stepgrandparents and relational ambiguity

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Sat Jan 24 17:31:07 UTC 2009

On Jan 22, 2009, at 11:12 AM, Benjamin Barrett wrote:

> 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.

now i'm thoroughly confused.  from your earlier posting, i took you to
be saying that Japanese has a noun meaning 'older brother' and a noun
meaning 'younger brother', but no noun meaning 'brother' in general.
now you talk about "the word "male sibling" in Japanese".

i can make some sense of this if you're using the word "word" loosely
here and are referring to a two-part *expression* of Japanese (with
one part meaning 'male' and one part meaning 'sibling').  if so, then
this two-part expression would not be ambiguous as between older
brother and younger brother, but unspecified as to this distinction.

a partial parallel in English: English has the sex-specified nouns
"brother" and "sister", but also the noun "sibling", which is
unspecified as to sex, not ambiguous; "two siblings" can refer to two
brothers, two sisters, or one of each sex.

part of the problem in this thread is that people are falling back on
an ordinary-language, non-technical use of the word "ambiguous", where
an expression is said to be ambiguous if two or more differences in
understanding can be discerned for it (especially where the
differences in understanding are salient for you).  this usage
embraces ambiguity in the technical sense, vagueness, multiplicity of
referents for referential expressions, differences in speaker
intentions (sarcasm or not?, etc.), and much else.  semanticists do
not use "ambiguous" in this very broad way.


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