Friday, May 10, 2013

Homonymous synonyms

Suppose that in Elbonian word-order is unimportant and "xyzzy" can mean either "stands" or "the zebra" while "zoxas" can mean either "the zebra" or "stands". Sam says "Xyzzy zoxas" in Elbonian, meaning the first word to be a noun and the second a verb. Martha misunderstands his sentence as having the verb first and the noun second. But both versions express the same proposition, that the zebra stands. Thus, Martha misunderstands Sam--she takes him to be uttering a homonymous synonym of what he actually uttered--but she gets right the proposition he asserted.

But what if Sam has no particular intention as to which word is the noun and which one is the verb?


SMatthewStolte said...

Martha understands Sam if she understands the proposition he expresses and the proposition he intends to express. She also understands how the internal structure of Sam’s utterance is able to express this proposition. But she doesn’t understand the manner in which Sam intends to express the proposition.

It often happens when learning a language that one can understand the utterance as a whole without understanding its internal structure with perfect distinctness. But here is a case in which Martha understands everything except the manner in which Sam intends to express the proposition.

Does the manner in which Sam intends to express the proposition determine the manner in which he does express the proposition? I don’t think so. What I intend in communication is for my expression to be received in a certain way; and I know by experience that it takes skill to predict how something will be received; and this is because both what I express with a certain utterance and how a certain utterance is expressed is not completely dependent on my individual intention.

SMatthewStolte said...

[EDIT: Should read: “… and how a certain utterance expresses is not completely …”]

SMatthewStolte said...

If Sam has no particular intention which one is the verb, but Martha thinks the verb comes first, she might

(a) be attributing some intention to Sam, falsely;
(b) be playing a game with herself, constricting the meaning of the words in this utterance one way, even though it does nothing to the overall meaning of the sentence;
(c) misunderstanding the way language in general works: for instance, she might think that “xyzzy” just can’t be ambiguous once it is in an utterance, and so she thinks it must mean one thing or the other but not both. But this would be a shame, because it would probably mean she wouldn’t appreciate much poetry, and I suspect that Elbonian produces some delightful poetry.

(This isn’t necessarily an exhaustive list. But those are the possibilities I could think of, off hand.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Regarding 3, don't you "hear" the meanings of homonyms? In the case of homophones, I sometimes see a disambiguating written representation flash before my mind's eye.

SMatthewStolte said...

When I hear ‘bark’ by itself, I don’t attribute the word the constricted meaning of the sound the dog makes or the bark on the tree. Maybe the way I hold the ambiguity is by disambiguating one way and then the other sequentially before my mind’s eye. But even if so, I don’t attribute the disambiguated meaning to the word itself, because I know that the word itself is ambiguous, and I don’t want to judge falsely.

It’s only when someone says, “Fido has a loud bark” that I attribute the disambiguation to the utterance.

Richard Davis said...

Elbonians only communicate by a sort of semaphore that consists of waving around their elbows in complicated ways. Elbonians do not appreciate the sort of patronizing attitude that conflates their signs for "stands" and "zebra" simply because their semaphore is hard to follow.