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Austin Cline

Ambiguity and Language

By May 31, 2012

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Say What?
Say What?
Henrik Sorensen / Digital Vision

In logic, ambiguity is bad -- a lot of effort is put into eliminating ambiguity from arguments and having ambiguity in the wrong places creates logical fallacies. Ambiguity in language, though, may be necessary. The very thing that logicians try to eliminate may be exactly what makes language useful.

Recent research by teams led by Ted Gibson of MIT and Steve Piantadosi at the University of Rochester, New York, reveals non-genetic factors that can shape the way information is structured, and why some word orders are more common than others.

And their work on ambiguity shows it to be "a functional property of language that allows for greater communicative efficiency". What is important is that there is no need to appeal to nativism to understand this major part of linguistic meaning because it is motivated by non-linguistic and non-genetic factors.

Other work by, among others, Bill Croft of the University of New Mexico, has shown a role for the non-genetic factor of "iconicity", linguistic forms being shaped by meanings. For example, the more complex the idea, the more complex the linguistic structure: "the Devil made me do it" has more words than "the Devil did it" because the first sentence expresses causation, which is more complex than the simple transitiveness of the second.

Source: New Scientist, Source: 10 March 2012

If language lacked ambiguity, it would have to be highly specific. Meanings would have to be very, very narrow. This would increase the number of possible words and constructions that we'd have to learn and be able to decipher... well, exponentially, I suspect. That would probably make language impossible to learn and use, at least in any reasonable way.

Ambiguity solves that problem by allowing words and constructions to mean multiple things at the same time. Potential inefficiency is introduced because you may have to explain yourself, but it's much more efficient in the long run because you won't always have to. And that's not even touching the ways ambiguity becomes useful when it comes to poetry, literature, metaphor, etc. -- all things that are vital to culture.

So an annoying as ambiguity, imprecision, and unclarity may be at times, perhaps we should stop occasionally to celebrate it a little.

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