Why Are Languages So Ambiguous?

An Invited Lecture in the Series on Language Sciences Across Disciplines
Thu, 04/27/2017 - 4:30pm
Orchard View Room, Discovery Building, Wisconsin Institute for Discovery
Speaker and Affiliation: 
Tom Wasow, Stanford University
When computational linguists in the 1970s started building systems big enough to test on corpora of actual usage, they found that the systems were getting far more parses than they had expected for all but the simplest sentences.  Most of these turned out to be linguistically justifiable parses, although the meanings assigned were often bizarre.  Linguists and philosophers of language have generally assumed that ambiguity hinders efficient communication, as expressed most explicitly and succinctly in Grice's maxim, "Avoid ambiguity."  Since languages are constantly changing, why haven't languages become unambiguous or at least less ambiguous?  One reason may be that language has some uses that favor ambiguity.  Another is that eliminating ambiguity would slow down communication.  This talk examines various types of ambiguity in English and considers their possible functions.


Eric Raimy, raimy@wisc.edu
Department of Linguistics and Language Institute