From: John Stick (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Thu Jun 21 2001 - 10:01:54 MDT
Ambiguity is more central to the general use of natural languages than
anyone has noted yet in this thread. It is a valuable design feature, not a
defect to be minimized at all costs. Moreover, this use of ambiguity is
the reason why language use in open conversation requires general
intelligence (or abductive reasoning, or a solution to the frame problem)
and so is central to the task of building general AI.
Beyond imprecision in meaning of words and sentences, ambiguity arises
because much of the meaning of a communication emerges from the interplay of
words and context. This is built into natural language use at many levels.
At the most simple are classes of words such as indexicals ( "this", "that",
"here", "now") and pronouns ( can't tell who is "me" without context).
Figurative speech, irony, sarcasm, humor, all rely on context (and the
possibilty of multiple meanings that disambiguating would dissolve). For
all words, while denotations might be disambiguated by Durant Schoon's
Herculean Dictionary proposal, connotations will still vary relative to the
experiences of speaker and listener. All social situations make available
speech acts or language games where meaning is altered or supplemented:
promising, flirting, calling out.
We consider our audience's context and expectations in choosing words,
to trigger the connotations we want, but we also use their expectations and
context to encode meaning. We incorporate by reference material from novels
fnord, pop culture (objectivism, anyone?) and science(using the meme meme to
inject evolutionary ideas into discussions of language usage). We
intentionally break grammatical rules to add emphasis, or signal an
attitude( "ain't" or double negatives). We violate the audience's
expectations of relevance(or good manners or appropriate diction) to signal
irony or sarcasm or disagreement or boredom, and thus change the meaning of
a post from its surface meaning.
But if meaning is dependent on the context of both speaker and listener,
as well as the actual words used, ambiguity can creep in because of
uncertainties in either context. Many of the posts in this list are
seriuosly ambiguous to someone who knows none of the context. Even if one
has a very wide scientific background, and has read Ayn Rand, and the
Illuminatus trilogy, and Vernor Vinge, and played Zork, until one gets to
know the various posters and their backgrounds, it is easy to misinterpret
posts. The intellectual task of interpreting posts, which includes
simultaneously elaborating the contexts, is not merely deductive or
inductive, it requires inferences to the best explanation, or abduction, (or
You could limit ambiguity by limiting use of figurative speech and
references that are not fully specified. You could disclaim any intent to
communicate connotations. But except in very specialized circumstances, why
would you want to? The same features that yield ambiguity allow much more
information to be expressed in limited space, and allow many subltle
effects and meanings that cannot be communicated more simply (as in poetry,
but not just poetry).
Even in scientific discourse, figurative language can be very powerful
in suggesting new lines of thought, as with the meme meme, and the general
use of evolutionary ideas throughout the social sciences.
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