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)

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)

The Rhythm of Conversation (pt. 1)

Many things in our lives have rhythms: music, poetry, the pace at which we walk, and even the rate at which we talk. One of the marvels of everyday conversation – overlooked, perhaps, because it seems so obvious and so easy – is turn-taking. That is, when one speaker finishes talking, someone else usually starts … Continue reading The Rhythm of Conversation (pt. 1)

That’s not what I meant!

Ambiguity pervades language. This ambiguity can be used strategically by speakers, but it’s also what makes language so challenging for machines to understand – and in some cases, it even leads to miscommunications between people, particularly over written communication. During in-person interactions, ambiguity is more easily avoided. If a speaker says of a recently released … Continue reading That’s not what I meant!

Sounding entitled

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being entitled. A worker is entitled to a paycheck; a customer is entitled to the goods they’ve paid for; all of us are entitled to certain inalienable human rights[1]. So why is “entitled” usually used as an insult? When someone says that somebody else is “acting entitled”, what they really … Continue reading Sounding entitled

“You Got Heat?”: Indirect speech acts in The Wire

Language is full of ambiguity. This fuzziness is often cited as a sign of imperfection, leading some to try to develop more precise languages of their own[1]. But ambiguity actually serves a purpose, and is frequently exploited in human interactions. Part of recognizing the utility of ambiguity requires understanding that language is more than just … Continue reading “You Got Heat?”: Indirect speech acts in The Wire