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. But ambiguity actually serves a purpose, and is frequently exploited in human interactions.
Anyone who’s ever used Siri has likely experienced the frustration of not being understood. There’s a fundamental – almost existential – panic that surfaces when someone else doesn’t know what you’re saying.
It’s an even bigger problem for people with accents other than “General American English”. Voice interfaces struggle with accents, from regional American accents to foreign-accented speech. But why?
Pretty much since its inception, one of the core principles of linguistics has been that language is arbitrary (De Saussure, 1916; Hockett, 1960). That is, there’s no apparent relationship between a sign and what it signifies; nothing inherent about the word “dog” suggests that it must refer to the DOG concept.
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.