Monday, April 29, 2013

Why isn’t language clearer?

Anyone who has spent any amount of time with me knows that I am addicted to puns.  I know that they make everyone groan, but I just can’t help playing around with the various meanings of words.  I remember several years ago going to the airport and forgetting that I had a yogurt in my backpack.  The TSA folks pulled the pack out of the X-ray scanner and took the yogurt from me, because it violated the rules for what you can get into an airport.  A few days later, I was complaining about this to my lab meeting, and couldn’t resist adding, “I guess they were biased against my culture.”

For punsters, the fact that words and phrases, and sentences can take on many meanings is a blessing.  But, why aren’t languages clearer?  Wouldn’t it be better if every word had just one meaning?  That would seem to avoid a lot of problems.

There are a number of reasons why languages aren’t much clearer than they are.  I’ll focus on just three of them.

First, words in language necessarily lose some information about the things they describe.  When you point at a cute four-legged object on the street, and say, “Look at the dog!” you are focused on some of its properties like having four legs, being furry, and barking.  If you said, “Look at the poodle.” instead, then you would have added some information about it.  And if you said, “Look at the animal.” then you would have been talking more generally.  It is helpful to have these different levels for talking about objects, but that means that from the beginning we have a choice about how specifically or abstractly we want to talk about things. 

You might think that we should always talk about things as specifically as possible.  But how specifically should that be?  For people who know that particular poodle, they should say, “Look at Fido!”  But that might not even be specific enough.  Perhaps we should have a particular word for Fido each day, because he is a slightly different dog all the time.  Someone else who doesn’t know that this is Fido might be better of calling it a poodle, but there might be still other people who don’t know enough about dogs to distinguish the breed. So, we usually try to use words that we assume everyone else will understand, but are still specific enough to convey enough information.  As Roger Brown pointed out in a classic paper in 1958, that leads us to use words at a medium level of abstraction like dog rather than specific words like poodle or general ones like animal.

Second, even if we could settle on the way we wanted to talk about things, it is efficient for us to be able to reuse the words and sounds of language.  This issue was discussed in a 2012 paper by Steven Piantadosi, Harry Tily, and Edward Gibson in the journal Cognition.  As they point out, languages have thousands of words, but a much smaller number of sounds that are used to make up those words.  Words that we use frequently, tend to be short.  That is why the most common words like articles, prepositions, and pronouns all tend to be one and two syllable words.

As words get more complex and are used less frequently, the words also get longer.  That is why the word complicated is longer than the word the.  However, if every word had to be completely unique, then some words might get very long.  As it turns out, though, in most cases it is pretty obvious what you’re talking about, because the situation helps everyone to understand what is being said.  The word cap is used to mean a number of things including a physical hat that someone can wear as well as a limit placed on something.  While these meanings are related, they are not identical, yet we don’t confuse them.  That allows us to re-use short words and makes our speech more efficient.

Finally, it is helpful to be able to say things indirectly.  When you have to give criticism, there are times when you can soften it or at least inject some humor by speaking indirectly.  Rather than telling someone that they really messed up a situation, you can say, “This may not have been your finest moment.”  If everything could only be conveyed in a single direct way, then there wouldn’t be opportunities to avoid direct confrontation.

Of course, this ambiguity can lead to unintended humor.  There are many examples of newspaper headlines that must have seemed perfectly clear to editors when they were written, but can be read in many ways.  For example, “Kids make nutritious snacks.” and “Killer sentenced to die for second time in 10 years.”  And a colleague of mine has a great ‘recommendation letter’ in which every sentence is one that seems positive on the surface, but could be read less positively, like “You’ll be lucky if you can get him to work for you.” 

From a practical standpoint, this means that before you send anything out to be read by a large audience, it is useful to get someone to read it from a fresh perspective to make sure that you haven’t missed an alternative way of interpreting what you have just said.