Lexical Ambiguity

Topics: Ambiguity, Semantics, Linguistics Pages: 8 (2592 words) Published: July 1, 2011
Lexical Ambiguity

“What you see is what you believe on the basis of what you have conditioned yourself to accept. Your negative will be someone’s positive.” – Pushkar Shinde

I’m always told since time immemorial that I have to speak and express myself because I have something to say but being an English major brought me in a point of realization wherein I learned how hard it is to be entirely understood. As my professor had always told me, meanings are in people, not in words.

Language, being a system of communication, has a very delicate job to perform, particularly when it is being used by us humans. Words in fact communicate a whole personality and that’s why their correct usage has so much importance. But no language in the world has so far been able to claim that it is capable of communicating all that a human wants to communicate to another human. Ambiguity will always be present.

Ambiguity, as a language phenomenon, has a negative effect and some people consider it a curse. I could not blame them. People can have major misunderstandings by thinking someone is meaning one thing when their real meaning is totally different. Many times, these misunderstandings result in comedic action, but they can cause major trouble. Just as different cultures have varying customs and can insult one another if that is not understood and ambiguous language does the same. Words can cause miscommunications, misunderstandings, and basically just a lot of confusion. Ambiguity of language, then, seems to be at the focal of conflicting interests that abhor precision and accountability. It is the possible root of our chaos and could lead to heinous event such as war, terrorism, racism, etc.

Ambiguity will always be a part of language complexities. If ambiguity is employed properly and appropriately, it will produce a magical effect. I will focus in 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. Characterizing Ambiguity

One of the building blocks of language comprehension is the ability to access the meaning of words as they are encountered and to develop an interpretation that is consistent with the context. This process becomes particularly interesting at a choice point in understanding, as is the case with lexically ambiguous words. When a word has multiple meanings, one meaning must be selected while somehow retaining the possibility of using the alternative meaning. Additionally, the working memory capacity of individual readers affects their ability to maintain various representations in the process of understanding a sentence (Miyake et al., 1994). Many words are semantically ambiguous, and can refer to more than one concept. For example, bark can refer either to a part of a tree, or to the sound made by a dog. To understand such words, we must disambiguate between these different interpretations, normally on the basis of the context in which the word occurs. However, ambiguous words can also be recognized in isolation; when presented with a word like bark we are able to identify an appropriate meaning rapidly, and are often unaware of any other meanings.

Words can be ambiguous in different ways. The two meanings of a word like bark are semantically unrelated, and seem to share the same written and spoken form purely by chance. Other words are ambiguous between highly related senses, which are systematically related to each other. For example, the word twist can refer to a bend in a road, an unexpected ending to a story, a type of dance, and other related concepts.

The linguistic literature makes a distinction between these two types of ambiguity, and refers to them as homonymy and polysemy (Lyons, 1977; Cruse, 1986). Homonyms, such as the two meanings of bark, are said to be different words that by chance...
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