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Thread: Ambiguity

  1. #1
    Boomlala is offline Newbie
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    Default Ambiguity

    First of all, hello there!

    Anyway, I came here to ask a question about ambiguity.

    I am currently in a discussion with someone wether or not 'football' is more ambiguous than 'soccer'. I (a non-native English speaker) am convinced football is more ambiguous, since its exact meaning depends on the cultural context it is used in (USA vs UK, aswell as others [e.g. Gaelic football]). My discussion partner (a native English speaker) however claims that football is less ambiguous since the relation between association football (~soccer) and the word football is clear (foot+ball), and soccer is more vague.

    I believe his interpretation of ambiguity if faulty, since that would give it a rather subjective quota (When is something vague? When is it clear?), and it would also contradict the ambiguity of biweekly. Biweekly means both 'two times a week' and 'every two weeks', fortnightly only means 'every two weeks'. According to his interpretation of ambiguity, that would mean biweekly is less ambiguous (biweekly is clearly related to 2 weeks, fortnightly not immediately).

    And such I am asking: what IS ambiguity? The fact that a word can mean 2 different things in different contexts, or the fact that a word is not (as) clearly related to it's meaning?

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    susiedqq is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: Ambiguity

    Sorry - I don't think the subject matter (football and soccer) fits the discussion for the word ambiguous.

  3. #3
    Raymott's Avatar
    Raymott is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: Ambiguity

    Quote Originally Posted by Boomlala View Post
    First of all, hello there!

    Anyway, I came here to ask a question about ambiguity.

    I am currently in a discussion with someone wether or not 'football' is more ambiguous than 'soccer'. I (a non-native English speaker) am convinced football is more ambiguous, since its exact meaning depends on the cultural context it is used in (USA vs UK, aswell as others [e.g. Gaelic football]). My discussion partner (a native English speaker) however claims that football is less ambiguous since the relation between association football (~soccer) and the word football is clear (foot+ball), and soccer is more vague.

    I believe his interpretation of ambiguity if faulty, since that would give it a rather subjective quota (When is something vague? When is it clear?), and it would also contradict the ambiguity of biweekly. Biweekly means both 'two times a week' and 'every two weeks', fortnightly only means 'every two weeks'. According to his interpretation of ambiguity, that would mean biweekly is less ambiguous (biweekly is clearly related to 2 weeks, fortnightly not immediately).

    And such I am asking: what IS ambiguity? The fact that a word can mean 2 different things in different contexts, Yes - or more to the point, it has 2 different meanings in the same context . or the fact that a word is not (as) clearly related to it's meaning? No
    "Football" is more ambiguous than "soccer". The term "soccer" applies to only one game. "Football" applies to a lot of games.
    Ambiguity has nothing to do with the origin of the word. It has everything to do with whether the word has a clear meaning in a certain context.

    It's quite possible that your discussion partner is arguing about something else apart from ambiguity, for example "What should we call the game?"

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    Default Re: Ambiguity

    Quote Originally Posted by Boomlala View Post
    First of all, hello there!

    Anyway, I came here to ask a question about ambiguity.

    I am currently in a discussion with someone wether or not 'football' is more ambiguous than 'soccer'. I (a non-native English speaker) am convinced football is more ambiguous, since its exact meaning depends on the cultural context it is used in (USA vs UK, aswell as others [e.g. Gaelic football]). My discussion partner (a native English speaker) however claims that football is less ambiguous since the relation between association football (~soccer) and the word football is clear (foot+ball), and soccer is more vague.

    I believe his interpretation of ambiguity if faulty, since that would give it a rather subjective quota (When is something vague? When is it clear?), and it would also contradict the ambiguity of biweekly. Biweekly means both 'two times a week' and 'every two weeks', fortnightly only means 'every two weeks'. According to his interpretation of ambiguity, that would mean biweekly is less ambiguous (biweekly is clearly related to 2 weeks, fortnightly not immediately).

    And such I am asking: what IS ambiguity? The fact that a word can mean 2 different things in different contexts, or the fact that a word is not (as) clearly related to it's meaning?
    The Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners says:
    "ambiguity noun
    1 [countable] something that is not clear because it has more than one possible meaning
    There seem to be some ambiguities in the rules.
    1a [uncountable] a lack of clear and exact use of words, so that more than one meaning is possible
    Try to avoid ambiguity and keep your comments brief."

    CD-ROM © Macmillan Publishers Limited 2007. Text © A&C Black Publishers Ltd 2007.

    If something has more than one meaning, it is ambiguous. "Football" in conversations between people from the USA and from most of the rest of the world, and in writing, is always ambiguous: unless one knows what brand of English the speaker is using, one cannot be sure whether the speaker means "American football" or "soccer", neither of which is at all ambiguous. You are correct and your native English-speaker opponent is incorrect.

    I don't know what "Gaelic football" is, but if it isn't American football or soccer, then the word "football" is even more ambiguous ("triguous" [Yes, you can find this word on the Net if you use a good search engine]) because now it has three distinct meanings.

  5. #5
    Clark is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: Ambiguity

    Interesting discussion. First, we need to decide whether we are talking about what we associate with a word from a pragmatical perspective or how the meaning of a word is motivated by the morphemes it is composed of.
    Last edited by Clark; 25-Dec-2008 at 13:44.

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    Thumbs down Re: Ambiguity

    Quote Originally Posted by Clark View Post
    Interesting discussion. First, we need to decide whether we are talking about what we associate with a word from a pragmatical perspective or how the meaning of a word is motivated by the morphemes it is composed of.
    This is just the sort of lexical gobbldygook that students of English do not need.

    Had it been written in plain, simple, and clear English, it might have said something like this: "First we need to know whether 'ambiguity' refers to what a word means when it is used in a specific context in a particular sentence, e.g., 'Pele and Joe Namath were famous football players', or whether it refers to what the word means when the final spoken morpheme makes the meaning ambiguous, e.g., the final /-s/ in the phrase 'the cell phone's / phones'} covers'."

    Pele played soccer and Namath played American football, so "football" is lexically ambiguous. (I imagine that that constitutes a form of "pragmatical ambiguity", whatever that phrase might mean.)

    Here in Taiwan, it is possible to buy a variety of different covers for just about any cell phone (also called "mobile phone" in British English), so without telling the listener how many cell phones the speaker is talking about, the spoken phrase "the cell phone's / phones'} covers" is morphemically ambiguous: the listener may not know whether the speaker is talking about many covers for many cell phones or many covers for one cell phone.

    This lengthy explanation may seem verbose when compared with Clark's reply, but at least it says what it means, means what it says, says something clear, and is not stilted, pretentious, semantically recondite, or otherwise obtuse. It doesn't require a dictionary and a linguist's explanation to understand. My junior high school son, whose two best languages are Taiwanese and Mandarin Chinese, would understand it were I to say it to him and define the technical terms, despite his inability to read English at this level.
    Last edited by huizhe; 26-Dec-2008 at 15:17. Reason: verbose phrase cut from 5 words to 2

  7. #7
    Clark is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: Ambiguity

    OK, I'm taking up the gauntlet.

    Quote Originally Posted by huizhe View Post
    This is just the sort of lexical gobbldygook that students of English do not need.

    I wouldn't be so categorical. One man's gobbldygook may be another man's find.


    Had it been written in plain, simple, and clear English,

    I'm sorry my message seemed too complicated to you. That hadn't been my intention, believe me. But linguistics is no simple matter, and sometimes you have to employ big words to express your idea adequately.

    it might have said something like this: "First we need to know whether 'ambiguity' refers to what a word means when it is used in a specific context in a particular sentence, e.g., 'Pele and Joe Namath were famous football players', or whether it refers to what the word means when the final spoken morpheme makes the meaning ambiguous, e.g., the final /-s/ in the phrase 'the cell phone's / phones'} covers'."

    Pele played soccer and Namath played American football, so "football" is lexically ambiguous. (I imagine that that constitutes a form of "pragmatical ambiguity", whatever that phrase might mean.)

    Here in Taiwan, it is possible to buy a variety of different covers for just about any cell phone (also called "mobile phone" in British English), so without telling the listener how many cell phones the speaker is talking about, the spoken phrase "the cell phone's / phones'} covers" is morphemically ambiguous: the listener may not know whether the speaker is talking about many covers for many cell phones or many covers for one cell phone.

    This lengthy explanation may seem verbose

    Indeed, it is! The idea is too "plain, simple and clear" to be expressed in so many words. (A certain lack of practice, I guess).

    when compared with Clark's reply, but at least it says what it means, means what it says, says something clear, and is not stilted, pretentious, semantically recondite, or otherwise obtuse. It doesn't require a dictionary and a linguist's explanation to understand.

    But this is a linguistic forum, isn't it?

    My junior high school son, whose two best languages are Taiwanese and Mandarin Chinese, would understand it were I to say it to him and define the technical terms, despite his inability to read English at this level.

    However, we are not high school students, are we?
    Now, about the matter itself. What is the pragmatical component of the meaning of a word? It is information about the object a given word refers to. It could be information of any type, practical, scientific, situational. If we take the word 'football' it could be: in what countries this game is played, what the history of the game is, the speaker's attitude towards this game, etc. Some linguists object to including that type of information in the semantics of a word. They believe that the meaning of a word is 'a naive notion' (L. Shcherba) which is shared by all members of a language community, and which is devoid of the encyclopedic facts associated with the word or of any personal attitude that the speaker might have towards the specific object the given word refers to in the given situation.
    Would you like me to go on?

  8. #8
    CHOMAT is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: Ambiguity

    Boomlala seems to allude to the referential accuracy of one word: soccer is a particular game.
    His friend relies on morphology and lexical components and supposes words can be more easily understood since their morphemes are transparent = foot+ball. This componential view is of course tricky just as etymology can be.

    I also agree with Raymott in so far as Boomlala and his partner argued about two different notions : Ambiguity and(an alleged) transparency.

  9. #9
    Clark is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: Ambiguity

    Quote Originally Posted by CHOMAT View Post
    Boomlala seems to allude to the referential accuracy of one word: soccer is a particular game.
    His friend relies on morphology and lexical components and supposes words can be more easily understood since their morphemes are transparent = foot+ball. This componential view is of course tricky just as etymology can be.

    I also agree with Raymott in so far as Boomlala and his partner argued about two different notions : Ambiguity and(an alleged) transparency.
    Exactly! This whole confusion results from our trying to compare those two words from different perspectives. I used the term 'motivation', you refer to it as 'transparency'. If we approach them from this angle, 'football' definitely has a more 'transparent' / 'motivated' meaning, at least in present-day English.
    Before we start discussing which of them is 'more ambiguous', don't you think that, first, we need to prove the possibility their misunderstanding in a certain context, and then analyse what may have caused that misunderstanding?
    What is absolutely obvious is that 'soccer' has one denotatum, and 'football' - more than one.

  10. #10
    CHOMAT is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: Ambiguity

    Quote Originally Posted by Clark View Post
    Exactly! This whole confusion results from our trying to compare those two words from different perspectives. I used the term 'motivation', you refer to it as 'transparency'. If we approach them from this angle, 'football' definitely has a more 'transparent' / 'motivated' meaning, at least in present-day English.
    Before we start discussing which of them is 'more ambiguous', don't you think that, first, we need to prove the possibility their misunderstanding in a certain context, and then analyse what may have caused that misunderstanding?

    Is not the problem related to hyponymy and hyperonymy ?: Football is the general term for any of various games played with an oval or round ball.
    Then soccer as well as Rugby ( also called Canadian football) and of course Gaelic football ( so stimulating !) belong to the class- football.
    -->The generic term has then replaced the specific term.
    The term football has been borrowed by many European countries to refer to soccer. In French , soccer is unused except for some video games. There are Video game players who might have met the word but it remains obscure to them or at least it is synonymous with football. (Strangely enough soccer appears in French dictionnaries)


    Soccer may have spread as the most popular and international form of football historically speaking in Europe and in South America .
    -->the form football might have been easily assimilated into other languages endowed with similar morphemes -like in German by instance- more than soccer which remains undistinct as to its origin Association Football--+ er.

    -->In America, I guess soccer is used as opposed to American football.
    I therefore suppose that two Americans clearly know what they refer to when talking about football. (= American football). True also for the Australians

    In other parts of the world , e.g. in Europe , the difference is not so clear. And in many contexts, like Americans meeting continental Europeans , football , at the outset, may appear rather ambiguous:
    I've played football for ten years. In such a conversation, the co-speakers probably know the origin of the speaker and may adjust the 'denotum' or demand some precisions ( What kind of football do you mean ?)

    I also guess that if Europeans from the continent meet and talk about football they might share a common extra-linguistic reference that is 'soccer'.

    I've played football for ten years, I'm not from America , the ball is round and players are never off-side . What football am I referring to ? That is my final guess to ease... the tension



    What is absolutely obvious is that 'soccer' has one denotatum, and 'football' - more than one.
    The French coined a word with two English lexemes : Baby-foot: What does this word refer to ?

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