Conceptual Framework

Ambiguity, or the co-existence of two or more meanings, pervades all spheres of life, sciences cultural practices and forms of communication. As such, ambiguity is a truly transdisciplinary phenomenon that demands collaborative investigation. On the one hand, ambiguity is a seemingly inherent feature of language and communication, on the other, polysemy, in various forms, is equally present in extralinguistic contexts involving interpretation through language: namely in all those instances in which a subject, a concept, a situation, a person, a behaviour, or an action must be recognized and assessed. To cite only a few examples, ambiguity comes into play whenever one orients oneself in complex everyday socio-cultural situations; when questions about the current meaning of traditional texts and practices are posed; or when the connections between language and cognition are examined.

The aim of our RTG is to investigate ambiguity at such points of intersection: In isolation, the phenomena of multiple meaning have been examined in almost all of the disciplines encompassed by the project; their interplay in communication, text, perception and behaviour, however, remains largely unexplained. Similarly, the feasibility of a common theoretical framework has yet to be explored. Our undertaking, therefore, will be based on the following assumptions: (1) Ambiguity is a dynamic phenomenon, which means that it is potentially present in (linguistic) signs, but only becomes functional under certain circumstances. (2) Ambiguity is generated or resolved in the discourse between the agents (speakers or any other kind of agents, such as authors, etc.) and hearers (readers, etc.) of a linguistic utterance. (3) Different contexts of production and reception, or contexts subject to historical change, also contribute to the production and resolution of ambiguity. Strategies of utilization and avoidance, recognition and disregard of ambiguity stand in close relation to non-strategic processes that trigger ambiguity, resolve it or lead to its avoidance.

The projects will examine ambiguity in linguistic utterances of all kinds at the intersections of production and reception on the one hand and of the linguistic system and discourse on the other. Special attention will be paid to the question of whether and how ambiguity is employed or avoided strategically in communicative processes. The point is to show how, in discourse, the speaker and hearer deal with the ambiguity that is part of the underlying linguistic system, but also to demonstrate how ambiguity in the linguistic system may originate in the discourse. Consequently, the disciplines taking part in the Research Training Group are those most closely involved with these central questions: Linguistics, Literary Criticism, Rhetoric, Law (& Legal Studies), Theology, Psychology; Media Studies; and Philosophy/Ethics. In this constellation, the core competencies of linguistics are combined with the skills from those disciplines that are most frequently concerned with ambiguity in verbal utterances. Since we assume that the underlying principles responsible for the presence (or absence) of ambiguity, as well as the rules of its strategic use, are equally valid for all of the participating disciplines, we are convinced that the collaborative efforts will yield a strong synergistic effect.

Our research programme is based on the following premise: Production (fig. 1, PS–/PS+) and perception (RS–/RS+) of ambiguity, as well as its non-strategic occurrence (PS–/RS–) and strategic use (PS+/RS+) can only be understood by learning how they interact when ambiguity is triggered, resolved, or avoided. In order to do so, we will have to be aware of the relation between potential ambiguity (as a trait of linguistic signs) and functional ambiguity (as a trait of the usage of these signs). It is precisely these interactions and interdependencies that constitute the focal point of our research. The chosen interdisciplinary approach thus derives from the insight that the different aspects of the ambiguity phenomenon have to be studied together in their dynamic relationship. In the following matrix, these aspects are marked by four fields that constitute the theoretical backbone of our endeavour. From the study of these fields and their interaction(s), specific research projects will be generated (Link zu Dissthemen)

The field PS– (production, non-strategic) encompasses those cases of ambiguity that occur on the speaker’s side (of communication) and are classified as non-strategic. This field is primarily of interest to linguistics, since the phenomenon of linguistic signs possessing a high degree of potential ambiguity becomes manifest here, i.e. the fact that all linguistic units which convey signification (morphemes, words, constituents, sentences, texts, etc.) can, as a principle, have more than one meaning. This potential ambiguity becomes functional or actual in the discourse. Thus, speakers often use linguistic units without intending their utterance to be ambiguous – resulting, for example, in misunderstandings. At the same time, it has been noted that speakers avoid unequivocal utterances (i.e. they do not let the potential ambiguity become functional/actual). However, it seems to be highly dependent on the context (e.g. situation or genre), if and to which extent this takes place. To this end, we shall examine those processes which trigger ambiguity, as well as processes that can be interpreted as functions of ambiguity avoidance, for instance when considering the development of fixed word order in English. The cases in which ambiguity can be classified as incidental are very common, This leads to the overriding question (also referred to as the “ambiguity paradox”): What is the explanation for the fact that such a large amount of utterances contain ambiguities which do not become apparent in their respective communicative situations and are often not even recognized as such by either the speaker or the hearer? The ambiguity paradox can be explained by the interplay of various factors: context, intonation, and world knowledge are all equally relevant, as is the possibility, known as “ambiguity tolerance,” that the speaker and hearer do not have to or do not want to immediately resolve all ambiguities.

The strategic usage of ambiguity by the speaker in communication (field PS+; production, strategic) is made possible by the fact that double or multiple meanings can be deliberately taken into account, no matter whether they are inherent in the linguistic sign system or generated in the discourse.

As far as ambiguity on the side of production (the triggering of ambiguity) is concerned, one has to consider the use of indirectness (in the context of politeness strategies, for instance), as well as generally those cases in which ambiguity is considered adequate or even necessary by the speaker. Besides ambiguity strictly speaking, these include deliberate underspecification, vagueness and obscurity. Strategic ambiguity in texts is, therefore, a phenomenon of rhetoric, i.e., it is a means of persuasion and is thus tied to certain expectations of its perception. A systematic inquiry into these connections will only become possible by incorporating concrete discourse areas, such as that of “constructive ambiguity” in the field of judicial rhetoric. From the point of view of psychology, situational and personal factors influencing the generation of strategic ambiguity are of primary interest. Strategic production of ambiguity is also a central issue of literary criticism. On the one hand, the premise that ambiguity is employed strategically in literary texts (as part of carefully construed utterances that frequently reflect a high level of language awareness) can be deemed valid. On the other hand, it is more difficult to identify the respective intent in literary texts than in communication contexts taken directly from real life. It is precisely for this reason that literary texts lend themselves extremely well to examining the functions of ambiguity.

A goal commonly encountered in communication is to establish clarity by avoiding or resolving ambiguity; this serves the overriding purpose of avoiding misunderstandings or decision-making in complex situations. In recent studies, ambiguity avoidance has received special attention in regard to the relationship between the language system and communication. Two different approaches can be distinguished: the first or classical approach is based on the assumption that Grice’s maxim “avoid ambiguity” and the cooperative principle are observed by speakers. The second, empirically motivated cognitive approach has determined, through experimental methods, that speakers hardly follow Grice’s maxim in actual speech situations. While the reasons for this are yet to be explored in detail, these findings suggest a complementary assumption that ambiguity avoidance, when it does occur, is frequently motivated strategically. In order to clarify these questions, the collaborative effort of linguistics and all other participating disciplines is required, since it is to be expected that ambiguity avoidance primarily concerns all those texts and utterances that lay claim to normativity, truth and universal validity and are hence binding and can impose sanctions. Among the rhetorical genres this is true for judicial speech, but also for legally binding contracts.

New findings will be the result of including the hearer’s side of interlocution in the study of ambiguity phenomena, i.e. of exploring these phenomena in the context of communication theory. Besides embedding it in a macro-model (e.g. Bühler’s Organon model), the primary aim for our theoretical grounding is a dynamic modelling of communication that is defined by the following three components: firstly, discourse as a language game principally structured by question-answer relations; secondly, communication as a fundamentally intentional action (i.e. communication reflects the goals, plans and intentions of its interlocutors); and thirdly, communication as an extension of the common ground.

From the perspective of communication theory, it is especially important to examine the emergence of ambiguity in the act of perception when it is not caused by any strategy (field RS–; perception, non-strategic). Such a triggering of ambiguity can be observed in the case of mondegreens (mishearings). From a historical perspective, cases of reanalysis are particularly interesting: thus, the Old French word merci, that originally denoted “mercy,” was conventionally used as a part of a formulaic expression of gratitude of the type ‘Grant merci!’ (originally: “what great mercy you are granting me!”). Consequently, merci was reanalyzed as a direct expression for “thank you” because it had constantly occurred in the corresponding expression/communicative usage. Even in cases of syntactic reanalysis (rebracketing) it is to be assumed that these actually constitute content-oriented processes of reinterpretation.

It is often the case, however, that the hearer is forced to resolve ambiguity, i.e. having to expend more effort processing information due to linguistic economy on the speaker’s side (cf. PS–). Among various disciplines, the field of psycholinguistic language comprehension seeks to explain how the hearer reacts to ambiguities during linguistic processing. To this end, the first and foremost focus of research to date has been the examination of syntactic ambiguities and the formulation of principles of economy according to which parsing, i.e. the syntactic processing system, chooses the least complex structure. Although prosody has repeatedly been observed to play an important role in disambiguation, what has not been taken into account so far is the question if the hearer becomes aware of the ambiguity of the utterance during the act of processing. Another aspect that has been neglected up to now is whether the hearer makes any inferences concerning the (strategic) ambiguity production on the speaker’s side. In regard to processes of ambiguity resolution, it has recently been noted that multiple meanings are not always disambiguated (good-enough interpretation or shallow processing). More specifically, ambiguity resolution, at least for certain kinds of ambiguity (e.g. scopal ambiguity), is highly dependent on context. It is to be assumed that the hearer’s strategies and inferences concerning the strategic behaviour of the speaker play a part in these cases. Likewise it remains to be determined which features of context or discourse (including genre, discourse tradition, etc.) do or do not force ambiguity resolution, i.e., which pragmatic principles are involved (e.g. principle of least effort, cooperative principle). Clearly, not only linguistics and psycholinguistics, but all disciplines that are engaged in interpretation can and must contribute to the clarification of the principles of ambiguity resolution on the hearer’s side.

As has become apparent, ambiguity on the hearer’s side can also be part of a strategic calculation (field RS+; perception, strategic). This is the case, for instance, with processes in which the hearer intentionally reinterprets linguistic utterances. This predominantly affects larger linguistic units (texts) and, in effect, usually triggers ambiguity since either an univocal utterance is interpreted as ambiguous, or the spectrum of meaning of an ambiguous utterance is altered. In oral communication, the example of deliberate mishearings, in which perception becomes productive, comes to mind. In the end, strategic perception can also manifest itself as a form of ambiguity resolution, when the hearer interprets an ambiguous utterance as univocal. This reciprocal relationship between the production and resolution of ambiguity on the hearer’s side is to be found in the strategic perception of all kinds of texts in ever-changing cultural contexts. This is especially true for texts that are passed on, i.e., regarded as canonical (sacred texts, literary classics, canonical texts of law, etc.) and are frequently interpreted in accordance with certain rules. In order to make the significance of these texts intelligible to the present culture, multiple (Scriptural) senses are established.

The interpretation of the Bible is a paramount example of this: the disambiguation of biblical texts is essential to religious practice. Beginning with the exegesis of the 2nd century, it is possible to trace a strategic interpretation of the Bible with the overriding objective of establishing univocality. Paradoxically, this interpretation occurs through the assignment of multiple meanings, as each contemporary contextualization produces new ambiguities of its own, which, in turn, have to be resolved by following generations. Thus, a perpetuation of ambiguity takes place, with each disambiguation being discernible only in the respective historical context of the current interpretation.