stepgrandparents and relational ambiguity

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Jan 22 19:30:33 UTC 2009

At 11:12 AM -0800 1/22/09, Benjamin Barrett wrote:
>On Jan 22, 2009, at 11:03 AM, Laurence Horn wrote:
>>---------------------- Information from the mail header
>>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
>>Subject:      Re: stepgrandparents and relational ambiguity
>>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
>>>>>for example, has a number of these. Japanese has the bizarre case
>>>>>where "cousin" is pronounced as "itoko" but is written four
>>>>>ways depending on whether the cousin is older or younger, male or
>>>>I would submit that these aren't actual ambiguities, but instances
>>>>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
>>>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.
>My point wasn't that "brother" is ambiguous in English, but in
>Japanese. As I mentioned in another follow-up, the word "male sibling"
>in Japanese is ambiguous (if that's the right word) in Japanese. You
>can say it, but the interlocutor is left wondering whether the brother
>is older or younger. In Spanish, it seems plausible that there is no
>work-around for the second person pronoun, in which case, there is no
>case for ambiguity (if that's the right word). BB
Even within a single language, I wouldn't agree that any ambiguity is
involved here.  The fact that we have a word "murder" that entails
'kill deliberately' (among other things) doesn't make "kill"
ambiguous between intentional and unintentional readings.  Ditto with
"lion", despite the "work-around" with "lioness".  Or, for
non-privative oppositions, the fact that we can distinguish male rams
from female ewes doesn't make "sheep" ambiguous, or (worse) ambiguous
to that subset of speakers who happen to be familiar with the words
"ram" and "ewe".  ("Sheep" *is* ambiguous between singular and
plural, I'd concede, but that's a different argument.  It's just
unspecified for male/female.)  Or, getting back to relatives,
"parent" isn't ambiguous, just unspecified for the distinction that
marks fathers as distinct from mothers.


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