The journey of a word

The word silly is defined by Dictionary.com as meaning “weak-minded or lacking good sense; stupid or foolish”[1]. Long ago, however, the word from which silly derives––the Proto-Germanic sæligas[2]––meant something more like “happy, blessed, prosperous”. Some descendants of this word, such as the German selig (“blessed, happy, blissful”), still retain their ancestor’s meaning; others, such as … Continue reading The journey of a word

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)

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)