stepgrandparents and relational ambiguity

Benjamin Barrett gogaku at IX.NETCOM.COM
Fri Jan 23 03:42:39 UTC 2009

On Jan 22, 2009, at 7:15 PM, 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 9:39 PM -0500 1/22/09, Victor wrote:
>> I am rather concerned about a dictionary being cited as proof of
>> lack of
>> semantic ambiguity. It seems the definition in Black's is a bit of an
>> oversimplification in order to provide professionals with simple
>> concise
>> quotations. If this were sufficient to understand the meaning of
>> these
>> terms, textbooks on criminal law would be substantially shorter.
>> I would say exactly the opposite. "Murder" is *very* ambiguous in
>> legal
>> context, leading some states to redefine crimes related to a loss of
>> life without using the word "murder" or, occasionally, without
>> referring
>> to "manslaughter". Consider the states, for example, that have
>> replaced
>> all legal code references to "murder" with "intentional homicide" of
>> various degrees, followed by a few more articles that refer to
>> "negligent homicide" of varying degrees.  This is followed by, for
>> example, "vehicular homicide", which, again, can vary by degrees,
>> "felony murder" which is define without actually using that phrase
>> (although it is a lot less ambiguous than "murder" by itself).
>> There is
>> no reference to "justifiable killing" at all, but there are
>> mitigations
>> and defenses one can apply in homicide cases. This "murder" avoidance
>> seems to suggest an existing ambiguity that needed to be rectified.
>> But all of this is not relevant to my original question. Referring to
>> someone as having been "killed" is ambiguous as to whether the
>> "killing"
>> has been performed by another person or by an inanimate object
>> (e.g., a
>> falling rock, or something that is not even an object in a physical
>> sense, such as a poison or a "heart attack") or by an act ("killed
>> by a
>> fall from the roof"--although coroner's reports would usually avoid
>> such
>> terminology). But is this a structural ambiguity or merely a
>> question of
>> specificity.
> Maybe this is a purely terminological dispute.  Like Arnold, I find
> it useful to distinguish between true ambiguity and lack of
> specification/underspecification.   There is no compelling evidence
> from crossed-reading tests or other sources that compels us to regard
> "kill" as ambiguous between the instrument of the killing, the
> motivation or intention of the killer, etc.  Yes, someone can be
> killed by a falling rock or an assassin, but there's no reason to
> consider "kill" as ambiguous for that reason, any more than because
> the killing could take place in New Haven, New York, or the New
> Hebrides.  This is simply not a lexical ambiguity or homonymy or
> homophony of the kind we have in "bank" vs. "bank", "bear" vs.
> "bear", "bat" vs. "bat", etc.  But if you find it more convenient to
> apply "ambiguity" as a cover term for both kinds of lexical
> relations--the "uncle" kind (that we're calling underspecification)
> and the "bat" kind (that we're calling ambiguity or homonymy)--that's
> all there is to it.

Using the bank example, I can see how saying "male sibling" in
Japanese is not ambiguous. But the same reasoning would seem to apply
to "stepgrandparent". Because only the sibilng example was discussed
and not the stepgrandparent example, my understanding of this thread
was that "brother" was claimed to be unambiguous in Japanese, whereas
"stepgrandparent" is not in English. If they are on the same footing,
I have no beef. BB

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