stepgrandparents and relational ambiguity

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Thu Jan 22 16:54:24 UTC 2009

On Jan 22, 2009, at 1:22 AM, Benjamin Barrett wrote:

> ... Brother and sister as well as uncle and aunt are ambiguous in some
> cultures as you have to indicate younger or older.

this is a confused formulation of the idea here, and it uses
"ambiguous" in a way i object to.

to start with, it's *linguistic expressions* (like "brother") that can
be said to be ambiguous, not concepts.  Now, "brother" is a word of
*english*; it can't be ambiguous in some other culture, because the
word doesn't occur in the language associated with that culture.

what you're trying to say is this: english has a single word "brother"
with a denotation that some other languages lack a single word for.
instead, these languages have two (or more) words that together cover
the territory of english "brother" -- say, one word glossable in
english as 'older brother' and another glossable as 'younger
brother'.  it doesn't follow that speakers of such a language lack the
*concept* BROTHER; they just have to refer to the concept by means of
a complex expression.

it also doesn't follow that the english word "brother" is ambiguous,
as between OLDER-BROTHER and YOUNGER-BROTHER.  instead, english
"brother" is neutral, vague, or unspecified, with respect to this
distinction.  the difference between vagueness and true ambiguity is
explored at some length in an old paper by jerry sadock and me,
available on-line at:

(the distinction wasn't original with us, of course.)

"brother" is one of the examples we looked at in this paper.  the
(somewhat more complex) cases of "uncle" and "brother-in-law" are


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