Ambiguity is the condition of having more than one meaning:
Il y a ambiguïté lorsqu’à une forme unique correspondent plusieurs significations.
Notice that Fuchs uses the word forme: ambiguity is not limited to the meanings of words. A form could just as well be a phrase (something smaller than a sentence), or a sentence.
Two things to know about ambiguity:
- It is a feature of every human language.
- Almost everything that you say, hear, read, or write today will be ambiguous in some way.
Ambiguity is absolutely pervasive and ubiquitous in language. The thing is, humans are excellent at “recovering” the intended meaning–so good at it then we only recognize ambiguity a minuscule fraction of the times that we come across it. The other thing is: a computer program that does things with language cannot ignore it. In fact, you could think of my job as being getting computers to resolve ambiguity–to choose which of multiple possible interpretations is the intended one.
Humor often works by manipulating ambiguities. It does this by forcing you to find the interpretation–the meaning–that you wouldn’t have expected. I’ll give you an example:
This is an example of a structural ambiguity. The two possible meanings correspond to two different syntactic structures. In the one where it’s Sherlock who’s using the binoculars, using binoculars is “attached to” the verb saw. In the one where it’s the man who’s using the binoculars, using binoculars is “attached to” the man. Here are the two syntactic structures, from the blog Walk in the Words:
When I teach natural language processing (see the ambiguity there? Is natural language processing a way of processing language–a natural way–or is it the processing of a kind of language–natural language? I love having an ambiguous profession), an exercise that I give students early in the semester is to go through a bunch of things–mostly comics in which ambiguity is the mechanism of the humor–and explain to me how the ambiguity works. Wanna try it yourself? Here you go.
Oh–about natural language processing? It’s processing of “natural language,” which means human languages, as opposed to computer languages. An essential difference between the two? All human languages are ambiguous, but no computer language is ambiguous.
French has lots of words that correspond to the English word when, and knowing when to use each one is essentially beyond me. (For perspective: I have a C1 level in French. That’s one higher than you need to attend–or to teach in–a French university.) The only expression that I sorta know how to use is for saying that something happens at the same time as some event. It’s lors de. Here are some examples of it in use:
Lors de ma présentation à Versailles « and so i’m very famous because I put sometimes on twitter the update of fromwhatdoweindignatetoday.xlsx ». Tha audience is applausing.
— ernst burgler (@Hernstburgler) January 22, 2018
Notice what lors de modifies here: ma présentation à Versailles, “my presentation at Versailles”–an event.
Avant son départ pour New York, la tête de la Statue de la Liberté s’expose au champ de Mars lors de l’Exposition Universelle de 1878 pic.twitter.com/xyFuB0cEoX
— Paris ZigZag (@ParisZigZag) January 18, 2018
Here lors de modifies l’Exposition Universelle de 1878–the Universal Expo of 1878. Again: an event.
Aujourd’hui on aura eu:
-Un fight entre chômeurs dans les Intermarché pour du Nutella
-Des chameaux botoxés dans un concours de beauté
-Une meuf qui se fait soulever dans le rer D comme à l’hôtel
-Et Jawad qui fait un sketch lors de son procès
Ce 25 janvier 2018 est légendaire
— 🇸🇳Houdini Jr🇸🇳 (@babsey_houdini) January 25, 2018
Lors de son procès: during his trail. Again, an event. Oh, and yes—the botox scandal during the camel beauty contest really did happen. Is happening, actually–12 offending camels found as of yesterday. Here’s the story on Les matins de France Culture.