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Ambiguity and vagueness in language

Language is one of the four 'ways of knowing' and is a 'medium of communication', every human uses it to express themselves, to teach, to persuade, to interact, to create, to react, etc. and they all affect every one of us. The use of language is limitless, we can express ourselves in different forms, whether it be through speaking, writing, body language and even sign language, every single human is communicates by language through some way or another. Language helps build imagination, culture and religions, relationships and the thoughts in our head. Without it, we cannot properly express our emotions or be able to take in anything without some form of way to understand it. We could do it through images and body language but it wouldn't really be accurate and without language, we many not necessarily understand what it means. For me, without language I'd automatically lose two of the hobbies I love the most; to read and to write and I'd lose my sense of belonging. As a half Japanese that does not know the culture of Japan as much as an average Japanese would, I feel that knowing the Japanese language itself is the only thing that connects me to the Japanese culture. If that were to be taken away from me, I would not have anything that would represent that side of me. We can all agree that language plays a very important part in every one's lives and without it, it would probably be impossible to live the life we are living now. However, language does have its drawbacks, despite being our best method of communication.

With so many languages, meanings could get lost in translation and could lead to a misunderstanding between two different people or could cause a larger effect when there is a misunderstanding between two countries. If it weren't for the ambiguity in some words, it would probably be less likely for a misunderstanding to occur. For example, during World War II, in response to the USA's request for Japan to surrender, the Japanese replied with an extremely ambiguous response, 'mokusatsu'. Originally, in Japanese, the word meant 'to keep a contemptuous silence' or 'to ignore' (however, the word is nowadays associated more with the use of it in WWII). But, when we translate the two characters that form the word, they translate to 'silence' and 'to kill'. As the USA lacked Japanese translators during this time, it would have been very difficult to accurately translate this word into what the Japanese could have meant, which again is ambiguous. If the word was to be translated differently during the war, could it have avoided the dropping of the atomic bomb?

So many words in the English language itself has different meanings to it, for example, the word 'produce' could be used to describe the act of making something, to produce or it could also mean the product made. When ambiguous words are used in different contexts, it becomes difficult for us to try and understand what the other person is saying with so many other possible meanings he or she could be trying to express. This becomes especially challenging when the words are written and not said because we don't know their tone of voice and where they put emphasis on what word. I can remember one email where my friend had replied, "that's sick!" to something I had said. I immediately thought that she thought it was gross, disgusting and had no idea what she was referring to. It wasn't until later that I found out that "sick" was also another word for "cool". This is an example where a word has two meanings, both the complete opposite of each other. Vagueness in language is also another limitation in language. In order to express what we mean, when we can't find the right words so we tend to use approximations and resemblance to try and explain. When people say "I am running late." we don't know how late they are or when someone in Singapore says, "I'm cold." but how cold? Would this statement be comparable to someone living near the Arctic who says, "I'm cold."? As we can see, depending on the words we use and what context we choose to put them in, language can be very vague.

To overcome ambiguity, we should grasp our language more intensely, to understand and learn more words to avoid using the same words again and again for different meanings and to study the different definitions of every word. However, this would take lots of time and effort. The alternative would be to assign only one meaning per would so that every heard had only one specific meaning to avoid confusion or to completely stop using already existing words as slang words but then again, who makes the decision to do this? To overcome vagueness, we'd have to describe in exact measures, too much to think about for the average person. To me, overcoming ambiguity and vagueness in language is almost near impossible. We cannot expect people to suddenly change their perception of different words when they already have their own clear definition of what a word means to them. As for vagueness, we will always have a time where we cannot explain precisely what we mean and therefore, will end up saying something less than what we actually mean.

Ambiguity could contribute to knowledge as we discover new meanings to different words and therefore, we start to approach it in a different way. Ambiguity creates language and contributes to it. Without it, we couldn't analyse a poem or a song, we'd see right through what the artist is trying to convey without appreciating his or her words. We become more knowledgeable by opening ourselves up to absorb more and to learn more, to be willing to understand that there is more than one perspective to look at. On the other hand, ambiguity in language could also impede knowledge as the ambiguous nature of some words stops us from trying to understand what is really meant and we lose our chance to gain more knowledge or we could begin to dig deep for a different meaning because we are so certain that it has numerous different interpretations, we may not see the simple meaning.

The balance between precision and ambiguity does alter from one discipline, Area of Knowledge (AOK) to another. In mathematics and natural sciences, language is not as involved and therefore ambiguity is hardly a problem as most theories and such can be explained by exact answers and calculations. 2+2 has to equal 4. I cannot be "approximately" or "near" four. Almost all questions in maths and natural sciences have a precise, practical answer and is either right or wrong, although in some, but very few cases, this may not be. In areas such as the arts and ethics, there is never a right or wrong answer. It is mainly opinionated which therefore creates different possible answers which are all 'right' but not precisely as it is not the only one. This makes these two areas more ambiguous than precise; leading people to decide for themselves what they think is their right answer. However, in human sciences, there is a more even balance of precision and ambiguity. Human sciences depend on the interaction and reaction of humans in different situations. For example, in Economics, during a recession, the majority of people will spend less and save more but we cannot say this for every single person involved. It is hard to tell how different humans would react and therefore is ambiguous. But theories can be applied where possibly which apply to the majority of a group, balancing out the ambiguity in human science.

In conclusion, I think that it would be extremely difficult to ever overcome the ambiguity and vagueness of language and is near impossible. Ambiguity to me, is important as it helps form language, the mystery and beauty of it. Although it may impede knowledge as it inhibits people from learning different meanings and could cause confusion, it also helps to gain knowledge as we begin to understand new words and definitions and become more open minded. In each discipline, the balance between ambiguity and precision differs, some tend to be more precise, whereas others tend to be more ambiguous which creates a well rounded, mixed group of areas to gain knowledge from.

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