When It Comes to Language, Ambiguity is More Efficient

The verb "pitch" can mean to throw or to lurch. As a noun, pitch is a musical intonation, a sales stand, or the dark sap that comes out of a pine tree. Why would a language assign so many meanings to one word? Doesn't that just create confusion? According to researchers, no -- it creates efficiency. To understand that a speaker means any one of these definitions of "pitch" requires context: are you in a forest or a concert hall? Is the speaker talking about an action or pointing to an object? In a paper published in the journal Cognition, MIT researchers point out that this need for context is actually a feature of language, not a bug. Just as a cook who knows ten recipes for chicken doesn't need ten different meats in his fridge, using context to make the same word mean different things keeps you from requiring many words in your language.

Language Is A Window Into Human Nature

Psychologist and author Steven Pinker dives into the complexities of everyday language.

Key Facts In This Video

  1. Language has to do two things: convey content and negotiate a relationship type. 02:25

  2. According to anthropologist Alan Fiske, there are three major human relationship types: dominance, communality, and reciprocity. 03:31

  3. The Emperor's New Clothes is a story about mutual knowledge. When the boy said the emperor is naked, he changed the state of everyone's knowledge from individual to mutual. 08:51

Written by Curiosity Staff May 31, 2016

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