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Words mean things?

Cognitive scientists develop new take on old problem: why human language has so many words with multiple meanings at PhysOrg has some interesting implications for legal and technical prose as well as for the nature of some arguments in the online forums and discussions.

To understand why ambiguity makes a language more efficient rather than less so, think about the competing desires of the speaker and the listener. The speaker is interested in conveying as much as possible with the fewest possible words, while the listener is aiming to get a complete and specific understanding of what the speaker is trying to say. But as the researchers write, it is “cognitively cheaper” to have the listener infer certain things from the context than to have the speaker spend time on longer and more complicated utterances. The result is a system that skews toward ambiguity, reusing the “easiest” words. Once context is considered, it’s clear that “ambiguity is actually something you would want in the communication system,” Piantadosi says.

The difficulty arises when the speaker and listener do not have the same goal. The listener uses ambiguity to distort and twist the meaning the speaker is trying to convey. That forces the speaker to devolve into excessive explanation and definition of concepts to reduce the ambiguity.

The purpose of the study probably isn’t to understand flame wars on the I’net. It is more likely aimed at helping those working in natural language processing (NLP) so devices can respond to spoken commands more like humans do.

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