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The Ambiguity of Language
June 27, 2012 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on The Ambiguity of Language

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?

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