The ambiguity of language, and the answer to history’s most famous philosophic riddle

Our daily language is ambiguous and can be interpreted in different ways. Words have multiple meanings, definitions change and multiply over time, phrases are interpreted differently by different people and differently by the same person in different situations. Voice intonation, pacing, grammar and facial expressions communicate meaning. The audience uses its experience, education and culture to guess what is meant.

John and I went to the food court. We ate at Taste of India.

The above everyday sentences seem straight foreword but can be interpreted in many ways. The ‘we’ of the second sentence commonly is read to mean John and ‘I,’ but this reading is a guess. It could mean the narrator and someone else than John, or perhaps the narrator, John and someone else or multiple people. It’s very plausible the two caught up with someone else on the way to the Taste of India.

Most read the second sentence to mean that Taste of India is at the food court and they ate there soon after they arrived at the food court. However, this is also assumption. There’s nothing in the sentence that says the Taste of India is not far away from the food court and their eating didn’t take place days if not months later.

It is even an assumption that the two sentences relate to each other. They could just happen to be sitting next to each other, like strangers on a bench. For all you know, I lifted them from different books, published 15 years apart.

“Even when in Kyoto how I long for Kyoto when the cuckoo sings”

In the above you can’t go home again line by famous 1600s Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, the word Kyoto has different meanings. The first Kyoto indicates the physical city and the second refers to a past life in the city, perhaps a childhood. Or at least that’s how readers commonly interpret it. Basho died over 300 years ago and no one today knows what he meant.

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Comedy regularly plays on the ambiguity of language:

— Lt. Frank Drebin: “Miss, I’m Lt. Frank Drebin, and this is Captain Ed Hocken, Police Squad.”
— Buxom Female Shop Assistant: “Is this some kind of bust?”
— Lt. Frank Drebin: “Well… it’s very impressive, yes, but we need to ask you a few questions.”

— Naked Gun 2-1/2 (1991, Paramount Pictures)

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Categories and definitions in language

Language is a common way to organize, label and perceive objects and ideas. Native language is something we learned as infants, talk, think and even dream in. Our native language has profound influence on how we look at the world. Different languages give different emphasis, meaning, aesthetics, sounds and, perhaps most important, categories to things. As one perceives and thinks in part through categorizing (cats belong as one group, dogs belong as one group, magazines as another), native linguistic categories influence even nonconscious perception. It influences how we imagine things when our eyes are closed.

An elemental example of difference between languages is when a person in Atlanta Georgia and a person in Rome Italy read the same word ‘pizza,’ yet imagine different things. A pizza in Georgia is different than a pizza in Italy. If you asked the two to identify a pizza at a market, they might point to different objects. The Italian may say of the Georgian’s choice, “You’re crazy. That’s not pizza. Let me read the label … Tombstone … Do not defrost before cooking … remove cellophane … Glenview Illinois … You Americans might know Slim Whitman and Gilligan’s Island, but you know nothing about pizza. Come to Rome and I’ll show you pizza.”

Many differences are more subtle. For example, different cultures do not always categorize color alike. Different languages can and do have a different number of names for colors. This means a particular name, say red or green, will apply to a different range of wavelength on the visible light spectrum. It’s the same total light spectrum of color for both cultures, but the different numbers of names divide the spectrum into a different size pieces. Like cutting two identical pizzas, one into nine pieces and the other into seven. The pizzas are identical except one has fewer and bigger pieces.

In one culture, ‘red’ can cover a different range of color than the equivalent word ‘red’ in another culture. What you call red, a person on another continent may or may not call red. Even within a culture, people often categorize colors differently. This is commonly done in the marginal areas, such as aqua blue, dark orange versus red, magenta versus pink. It is probable that you perceive some borderline colors differently than your spouse, friend or co-workers. If two friends define colors differently, they may believe they are talking about different cloth swatches when they are talking about the same one. Or they may believe they are talking about the same swatch when they are talking about different.

This between friends difference can be because they don’t have the exact same color vision and that they never had a serious discussion about what are the boundaries of aqua blue, or what constitutes badious, brunneous and gamboges. I don’t recall ever having an instructor teach the exact boundaries of aqua blue, aqua marine or magenta, not even in art class. I doubt I ever had an instructor who knew the exact boundaries.

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As humans commonly communicate, learn and conceptualize the abstract through words, different interpretations of words often lead to conflicts. What may at first appear to be a visual illusion or even mental illness in a person may be a difference in culture.

An American joke is “Never ask for Squirt on an English airline.“ To Americans, Squirt is a brand of lemon/lime soda pop. To the English the word means urine.

I think it’s safe to order 7Up.

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If a tree falls when no one’s around does it make a sound?


Many arguments are not caused by disagreement over the main ideas, but that the arguers unknowingly define terms differently. Arguers may have different definitions of war, peace, work week, formal attire, animal, automobile, tall, stiff drink and sexy, even though they both assume they are using identical definitions. Once the parties mutually set the definitions (which they didn’t do in the beginning), they are often surprised to discover how much they agree with each other. Many arguments, many conundrums, many philosophical debates exist simply because parties never thought to mutually define terms.

An age old question is “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound?”

The answer to this question depends on what is the definition of sound, and a key to the discussion is the determination of what sound means.

Is sound defined by the act of a human or other animal hearing? Or can a sound exist with none around to hear it? It would seem the smart thing to start by looking up the word sound in a dictionary.

I looked in one dictionary and two encyclopedias. One encyclopedia said that sound is defined by the ear detecting (hearing) the vibrations in the air. This would mean the tree in the question would make no sound if no one is around. The other encyclopedia and the dictionary defined sound as the vibrations itself, whether or not someone is around to hear them. By this definition, the tree would make a sound even if no one was around.

As you see, the famous tree debate isn’t a matter of philosophy but of word definition. The difference between “Yes, it makes a sound” and “No, it doesn’t make a sound” can come down to the arbitrary choice of definition, the outvoting of 2 reference books to 1, the flipping of a coin. Depending on what definitions used, the answer of Yes and No can describe the same forest scene. Is one sound definition superior to the other? Not that I can see. They’re just different.

People also have differing definitions of the word one in ‘…no one is around to hear…’ Some people think deer, birds and mice count as ones, while others think only humans count. The definition of one can also determine whether the answer is Yes or No.

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Certain words have strong connotations in a culture, and people intentionally play around with the definitions so they can apply words as they desire. If patriot is a popular label, people will fiddle with the definition so that they are defined as patriots and their enemies are not. If patriot is an unpopular label, the same people would define the word so that their enemies are patriots and they are not. These shameless self serving manipulations of definitions are common during political campaign season, but also during our daily lives. What may be a lie when someone else does it is a fib if you do it.

Notice these instances involve people being emotionally attached to a word no matter how it is defined. It’s word numerology.

When I was in high school, the quarterback for the football team came to school wearing a pink sweater. He spent the day saying, “No, it’s coral.”