The Ambiguity of Language

by Translation Guy on June 27, 2012

Word for word, language is not exactly cut and dried. One word can mean many different things, which can lead to misunderstanding, except it doesn’t, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

If language evolved as a way for people to exchange information, then efficiency would increase fitness. Any confusion would be inefficient. Multiple meanings would be confusing, and that is not efficient. So one meme per phoneme, please.

But many meanings among a few words is exactly what we get with language, which is why Noam Chomsky says that language is badly designed for communication, and that dialog between people is just a byproduct of the way we think to ourselves, which is what he thinks language evolved for.

Much to my glee, Ted Gibson, an MIT professor of cognitive science, has compelling proof (that’s proof as in evidence, not liquor strength) that Chomsky did not get language ambiguity right.

Note: I meant “not right” as in wrong, not “not right” as in left, even though Chomsky is a leftist, politically speaking. Sorry for any confusion.

Gibson says, “Various people have said that ambiguity is a problem for communication. But once we understand that context disambiguates, then ambiguity is not a problem — it’s something you can take advantage of, because you can reuse easy [words] in different contexts over and over again.”

Very handy. Take the meaning of “mean” for example. It can mean to signify or identify something or, if you mean to use it in a different sense, to indicate intention or purpose. If you call a person mean, then you are calling them nasty, but call a number mean, and you are looking at a mathematical average. Add an “s” and it becomes a means to an end, as in a manner or method, or if you are living within it, then it means you are managing your finances in the black.

All those different meanings are clear enough in context (present text excluded). So if multiple meanings for simple words make for a fitter language, then words that have the fewest syllables, and are the easiest to pronounce, and occur with the highest frequency should have the most different meanings.

Analysis of textual databases in Dutch, English, and German confirmed that this was true.

With context applied, ambiguity is more efficient for listener and speaker both. “A speaker wants to put across as much as possible to a listener with as few words as possible, the listener aims to gain a complete and specific understanding of what the speaker is trying to convey. It is ‘cognitively cheaper’ if the listener concludes certain things from the context of the conversation, rather than the speaker having to spend more time on longer and more elaborate descriptions,” writes Petra Rattue of Medical News Today.

Check out “The Communicative Function of Ambiguity in Language.” by Steven T. Piantadois, Harry Tily and Edward Gibson.

I buy it, but German, Dutch and English seem too closely related to draw universal conclusions. I know that Japanese has a maddening number of homonyms, but I always thought that was a historical thing related to adoption of Chinese tonal script. So I wonder how common this is in languages I don’t know.

So a question for speakers of other languages. Is English an outlier on this, or do you have the same ambiguous issues in your language too?


  1. A more practical and insidious issue of language ambiguity is that the same phrase can sometimes legitimately be interpreted in different ways in the same context. Is that a past participle or an adjective? A noun or a verb? If two people are “required to do something”, does that mean that it cannot be done with one, or (on the other hand) that the two people are under some obligation? If I have enabled access, does that mean that I have a system on which access has been enabled (by me or by someone else) or just that I, myself, have turned the access on?

    This aspect of ambiguity creates two problems for translators. One is an inability to be sure just what the source text means without consulting the author (if they are even available/alive). The other is the challenge of maintaining the discipline to be aware of when we might be creating ambiguity in the words we choose. We’ve all seen those headlines with unintended double entendres (“prostitutes appeal to Pope”, etc.). That’s the stuff that can cause damage.

    • Ken says:

      Languages aren’t foolproof, even though it is mostly fools that use them. Interesting when that ambiguity is cultivated by a speaker to make a joke or to obscure real meaning. So we tell our clients, “we don’t do jokes or read minds.”

    • I agree with this – there are countless different ways through which a phrase could be misconstrued. Often times though, these ambiguities don’t carry over into other languages. Thus, it is incredibly important for translators to check with clients as to the meaning of any unclear texts they are working on.

      • Ken says:

        Gotta watch those clients. They’ll get into all sorts of trouble otherwise.

  2. Susan says:

    Great post, not much to add to the conversation as my linguistic range is limited to English and German but I think its an intteresting issue.

  3. I think ambiguity becomes a larger problem on the internet, where dialogue is robbed of tone, inflection, proper punctuation and various other aspects of good communication.

  4. Chomsky has always been suspect in my book, sometimes I think he justs thinks to highly of himself. Saw him do a debate with Foucault a couple decades back and he came of as sanctimonious.

    • Ken says:

      He drives me nuts. I hate people who think they are smarter than me, especially when they are.

  5. Richard says:

    I agree, i think one would need a far better sample size of languages to determine the validity of this, but it does have that common sense ring to it that feels true.

  6. Karen Herbst says:

    I think ambiguity can become worse as people bastardize words to make them nouns, adjectives or what have you , where once they were not.

  7. There is a lot of ambiguity in Arabic, but that’s more a written thing than a spoken issue.

  8. Viktoria says:

    Context is king.

    • Ken says:

      King of what?

  9. Never encountered the issue with Slavic languages, but my experience isn’t that long relative to others like German or English.

  10. Paulo Amaral says:

    Here in Brazil we fool around with our language, portuguese. Ambiguity is everywhere, from verbs to personal pronouns. When we want to make fun of friends, we usually use double-meaning sentences.

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