stepgrandparents and relational ambiguity

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Jan 22 19:03:44 UTC 2009

At 8:48 AM -0800 1/22/09, Benjamin Barrett wrote:
>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 as you have to indicate younger or older. I think Cantonese,
>>>for example, has a number of these. Japanese has the bizarre case
>>>where "cousin" is pronounced as "itoko" but is written four different
>>>ways depending on whether the cousin is older or younger, male or
>>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.
>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. It would seem that my interlocutors find the
>story ambiguous, though, because it's not clear whether the brother/
>sister is older or younger.

And if you're speaking French (or Russian, or German, or Spanish, or
Italian, or...), you'd have to decide what your relationship is to me
before you'd know whether to address me with the second person
familiar or the second person formal.  But that doesn't make "you"
ambiguous between the two in English, just unspecified with respect
to that distinction.


>>>Another sort of ambiguity is "my grandmother," one that implies that
>>>you have only one living, though that's not necessarily the case.
>>Any more than "my sister"?  I can say I got an e-mail from my sister
>>about X without implying that I have just one sister.  (Actually, I
>>have none, but...)
>For someone unfamiliar with your family, saying "I got an e-mail from
>my sister" can make it sound as if you have only one as Joel
>colorfully illustrates. BB
>The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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