stepgrandparents and relational ambiguity

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Thu Jan 22 17:24:20 UTC 2009

On Jan 22, 2009, at 8:48 AM, Benjamin Barrett wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Benjamin Barrett <gogaku at IX.NETCOM.COM>
> Subject:      Re: stepgrandparents and relational ambiguity
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> On Jan 22, 2009, at 8:24 AM, Laurence Horn wrote:
>> At 1:22 AM -0800 1/22/09, Benjamin Barrett wrote:
>>> Brother and sister as well as uncle and aunt are ambiguous in some
>>> cultures...
>> I would submit that these aren't actual ambiguities, but instances of
>> vagueness or underspecification.  The standard identity-of-sense
>> tests for ambiguity ("I have three uncles" vs. "I visited two banks"
>> or "Neither Sally nor Beth can bear children") don't respect these
>> differences in ways that someone can be an uncle or sister or
>> brother-in-law, and the fact that other languages make a distinction
>> we don't isn't decisive.
> I'm not familiar with those tests and have trouble seeing the
> ambiguities in the samples.

here's how it goes.  "bank" as a noun can refer either to a riverbank
or to a financial institution. "two banks" can then refer either to
two riverbanks or to two financial instutions.  but it can't refer to
one riverbank and one financial institution (the "crossed
understanding"), except as a joke.  that's an indication that the
difference in the understandings of "bank" is a true ambiguity; there
are two different lexical items "bank" here.

contrast "brother", which can refer either to a younger brother or to
an older brother.  "two brothers" can then refer either to two younger
brothers or to two older brothers -- or to one of each (the "crossed
understanding").  that's an indication that the difference in the
understandings of "brother" is a matter of vagueness rather than
ambiguity; there's only one lexical item here (though there are other
lexical items "brother").

> I often have the problem of trying to say brother or sister in
> Japanese and because the relative ages are not provided in English. I
> have to either guess or else try to explain it without ruining the
> point I'm trying to make.

a classic problem that arises whenever a language obliges a
distinction (in lexical choice, inflectional form, etc.).


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