Sources of disambiguating information (Ambiguity in language, pt. 5)

In a previous post, I described how researchers might go about tackling the question of how humans understand ambiguous language. The basic idea was to first identify potential sources of disambiguating information, then ask whether humans actually use this information to understand ambiguous language. But what constitutes a “potential” source of disambiguating information? The short … Continue reading Sources of disambiguating information (Ambiguity in language, pt. 5)

Ambiguity and humor (Ambiguity in language, pt. 4)

One of the byproducts of an ambiguous communicate system is that speakers can exploit this ambiguity. Sometimes this is done to deceive or manipulate, as with bribes (Pinker et al, 2008)[1] or so-called “dog-whistle politics” (Safire, 2008; López, 2015). But this exploitation is often more innocuous and commonplace, as in the case of humor. Examples … Continue reading Ambiguity and humor (Ambiguity in language, pt. 4)

Is language really ambiguous? (Ambiguity in language, pt. 3)

Ambiguous expressions pervade language. Moreover, it appears that speakers don’t always avoid speaking ambiguously. So how do we manage to communicate at all? And why are we often oblivious to the pervasiveness of this ambiguity? Reframing the problem One answer to these questions is to reframe the problem: perhaps, some might say, language is not … Continue reading Is language really ambiguous? (Ambiguity in language, pt. 3)

U-turns in speech production (Ambiguity in language, pt. 2)

The prevalence of ambiguity in language poses a problem for communication. Ambiguous expressions require listeners to infer which interpretation was intended, raising the probability of miscommunication. One fairly obvious solution to this problem would be for speakers to speak less ambiguously––but is this really what they do? First, we need to define exactly what we … Continue reading U-turns in speech production (Ambiguity in language, pt. 2)

Why is language ambiguous? (Ambiguity in language, pt. 1)

Human language is full of ambiguity. Most people are familiar with homophones––words that sound the same, but have different meanings––such as bank (e.g. the bank of a river, vs. a place to deposit your money. But ambiguity cuts across multiple levels of language, from inflectional morphemes (–s can mark a plural noun, a 3rd-person singular … Continue reading Why is language ambiguous? (Ambiguity in language, pt. 1)