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.
Recently, while taking care of my parents’ dog (see Figure 1 below), I observed an interesting phenomenon: whenever Sally (the dog) was thirsty, she would walk over to her empty water bowl, peer into it, then stare pointedly back at me, as if to say: what gives?
I refilled the water bowl and she lapped it up eagerly. It struck me that this was Sally’s way of “requesting” water. No language was involved, but she successfully communicated her desire (“more water”) through an action, and I interpreted this action correctly and acted accordingly (filling the water bowl).
So how does this work?
Imagine you’re at a new friend’s house for dinner, and the house is stiflingly hot. You feel uncomfortable turning on the AC yourself, so instead, you casually remark: “Boy, it sure is warm in here!” Your friend will probably infer your intentions, and will turn on the AC or open a window.
Language is a central component of human interaction. We use language for everyday conversations, for writing emails, discussing scientific research, composing poetry, and much more. Crucially, the use of language does not occur in a vacuum; language is always produced in a given context, and is always interpreted in a given context. Context includes everything from the speaker’s tone of voice to the entire relationship history between the speaker and listener – anything beyond the words in the actual sentence. The consideration of this context in developing a model of what language means is called pragmatics.