The Language Room, Translation & Interpretation, Edinburgh, Scotland, London, UK

Why intended meaning isn’t everything

I saw a man standing on a mountain with my telescope; why intended meaning isn’t everything. Simple sentence, right? I’m standing on a mountain, looking through my telescope and at the other end, there’s a man standing there. Or did you read that differently? Maybe you thought the man was standing on the mountain when I saw him through my telescope. Or maybe you thought the man had taken my telescope and was standing on the mountain, holding my telescope when I spied him. You’d be right, of course. This sentence is a classic case of linguistic ambiguity, when one utterance can have several different meanings. The bane of every language user’s life, but also the source of jokes aplenty.

why intended meaning isn't everything

How about this ‘case’ of why intended meaning isn’t everything:

  • I took the airline to court for losing my luggage.
  • I lost my case.

Here, the word ‘case’ can be interpreted as both a legal case, and a type of luggage. Most puns in fact, come from what is known as lexical ambiguity. That’s when one word has two meanings. We pull these two meanings together in a sentence where either meaning would fit. Hilarity ensues.

Newspapers can be a fountain of such ambiguous phrases. When the local courier reports ‘Police help dog bite victim’, we all know that the police weren’t egging on the pooch, but rather helping the victim after the dog bite occurred. But that knowledge doesn’t stop us having a little chuckle.

These ambiguities are found in all languages. Words that have developed separately come to sound the same but mean two, three, four completely different things. Or structures allow the words to be grouped together differently, depending on context. And that’s the key: context. We use these ambiguities in jokes, or we notice them in newspaper headlines, but in day-to-day life, we rarely hear ambiguity, simply because our brains are hard-wired to pick the most likely option, before we even have a chance to think about it.

So when the love of your life asks you to marry her, you won’t even consider assuming she wants you to become a priest. You’ll know for certain, without any hesitation, that she wants to live her life with you and love you forever.

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