p_j$ into two, and (ii) given a code for $p_1,\ldots,p_n$, if we choose any two sibling leaves $p_i,p_j$ then $C(p_1,\ldots,p_n) = p_i + p_j + C(p_1,\ldots,\widehat{p_i},\ldots,\widehat{p_j},\ldots,p_n,p_i+p_j)$.

A short reflection reveals that we can always ensure $j = n$ (say), and this leads to a simpler recurrence:

  1. $C(1) = 0$.
  2. $C(p_1,\ldots,p_n) = \min_{i<n} [p_i + p_n + C(p_1,\ldots,\widehat{p_i},\ldots,p_{n-1},p_i+p_n)]$.

The last two recurrences are bottom-up. There is also a top-down recurrence:

  1. $C(1) = 0$.

  2. $C(p_1,\ldots,p_n) = 1 + \min_{S \sqcup T = [n]} [C(p_S) + C(p_T)]$, where the minimization is over all partitions of $\{1,\ldots,n\}$ into two non-empty sets, and $p_S = (p_i : i \in S)$.

In this recurrence we are splitting the root instead of merging two sibling leaves. I leave to correctness proof for the reader.

Only the first recurrence above can be implemented efficiently.

  • $\begingroup$ Ah ok, so I wrote: $$ C(w_1,\ldots,w_n) = min_{i<j}(w_i + w_j + C\left(\lbrace w_1,\ldots,w_n\rbrace /\lbrace w_i,w_j\rbrace \rbrace \cup \lbrace w_i + w_j\rbrace \right) $$ because I don't understand what you mean by the hats on $p_i$ and I'm not sure I understand why $n$ is fixed in $p_i + p_n + C(p_1,\ldots,p_{n-1},p_i + p_n)$ at the last element in the current input list (first recursion). So, this is how I am able to interpret what you are saying (in the first recursion). Would this still be correct? $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ And, in the second, is the minimization applied throughout the recursion? Such that the entire recursion is computed for each set partition, at each level of recursion, for all set partitions at all levels of recursion? $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, wait--I understand why $n$ is fixed. Nvm about that. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure what you mean by "the minimization applied throughout the recursion". There is no recursion here. It's just a formula stating that the left-hand side is equal to the right-hand side. What you do with it is up to you. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, so, if I take the minimum of a list, I have got a minimum from a set of elements. But my question was where the meaningful minimum was. Do I have to go all the way through the recursion to figure out if a given set partition is a minimum, for each level of recursion. Or can I just say that the sum of this partition of weights + sum of the remainder is the minimum (in which case, every set partition comes to the same value). $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 17:25

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