Ambiguous words communicate better, not worse

January 23, 2012

Noam Chomsky was wrong, say MIT cognitive scientists.

Words with multiple meanings (like “mean”) became popular because they were actually more efficient than using unambiguous new words, not as a side effect, they suggest.

Why? Because it’s more complex and time-consuming for a speaker/writer to invent new words (and explain them) than it is for the listener/reader to simply infer the meaning from the context — “a mean person” vs. “I mean” vs. “the mean age.”

So words with fewer syllables, higher frequency, and simpler pronunciation were preferred. Another reason why computational methods (used in this finding) are replacing conventional linguistics.

Ref.: Steven T. Piantadosia, Harry Tily, Edward Gibson, The communicative function of ambiguity in language, Cognition, 2012 [DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.10.004]