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Language Ambiguity: A Curse and a Blessing

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Despite the fact that ambiguity in language is an essential part of language, it is often an obstacle to be ignored or a problem to be solved for people to understand each other. I will examine this fact and attempt to show that even when perceived as a problem, ambiguity provides value. In any case, language ambiguity can be understood as an illustration of the complexity of language itself.

As a start, I will define some terms to clarify what we mean by "ambiguity." By defining "lexical and structural ambiguity," "connotation, denotation and implication" and tropes as metaphor and allegory, I will try to construct a base upon which language ambiguity takes on extra meaning.

Following this, I will use three major accomplishments of human creativity: literature, psychoanalysis and computational linguistics, as examples of where language ambiguity has an important place. I will briefly comment on the consequences of the different interpretations of one of the most, if not the most, controversial work of literature in history: the Holy Bible.



Something is ambiguous when it can be understood in two or more possible senses or ways. If the ambiguity is in a single word it is called lexical ambiguity. In a sentence or clause, structural ambiguity.

Examples of lexical ambiguity are everywhere. In fact, almost any word has more than one meaning. "Note" = "A musical tone" or "A short written record." "Lie" = "Statement that you know it is not true" or "present tense of lay: to be or put yourself in a flat position." Also we can take the word "ambiguity" itself. It can mean an indecision as to what you mean, an intention to mean several things, a probability that one or other or both of two things has been meant, and the fact that a statement has several meanings. Ambiguity tends to increase with frequency of usage.

Some examples of structural ambiguity: "John enjoys painting his models nude." Who is nude? "Visiting relatives can be so boring." Who is doing the visiting? "Mary had a little lamb." With mint sauce? (7)

In normal speech, ambiguity can sometimes be understood as something witty or deceitful. Harry Rusche (15) proposes that ambiguity should be extended to any verbal nuance, which gives room to alternative reactions to the same linguistic element.

Polysemy (or polysemia) is a compound noun for a basic linguistic feature. The name comes from Greek poly (many) and semy (to do with meaning, as in semantics). Polysemy is also called radiation or multiplication. This happens when a word acquires a wider range of meanings. For example, "paper" comes from Greek papyrus. Originally it referred to writing material made from the papyrus reeds of the Nile, later to other writing materials, and now it refers to things such as government documents, scientific reports, family archives or newspapers. (11)

There is a category, called "complementary polysemy" wherein a single verb has multiple senses, which are related to one another in some predictable way. An example is "bake," which can be interpreted as a change-of-state verb or as a creation verb in different circumstances. "John baked the potato." (change-of-state) "John baked a cake." (creation) (9)

Denotation, Connotation, Implication.

Denotation: This is the central meaning of a word, as far as it can be described in a dictionary. It is therefore sometimes known as the cognitive or referential meaning. It is possible to think of lexical items that have a more or less fixed denotation ("sun," denoting the nearest star) but this is rare. Most are subject to change over time. The denotation of "silly" today is not what it was in the 16th century. (11) At that time the word meant "happy" or "innocent."

Connotation: Connotation refers to the psychological or cultural aspects; the personal or emotional associations aroused by words. When these associations are wide-spread and become established by common usage, a new denotation is recorded in dictionaries. A possible example of such a change is the word vicious. Originally derived from vice, it meant "extremely wicked." In modern British usage, however, it is commonly used to mean "fierce," as in the brown rat is a vicious animal. (11)

Implication: What the speech intends to mean but does not communicate directly. The listener can deduce or infer the intended meaning from what has been uttered. Example from David Chrystal:

Utterance: "A bus!" ? Implicature (implicit meaning): "We must run." (11)

Tropes: Metaphor, Metonym, Allegory, Homonym, Homophone, Homograph, Paradox

These are only a few of the language figures or "tropes," providing concepts useful to understanding ambiguity in language.

Metaphor: This refers to the non-literal meaning of a word, a clause or sentence. Metaphors are very common; in fact all abstract vocabulary is metaphorical. A metaphor compares things. (Examples: "blanket of stars"; "out of the blue")

A metaphor established by usage and convention becomes a symbol. Thus crown suggests the power of the state, press = the print news media and chair = the control (or controller) of a meeting. (11)

Metonym: A word used in place of another word or expression to convey the same meaning. (Example: the use of brass to refer to military officers) (6)

Allegory: The expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence; an instance (as in a story or painting) of such expression. (10) "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville is a clear example of allegory; where the great white whale is more than a very large, aquatic mammal; it becomes a symbol for eternity, evil, dread, mortality, and even death, something so great and powerful that we humans cannot even agree on what it might mean.

Homonym: When different words are pronounced, and possibly spelled, the same way (examples: to, too, two; or bat the animal, bat the stick, and bat as in the bat the eyelashes) (6)

Homophone: Where the pronunciation is the same (or close, allowing for such phonological variation as comes from accent) but standard spelling differs, as in flew (from fly), flu ("influenza") and flue (of a chimney).

Homograph: When different words are spelled identically, and possibly pronounced the same (examples: lead the metal and lead, what leaders do) (6)

Paradox: A statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true; a self-contradictory statement that at first seems true; an argument that apparently derives self-contradictory conclusions by valid deduction from acceptable premises. (10) Example :

"I do not love you except because I love you;
"I go from loving to not loving you,
"From waiting to not waiting for you
"My heart moves from cold to fire."

Pablo Neruda

Having defined terms, I would say that language ambiguity is a phenomenon we can include as an illustration of the Paradigm of Complexity. Complexity is a weave constituted by diverse events, interactions, and randomness; it is disorganized and unpredictable. For this we need to put order, discard what is uncertain, distinguish, clarify, and classify. But all those operations, necessary for language to become intelligible, put us at risk of blindness.

I could say that ambiguity in language is the uncertainty within the very core of the organized system of language.



Ambiguity and Literature

We tend to think of language as a clear and literal vehicle for accurately communicating ideas. But even when we use language literally, misunderstandings arise and meanings shift. People can be intentionally or unintentionally ambiguous. Nevertheless, when someone uses a potentially ambiguous sentence or expression, usually the intention was to express only one meaning. As we know, most words can have denotations, apparent meanings, connotations and implied or hidden meanings. Also, we often use words in a figurative way. Even though figurative language is more often used in poetry and fiction, it is still very common in ordinary speech.

Ambiguity is a poetic vehicle. It is human nature to try to find meaning within an exchange. A text is given to us and in return we give our interpretation. Our own associations give understanding of what is presented to us.

A characteristic of the late twentieth century, as well as of postmodern literature, is that certainties are continuously called into question, and thus allegory becomes a suitable form for expression. Allegory is a classic example of double discourse that avoids establishing a center within the text, because in allegory the unity of the work is provided by something that is not explicitly there. (16)

In contrast to symbols, which are generally taken to transcend the sign itself and express universal truths, allegories and metaphors divide the sign, exposing its arbitrariness. (I use "sign" here in the sense of the direct intended meaning - see below) Thus the allegorical impulse in contemporary literature can be seen as a reflection of the postmodern emphasis on the reader as co-producer, since it invites the reader's active participation in making meaning. (16)

Metaphors are indeed highly appropriate postmodern devices, because they are obvious vehicles for ambiguity. A living metaphor always carries dual meanings, the literal or sentence meaning and the conveyed or utterance meaning.

A metaphor induces comparison, but since the grounds of similarity are not always given, metaphors serve to emphasize the freedom of the reader as opposed to the authority of the writer. (16)

Historically we can point to Saussure as initiating the discussion related to the arbitrariness of the sign as described in his Course of General Linguistics. The signifier may stay the same but the signified will shift in relation to context. In terms of change over time, Saussure states "whatever the factors involved in [the] change, whether they act in isolation or in combination, they always result in a shift in the relationship between the sign and the signification." (Saussure, 1983, p. 75)

Taking into consideration why all the aforementioned could be considered as a curse, no example of literature better serves than the Bible. This special book, because of its central place at the heart of three of the world's most important religions, has been subject to enormously detailed scrutiny over the centuries in an attempt to glean meaning and to determine "once and for all" the proper way of living and worshipping.

Persecution and oppression have resulted from these interpretations, whether done in the true belief of the of the heretics' evil nature or by cynically using the Bible for political purposes, as Hitler did in his attempted annihilation of the Jews.

Where are the Cathars? Where are the Huguenots now? There is no doubt that these people, were any still surviving, would view the ambiguity of language as a curse, for their interpretations of the Bible were viewed as heresy, and they were extinguished because the same Bible was read in different ways by different men.


Ambiguity and Psychoanalysis

When Sigmund Freud refers to the difficulties in the patient narrative: "Neurotic Family Novel," it is in relation to the value of the historical truth through its discursive expression. Thus memory is contrasted with a way of forgetting; the objective of the cure is to re-write the history, similar to an archeological work, which begins with hieroglyphics to decode an epoch. (17)

The interpretation interposes meaningful words that allow the meaning to shift. The operability of the psychoanalysis relies on a semantic base, that is to say, the attribution of significance and its verbalization.

The Freudian concept of symptoms as symbols, his consideration of dreams as hieroglyphic writing, and the cure based on the spoken word, immediately established a link between psychoanalysis and linguistics. Freud presents words as bridges between unconscious and conscious thoughts. Similarly, neurosis presents a peculiar bond between disease and language, representing a usage dysfunction or a symbolization process that failed, or the existence of an archive that contains pathogenic memories. (18)

The study of oral or written slips of the tongue, the forgetting of names, the importance of polysemy and homophony for the Unconscious, the psychic mechanisms like condensation and displacement (metaphor and metonym), is a substantial part of the psychoanalytic discovery-invention-theory.

And the most important aspect is the use and significance of the language in the therapeutic discourse, that is to say, speech as a working tool.

For the discourse analysis, who is talking, how, why and when something is said, are essential. Speech is not a simple vocalization in abstract but a speech about something for someone, about someone, or about something. It is also important how significance and coherence are reached and how the mental processes and representations are involved in the comprehension. All these issues are basic to the psychoanalyst's interpretative work (17)

Therefore, homophones, mistakes provoked by polysemy, metaphors, and metonyms are considered as primary characteristics of the constitutive heterogeneity of the discourses, rather than incorrectness.

If everything we know is viewed as a transition from something else - Freud said in The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words (4), every experience must have a double meaning or for every meaning there must be two aspects. All meaning is only meaningful in reference to, and in distinction from, other meanings; there is no meaning in any stable or absolute sense. Meanings are multiple, changing, and contextual. (8)


Ambiguity and Computational Linguistics

Computational linguistics has two aims: To enable computers to be used as aids in analyzing and processing natural language, and to understand, by analogy with computers, more about how people process natural language.

One of the most significant problems in processing natural language is the problem of ambiguity. Most ambiguities escape our notice because we are very good at resolving them using context and our knowledge of the world. But computer systems do not have this knowledge, and consequently do not do a good job of making use of the context. (16)

The problem of ambiguity arises wherever computers try to cope with human language, as when a computer on the Internet retrieves information about alternative meanings of the search terms, meanings that we had no interest in. In machine translation, for a computer it is almost impossible to distinguish between the different meanings of an English word that may be expressed by very different words in the target language. Therefore all attempts to use computers alone to process human language have been frustrated by the computer's limited ability to deal with polysemy.

Efforts to solve the problem of ambiguity have focused on two potential solutions: knowledge-based, and statistical systems. In the knowledge-based approach, the system developers must encode a great deal of knowledge about the world and develop procedures to use it in determining the sense of the text.

In the statistical approach, a large corpus of annotated data is required. The system developers then write procedures that compute the most likely resolutions of the ambiguities, given the words or word classes and other easily determined conditions.

The reality is that there no operational computer system capable of determining the intended meanings of words in discourse exists today. Nevertheless, solving the polysemy problem is so important that all efforts will continue. I believe that when we achieve this goal, we will be close to attaining the holy grail of computer science, artificial intelligence. In the meanwhile, there is a lot more to teach computers about contexts and especially linguistic contexts.


Language cannot exist without ambiguity; which has represented both a curse and a blessing through the ages.

Since there is no one "truth" and no absolutes, we can only rely on relative truths arising from groups of people who, within their particular cultural systems, attempt to answer their own questions and meet their needs for survival.

Language is a very complex phenomenon. Meanings that can be taken for granted are in fact only the tip of a huge iceberg. Psychological, social and cultural events provide a moving ground on which those meanings take root and expand their branches.

Signification is always "spilling over," as John Lye says, "especially in texts which are designed to release signifying power, as texts which we call 'literature'." The overlapping meanings emerge from the tropes, ways of saying something by always saying something else. In this sense, ambiguity in literature has a very dark side, when important documents are interpreted in different ways, resulting in persecution, oppression, and death.

Giving meaning to human behavior is one of the challenges for Psychoanalysis and Psychology in general -- a risk to be taken during a psychoanalytic session. After Ferdinand de Saussure proposed that there is no mutual correspondence between a word and a thing, to ascribe significance becomes much more complicated. The meaning in each situation appears as an effect of the underlying structure of signs. These signs themselves do not have a fixed significance, the significance exists only in the individual. "Sign is only what it represents for someone." The sign appears as pure reference, as a simple trace, says Peirce. (18)

"Disambiguation" is a key concept in Computational Linguistitics. The paradox of how we tolerate semantic ambiguity and yet we seem to thrive on it, is a major question for this discipline. (3)

Computational Linguists created "Word Sense Disambiguation" with the objective of processing the different meanings of a word and selecting the meaning appropriate to the use of the word in a particular context. Over 40 years of research has not solved this problem.

At this time, there is no computer capable of storing enough knowledge to process what human knowledge has accumulated.

It can be seen, therefore, that ambiguity in language is both a blessing and a curse. I would like to say, together with Pablo Neruda, "Ambiguity, I love you because I don't love you."



(1) Clare, Richard Fraser. (Historian) Informal conversations about historal consequences of different interpretations of the Bible.

(2) Engel, S. Morris. "Fallacies & Pitfalls of Language" from Fallacies & Pitfalls of Language: The Language Trap. Ed Paperback Nov.1994.

(3) Fortier, Paul A. "Semantic Fields and Polysemy: A correspondence analysis approach" University of Manitoba. Paper.

(4) Frath, Pierre "Metaphor, polysemy and usage" Université MarcBloch, Department d'anglais. France.

(5) Freud, Sigmund "El sentido antitético de las palabras primitivas" Obras Completas Ed. Biblioteca Nueva.

(6) Fromkin, Victoria/Rodman, Robert. "An introduction to language" Ed. Harcourt.

(7) Hobbs, Jerry R. "Computers & Language" SRI International, Menlo Park, CA.

(8) Lye, John "Some characteristics of Contemporary Theory" (Lacan) Department of English, Brock University 1997/2000.

(9) Long, David "Polysemy" Article on the Internet.

(10) Merriam-Webster English Dictionary Online

(11) Miller, George "Ambiguous words" iMP Magazine. March 22, 2001.

(12) Misa, Luis Páginas Web "La complejidad," "El paradigma de la complejidad."

(13) Moore, Andrew. "Semantics, meanings, etymology and the lexicon" Web Site.

(14) Portner, Paul "Semantic Issues for Computational Linguistics" Department of Linguistics, Georgetown University, Washington. Fall 1998.

(15) Rusche, Harry "Ambiguity" English Department, Emory University.

(16) Traugott, Elisabeth Gloss. "'Conventional' and 'Dead' Metaphors Revisited." The Ubiquity of Metaphor: Metaphor in Language and Thought. Ed. Wolf Paprotte and Rena Dirven. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1985. 17-56.

(17) Vinocur de Fischbein, Susana "Formas de inscripción psíquica: el lugar del lenguaje y la expresión de los afectos en el campo psicoanalítico" Revista de Psicoanálisis, Argentina. Nov.1999 No.3.

(18) Zoroastro, Gastón A. "Problemas epistemológicos de la interpretación" Paper.

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