stepgrandparents and relational ambiguity

Benjamin Barrett gogaku at IX.NETCOM.COM
Sat Jan 24 19:53:40 UTC 2009

On Jan 24, 2009, at 9:31 AM, Arnold Zwicky wrote:

> 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.

The OP was originally talking about an issue with stepgrandparents in
that you can't tell at which level the step-part is introduced. Among
other items, I said that family terms such as brother in Japanese and
uncle/aunt in Cantonese are also ambiguous.

Whether the OP agrees that these are relevant to what he is looking
for isn't clear as he hasn't responded about this.

In the meantime, the context of the OP got cut out of my quoted
posting so that it appeared I was making a strong statement about
ambiguity in general. It seems that others were arguing about
ambiguity in general while I was trying to demonstrate that "brother
(male sibling)" is on the same footing as stepgrandparents.

As to "male sibling," there is a word that can probably be classified
as a single word, though it is difficult to tell in Japanese. Of
course, "male sibling" also means "male siblings" because of the lack
(normally) of plurals in Japanese. If you were to say "I have one
'male sibling'" there's definitely a question left in the
interlocutor's mind about the relative age.  Again though, the OP
hasn't responded, so we don't know if that is relevant to his research.

As for me, I'm looking forward to reading your paper on ambiguity when
I have a chance. As BZ points out, there is definitely some ambiguity
between technical and layperson use, but I was never really clear on
the technical meaning.


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