Ambiguity has long been considered a problem in language. In almost every tongue, commonly used words often possess multiple meanings that are only made clear in a proper context. For those who fail to grasp the context of a message, ambiguous words often cause miscommunication and misunderstandings, leading some linguists to believe that language doesn’t function as the most effective means of communicating. In theory, the best method of communication would attach only one meaning to each word.
However, a new study by MIT cognitive scientists argues that ambiguity may be the most efficient way to communicate after all. Instead of speakers having to invent new sounds for single-use words or memorize a large vocabulary, they can simply reuse small words that listeners can easily disambiguate through social or verbal cues.
Ambiguity can get pretty messy, especially with words like “head.” Consider this: if you were in the military, you might be head (leader) of a platoon. On Fridays after work, you could head (travel) over to a local bar and sip the head (foam) off a beer. Soon you would have to empty your bladder in the nearest head (bathroom). If you drink too many beers, you might spend the next day nursing an aching head (upper part of the body). Yet for native speakers of English, sorting out these various uses of “head” poses virtually no problem. Each use of the word occurs in its own unique context, allowing listeners to immediately infer its meaning.
Realizing that context can effectively reveal a word’s meaning, researchers decided to test the hypothesis that a language’s simplest and most commonly used words possess the most ambiguity. To do this, they analyzed samples from three languages—English, Dutch and German—noting the sounds and structure of each one and comparing various word properties to numbers of word meanings. What they discovered confirmed their hypothesis: the most frequently occurring words with the fewest syllables and easiest pronunciations had the greatest number of meanings in all three languages.
As to why humans naturally turn to ambiguity, researchers say it’s a matter of efficiency. If every word in a language had only one specific meaning, speakers would spend a great deal of time trying to get their message across to listeners—not to mention the complexity of sounds they would have to utter to form so many unique words. In the end, it is “cognitively cheaper” for listeners to derive a word’s meaning from its context. And the cheapest option of all is to reuse a language’s simplest words.
While ambiguity proves to be efficient and highly desirable in human communication, it holds challenging implications for computer scientists attempting to develop natural language processing (NLP), which is commonly used in automated customer service. NPL, a result of linguistics research, allows computers to understand and respond appropriately to human messages. Ambiguity hampers the process because programming a computer to possess the same “sophisticated cognitive mechanisms for disambiguating” through context “or even some sort of approximation” of them is nearly impossible, says the study’s lead author, Steven Piantadosi. However, the study allows scientists to better understand the evolutionary process of language, which may hold a key to unlocking its secrets.