December 14, 2004

Precision, expressivity and ambiguity

The author of Bible Food for Hungry Christians, whose arguments about the lexical category of faith I discussed in another post, was inspired in passing to insult the English language:

I have come to see that the English language is one of the least precise and expressive languages on planet Earth. Our English dictionary often contains 10 or more definitions for the same word. Just for example, what do I mean when I say "bark"; do I mean the noise from a dog? Is it a boat? To hurt your shin? The covering on a tree? To speak sharply and loudly? To verbally advertise?

I have to admit that bark is guilty as charged -- and don't forget that it can also mean to remove the outer covering from a tree, and a few more obscure things besides. But is English really "one of the least precise and expressive languages on planet Earth?" Boasian relativists and English chauvinists can unite in rejecting this idea.

There seem to be four different issues here:

  • homophony -- how often are different words or phrases pronounced the same way?
  • word-sense ambiguity -- how many significantly different senses does a word have? and
  • lexical category ambiguity -- how many different syntactic functions can a word-form have?
  • what is the impact of local ambiguity (of whatever kind) on precision and expressivity?

The last question is the most important one, and in my opinion the answer is "no impact, or perhaps a positive one". Local ambiguity has no necessary impact on precision because a skillful writer or speaker resolves ambiguity in context as needed. Local ambiguity may even have a positive impact on expressivity, because a skillful writer or speaker can choose to take advantage of alternative interpretations, as Margaret Atwood does in this short poem:

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

The invocation of alternative meanings is more often implicit, as in the political frame wars.

All languages have a certain amount of homophony. I've never seen a cross-linguistic quantitative study -- and it wouldn't be easy to frame such a study fairly -- but I'm skeptical that English is very far from the norm in this respect. I've done some quantitative studies of the degree of homophony in the English lexicon, and I'll come back to this in another post.

Chinese is by reputation much more (locally) homophonous than English. Thus one of the translations for bark in Mandarin is , which is pronounced fei4, i.e. fei with 4th tone. Fei4 in turn has 59 matches in the Unihan database, and 44 in CEDICT, including single-syllable words glossed as "anger", "boil", "lung", "small", "coarse, sandals", "to cost, to spend, fee, wasteful, expenses", "prickly heat", "abolish, crippled", "hamadryad baboon", "dam up water with rocks", and "fermium".

In terms of word-sense ambiguity, I'm also skeptical that English is much out of the ordinary. Bark's various senses and lexical categories have different translations into French, but each of those in turn has multiple different senses, generally not shared with English. For example, écorce has senses that come out in English as tree bark, fruit rind, the earth's crust, and the cerebral cortex. And I guess I should also point out that Greek pistis , which is where the whole thing started, gets variously glossed by Liddell & Scott as trust, faith, persuasion, confidence, (commerical) credit, guarantee, assurance, argument, proof, that which is entrusted, and political protection or suzerainty.

In terms of lexical category ambiguity, languages do differ in the extent to which their word-forms are specialized for syntactic function. English has relatively little inflectional marking, and many English word-forms are ambiguous as to lexical category, though faith is not one of them. But I've never seen a convincing argument that this dimension really means anything in terms of either precision or expressivity.

Note that I'm not denying that languages can and do differ in their relative amounts of homophony, word-sense ambiguity and lexical category ambiguity. However, I doubt that English text is unusually underspecified either by its pronunciation or by its standard spelling. I'm not convinced that local measures of ambiguity have significant overall implications for the precision or the expressiveness of texts as a whole. And both common sense and everyday observation make me doubt that English is really "one of the least precise and expressive languages on planet Earth."


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 14, 2004 09:58 AM