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Seminar Abstract

Why are natural languages so ambiguous? (CLaS-CCD Research Colloquium Series)

Speaker : Emeritus Professor Thomas Wasow, Department of Linguistics, Stanford University, USA.
Date : 17th of December 2018, 2:00PM until 3:00PM
Location : Australian Hearing Hub, 3.610, Macquarie University.

    When computational linguists in the 1970s started building systems big enough to test on corpora of actual usage, they found that the systems were getting far more parses than they had expected for all but the simplest sentences. Most of these turned out to be linguistically justifiable parses, although the meanings assigned were often bizarre. Linguists and philosophers of language have generally assumed that ambiguity hinders efficient communication, as expressed most explicitly and succinctly in philosopher Paul Grice's maxim, "Avoid ambiguity". Since languages are constantly changing, why haven't languages become unambiguous or at least much less ambiguous? One reason may be that language has some uses that favor ambiguity. Another is that eliminating ambiguity would slow down communication. This talk examines various types of ambiguity in English and considers their possible functions.

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