Fun with ambiguity!

Ambiguity is fun. For example, yesterday my friends and I were talking about my uncle, who repairs robots.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: Yeah, he’s a robot repair man. It’s a pretty good job.

Friend 1: How does one become a robot repair man?

Friend 2: Yeah, how did he become a robot?

Android

Oh, clearly you meant a robotic man who repairs things, not a man who repairs robots.

Now, because I’m not a normal person, I jotted down a note of this interesting ambiguity. You’ve probably noticed lots of instances like this, where a word can be interpreted in more than one way. But did you ever wonder about ambiguity in language? (A little note here: There is ambiguity on the word level and ambiguity on the sentence level. I’m talking about ambiguious words here, though I might come back and do phrases later on.)

Think about it this way: language’s primary  purpose is to assist in communication. You would think that anything that got in the way of that purpose would be weeded out. I mean, yeah, languages evolve, but they evolve with conscious input from humans, so you’d think that we’d try to cut down on things that make communication harder. I mean, if you were designing a human, would you include the appendix? Ok, maybe you would. But my point is, ambiguity isn’t really helpful in communication. So why do we continue to use it?

Funnily enough, I’m not the first person to ask this question; it’s one that’s troubled linguistics for a while. And there was a theory proposed in a  recent article that I find particularly interesting. The authors argued that words that have more than one meaning (like how chips can be delicious and ruin your computer, or taste terrible and make your computer run) are generally words that are really easy to say.

You can think of different words as having different shapes, and that you have to trace these shapes to say the word. A word that’s really easy to say, like mom, would be a circle. A word that’s harder to say, like Cryptonomicon, is going to be more like five-pointed star. (A word that’s impossible to say, like lpdkn, would be like trying to draw a scale model of Mount Fuji in two dimensions: you can kind of get the general idea across, but you can’t produce it fully because it violates the rules of physics. Metaphorically.) When you’re just talking to friends, you want to use as many circles as possible. Because of that pressure, you’re going to use circles to represent tires and oranges and the sun, and trust that your friends can use context clues to figure out that you didn’t have tire juice for breakfast.

I tend to like this argument, because I’m of the opinion that laziness is one of the driving factors in language–I’m not so sure of another argument that they make, which is that the primary purpose of language is not  communication, but basically to organize our thoughts, but more on that later. The main point is that ambiguity is an essential part of language and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

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  1. Pingback: The Many Moods of “Alarming” |

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