stepgrandparents and relational ambiguity

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Jan 22 19:21:22 UTC 2009

At 10:09 AM -0800 1/22/09, Benjamin Barrett wrote:
>Thank you for the detailed explanations. I do now recall the bank
>Based on the explanation, I think my point still stands (though maybe
>I'm still getting it wrong), that brother/sister/uncle/aunt are
>ambiguous in some cultures. I can certainly say "male sibling" in
>Japanese, but it's ambiguous as to whether the sibling is younger or
>older.  BB

I'm still not sure I can see why that would make "brother" or
"sister" ambiguous.  Is "sibling" itself ambiguous in English (since
it applies to brothers and sisters)?  Is "relative" (applying to
mothers, sons, brothers-in-law)?  These all involve words which do
not require distinctions other words (the ones in the parentheses)
make explicitly.  Why is "brother" any different in failing to
distinguish between older vs. younger ones (or, for that matter,
brown-eyed vs. blue-eyed ones)?  The cross-linguistic aspect isn't
really relevant, or else you'd have to say that "brother" is
ambiguous between older and younger simply because another language
happens to distinguish the two lexically; on that basis we wouldn't
know whether "twin" is ambiguous between 'fraternal twin' and
'identical twin' until we've looked at all the languages in the world
and learned that none of them happened to encode this distinction
lexically (as a basic level term--obviously we can distinguish
"younger brother" and "older brother"--or "brown-eyed brother" and
"blue-eyed brother").


>On Jan 22, 2009, at 8:54 AM, Arnold Zwicky wrote:
>>On Jan 22, 2009, at 1:22 AM, Benjamin Barrett wrote:
>>>... Brother and sister as well as uncle and aunt are ambiguous in
>>>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
>The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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