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Though ambiguity of language could be the hinder of communication, its rhetorical effect may never be ignored. This paper mainly focuses on the lexical aspect of ambiguity, tending to analyze the cause of it, in particular, to probe into its rhetorical effects.
Key Words: ambiguous words, rhetorical effect
Ambiguity occurs when a word, phrase or sentence conveys more than one meaning at the same time, thus a word or a sentence can be understood by being interpreted in more than one ways. In the aspect of communication, ambiguity is considered as the shortcoming of language. The British linguist William Empon has ever put it: “Ambiguity is the enemy we have to match.”, for it may cause confusion even misunderstanding in communication. However, though the ambiguity of language could be the hinder of understanding, its rhetorical effect may never be ignored. Because it manages to say two or more things at the same time, ambiguity is a valuable rhetorical means in terms of using the language ingeniously.
Ambiguity falls into three categories: phonetic ambiguity, grammatical ambiguity and lexical ambiguity. This paper mainly focuses on the lexical aspect of ambiguity, tending to analyze the cause of it, in particular, probing into its rhetorical effects.
2. Lexical Ambiguity
Lexical ambiguity is the most important among various ambiguities. In respect of the fact that the same word may has several meanings, when more than one meaning assigned to one word, lexical ambiguity arises. For example: The sentence “She cannot bear child” may be understood as she is unable to give birth to child or she cannot tolerate children. Ambiguity arises here because the word bear can be interpreted in two different ways.
The semantic properties of various words determine the ambiguity or lack of ambiguity. The arising of lexical ambiguity lies in tow factors: the lexical item itself and the context it relies on. A word is mostly an ambiguous word without being comprehended in the context. Accordingly, disambiguity engenders when word is put back to the context. To take the example mentioned, if the sentence “She can not bear children” appears in the following two sentences: “She cannot bear children’s noise.”
And “She cannot bear children because she is sterile.” the meaning of “bear” becomes specific. On the whole, semantic property of various words and the context on which they depend determine whether a word is ambiguous or not.
Lexical ambiguity arises when a word is polysemous, or when two or more words are homonyms/homophones.
1) Polysemy: a word has more than one meaning. For example, the word man is interpreted differently in man and woman (a fully-grown human male) and the employer and his man (an employee of low rank).
2) Homonyms/Homophones: two or more words sound the same but have different meanings. For example, the word ball in throw a ball and the other ball in go to the ball. Compared with polysemy, though the two balls happen to be in the same form, they are originated differently, and they don’t share the same core meaning. Another example is flower and flour which share the same pronunciation as [flauÉ™] though they own different forms and meanings.
Lexical ambiguities can be divided into two independent parts in respect of their usage. One is Implicit Lexical Ambiguity when the word manages to say two or more things at once. The other one is Explicit Lexical Ambiguity when the word repeated two or more times with different meanings respectively.
3. Rhetorical Effect of Lexical Ambiguity
In the example mentioned, lexical ambiguity is used as rhetorical device: some talk about one thing and imply something else; others convey several things at once. These rhetorical effects are mostly created by using punning words. Pun is a conscious and practical ambiguity device which renders one word to convey an additional effect so as to attract the reader’s attention to the writer’s feeling upon the single word. It either employs a witty mind, or creates a sense of humor, or conveys an irony and sarcastic tone. Punning riches in implications, carries complicated feelings and conveys a delicate sense. It has been widely adopted in literature works, news headline, advertisement, even daily conversation.
Lexical ambiguity, created by means of polysemy, homonyms and homophones, is used extensively in creative writing, especially in literature works.
Shakespeare was adept in depositing puns in his plays so as to give diversity to his language. For example¼Œin Much Ado about Nothing:
She’s too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise, and too little for a great praise.
Two lexical implicit ambiguous words are deliberately used. “High” in the context implies that she is not in a high social class, and she would never receive positive comments. “Fair” refers to both “light in color” and “justice”. Therefore, this passage superficially talks about the girl’s figure and appearance, but actually it suggests her social status.
An unexpressed ambiguity is a very normal feature of a good poem by the 19th century poet, Anita Owen.
O dreamy eyes
They tell sweet lies of paradise;
And in those eyes the love light lies,
And lies-and lies -and lies! (Zhou & Yang 1992:252)
The lexical homonym “lie” means both “telling a lie” and “lying in”. As the word is repeated several times, the two meanings are involved in turn. In this way, the poem brings the readers a sense of beauty which affects them visually, aurally and sensibly.
Lexical ambiguity device for the rhetorical purpose can be found in the works of famous authors of different times. For example: in A Service of Love by O Henry:
Joe was painting in the class of the great master: you know his fame. His fees are high. His lessons are light. His highlights have brought him renown.
“Highlight” (the area on a picture where most light appears to fall) is a compound of “high” (expensive) and “light” (relaxed), so a semantic pun is involved. These few lines show that the painter is highly skillful at painting highlight, but his fee is expensive and his lesson is simple.
3.2 News Headline
News headlines are generally designed for conciseness and dramatic eye-catching effect so as to intrigue the potential readers and arouse their interest. Therefore implicit ambiguity is a commonplace in the news headline. For example:
1. The Sun Sets Down Last Time (Qin, 1992:11)
The content of the news report has nothing to do with the sun in the sky. It actually tells about the closing of the Sun Post. Implicit semantic pun is delicately used to convey the implication.
2. Soccer Kicks Off With Violence. (Qin, 1991: 322)
This sports news is on a football match. “Kick off” literally means “to start a game of football”, but with the modifier “with violence” (using force on others, especial unlawfully to hurt or harm), the headline impresses the reader that the players of the game behaved rudely, and they kicked the ball as well as the players of the other side.
Advertisement intends to attract the consumers, impresses them and persuades them to buy, so that advertising language should own the attention value, memory value and persuasive value. The commercial businessmen need some devices which are concise, but profound enough. Punning words meet the needs. Thus punning helps to make the advertising message original and memorable, and therefore to reinforce the impact of persuasion. For example:
1. Seven Days, Without 7up Make One Weak (Week)
This is an advertisement for 7up. As we all know, seven days make one week. There is a comparison between 7up and 7 days. “Week” and “weak” have the same pronunciation, and “one” can be a personal pronoun as well as a numeral noun. The advertisement is so skillfully designed that it impresses the readers with creative idea and funny effect.
2. Introducing the most well-round camera of the day, or night. (Zhou & Yang,1992:54)
One may find that he is introduced the most well-known camera nowadays when he stops reading at the comma. However, after he finishes the whole sentence, he will realize the camera functions both in the day time and at night. The quality along with the function of the camera has been presented by means of the punning word “the day”, which is impressive and prominent.
Pun is also employed in daily conversation, which shows the speaker’s sense of humor and a touch of witty mind. For example:
Keeper: Here are a few views of our hotel for you to take with you, sir.
Guest: Thank you, but I have my own view of your hotel.
In the keeper’s mind, the word “view” refers to the beautiful scene of the hotel, but the guest takes it as “opinion”. The gap of comprehension brings about a sense of humor as well as misunderstanding.
Lexical ambiguity is the natural property of language. The arising of lexical ambiguity lies in two factors: the lexicon itself and the context it relies on. A word is mostly an ambiguous word without being comprehended in the context. Ambiguity may cause confusion in communication. However, in spite of the disadvantages, the rhetorical effect of lexical ambiguity can never be overshadowed. Ambiguous word contains profuse power which facilitates a word to carry several meanings at once, to say one thing while implying another thing, and eventually to produce an additional effect to what the writer or the speaker wants to convey. Many writers have taken the advantage of the language to create humorous, irony and funny sense. Therefore, a conscious ambiguity is the never-dry sources of rhetorical effect.
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