Thursday, January 19, 2012

Language and Communications: Are Words the best Solution?

Why did language evolve? While the answer might seem obvious, as a way for individuals to exchange information, linguists and other students of communication have debated this question for years.

Many prominent linguists, including MIT’s Noam Chomsky, have argued that language is, in fact, poorly designed for communication. Such a use, they say, is merely a byproduct of a system that probably evolved for other reasons, perhaps for structuring our own private thoughts.

To provide evidence, these linguists point to the existence of ambiguity: In a system optimized for conveying information between a speaker and a listener, they argue, each word would have just one meaning, eliminating any chance of confusion or misunderstanding.

Now, a group of MIT cognitive scientists has turned this idea on its head. In a new theory, they claim that ambiguity actually makes language more efficient, by allowing for the reuse of short, efficient sounds that listeners can easily disambiguate with the help of context.

“Various people have said that ambiguity is a problem for communication,” says Ted Gibson, an MIT professor of cognitive science and senior author of a paper describing the research to appear in the journal Cognition. “But once we understand that context disambiguates, then ambiguity is not a problem, it’s something you can take advantage of, because you can reuse easy [words] in different contexts over and over again.”

Lead author of the paper is Steven Piantadosi PhD ’11; Harry Tily, a postdoc in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, is another co-author.

What do you ‘mean’?
For a somewhat ironic example of ambiguity, consider the word “mean.” It can mean, of course, to indicate or signify, but it can also refer to an intention or purpose (“I meant to go to the store”); something offensive or nasty; or the mathematical average of a set of numbers.

Adding an ‘s’ introduces even more potential definitions: an instrument or method (“a means to an end”), or financial resources (“to live within one’s means”).

But virtually no speaker of English gets confused when he or she hears the word “mean.” That’s because the different senses of the word occur in such different contexts as to allow listeners to infer its meaning nearly automatically.

Given the disambiguating power of context, the researchers hypothesized that languages might harness ambiguity to reuse words, most likely, the easiest words for language processing systems.

Building on observation and previous studies, they posited that words with fewer syllables, high frequency and the simplest pronunciations should have the most meanings.

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