Language is vague. Researchers have debated that this ambiguity renders language inadequate for communication. Yet, an emergent body of research suggests that ambiguity makes language more efficient with a palatable argument, no less.
Renowned linguists including the likes of Noam Chomsky have long lamented that language as we know it is poorly designed for communication. These linguists argue that language, as opposed to having a purpose of its own, is merely an offshoot of another intended regime. Linguists speculate that this primary regime could even be a method to shape our inner thoughts.
They build this theory on the basis that language is ambiguous. This viewpoint is not shared by everybody. In what seems to be a paradox, an increasing body of research points out that ambiguity makes language more clear.
Promotes Critical Thinking
Ricard Sole and Luis Seoane of the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain maintain that ambiguity is a crucial element of how language works in their latest study. If languages were too specific and definite, every word would only refer to one thing, which would render them almost unusable. The researchers believe we would struggle to communicate ideas of complexity and limit critical thinking.
Sole and Seaone studied the way humans associate words. Words bring to mind other words, either a result of similarity (synonymy) or opposition (antonymy). BBC notes “High” might make you think “low”, or “sky”, for instance. Or it might make you think “drugs”, or “royal”, which are semantic links to related concepts
Back in 2012, cognitive scientists Ted Gibson and Steven Piantadosi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) highlighted that ambiguity actually makes language more proficient. Instead of using a vast and complex vocabulary, one can reuse words with less syllables and relatively easier pronunciation.
Ambiguous Terms and Phrases
Here are a few examples of popular ambiguous statements.
"Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."
The first sentence refers to the speed with which time flies. The second sentence underscores how “fruit flies” are attracted to bananas.
“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”
A sentence constructed by Noam Chomsky in 1957 as an example of a sentence with logical form but semantics that are illogical.
"If you fall out of that window and break both your legs, don't come running to me."
Taken literally, an illogical sentence.
"Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?"
Groucho Marx makes use of the double meaning word “institution” to liken marriage to an asylum.
Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend; inside it's too hard to read."
Groucho Marx is at it once again. The first half of the sentence means, "Other than a dog, a book is a man's best friend." The rest is self-explanatory.
She cannot bear children
This sentence can mean that either ‘she’ cannot tolerate children or that she is physically incapable of conceiving.