Ambiguity or Understanding
Copyight © 2002 Sylvan Zaft. Here is the sixth chapter of Esperanto: A Language for the Global Village. You may make electronic copies and paper copies for your personal use, and you may freely distribute verbatim copies which include this notice provided that you do not charge for these copies. You may not post this material to any site. You are invited to insert links to this site. For any other use, including publication, you must first get permission.
Foreign students of English have to learn how to identify the part of speech that a particular word belongs to from the context in which it is found. The word “run” is sometimes a noun as in a run of bad luck and sometimes a verb as in candidates who run for high office. The word “green” is sometimes a noun as in green is my favorite color and sometimes an adjective as in green grass. The word “fast” is sometimes an adjective as in a fast race and sometimes an adverb as in he is fast asleep and sometimes a verb as in Moslems fast during the month of Ramadan.
Users of English can usually distinguish the parts of speech that a word takes by paying attention to word order. Adjectives normally precede the nouns they modify and subject nouns normally precede their verbs. Native speakers pick up this skill naturally as they learn to talk when they are very little children long before they know what “noun” or “verb” or “adjective” means. Foreign students have to learn the word order. Normally this is not an onerous task.
However, there are cases where this ambiguity regarding the part of speech that a word takes misleads users of English, even native speakers of English.
One example of this is given by Claude Piron who noticed that some delegates to a meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization did not understand what was meant by the English name for the organization. Most of them understood the English phrase to mean “an international organization that concerns itself with civil aviation” whereas in fact it means “an organization that concerns itself with international civil aviation.” There is a big difference between the two. The first kind of organization would concern itself with civil aviation generally (including civil aviation which takes place inside of a country) whereas the second kind of organization only concerns itself with civil aviation that take place across international borders.
Here is a somewhat similar example: If someone is writing about the Second World War and mentions “a Japanese prisoner of war camp” the reader has to know from the context whether this was a camp where Japanese were held as prisoners or a camp where the Japanese held their prisoners.
A whimsical but highly instructive example comes from the field of Artificial Intelligence. One of the problems of programming computers to understand a language is to get the computer to understand when a word functions as a noun, a verb, an adjective or some other part of speech. Computers, and even native speakers of English, are taken aback by these two sentences:
Time flies like an arrow.
Fruit flies like a banana.
If we analyze these sentences according to the parts of speech of the different words, we find that although at first glance they are of the same form, in fact they could hardly be more different.
|noun, subject||intransitive verb, present tense||conjunction||indefinite article||noun, subject|
|adjective||noun, subject||transitive verb, present tense||indefinite article||noun, direct object|
In the first sentence flies is a verb, in the second, a noun. In the first sentence like is a conjunction, in the second a verb. In the first sentence the final word, a noun, is a subject of an implied verb (flies), in the second sentence the final word, a noun, is the direct object of like.
Even native speakers of English when they write quickly may be unaware that the meaning that they intended and the meaning that the reader intuits may be ridiculously different. Richard Lederer is a tireless collector of these kinds of phrases. Here are some examples he presents in Anguished English of headlines that have appeared in English language newspapers. The unintended humor depends on the reader’s not correctly identifying the part of speech which a word takes.  First here are three examples out of more than thirty inadvertently comical headlines which Lederer presents:
1. BRITISH LEFT WAFFLES ON FALKLAND ISLANDS
2. EYE DROPS OFF SHELF
3. TEACHER STRIKES IDLE KIDS
1. The first example might be read to mean either
(incorrect) that the British left behind them waffles (crisp battercakes) on the Falkland Islands.
(correct) that the left-wingers in Britain were waffling (being evasive) about their position on the issue of the Falkland Islands, which had been taken over by Argentina
The humor comes from reading “British” as a noun instead of an adjective, “left” as a verb instead of as a noun and “waffles” as a direct object noun instead of as a verb.
2. The second examples might be read to mean either
(incorrect) that an eye fell from a shelf.
(correct) that bottles of drops for the eyes have been removed from the shelves of stores (perhaps because they were contaminated)
The humor comes from reading “eye” as a subject noun instead of as an adjective and “drops” as a verb instead of as a subject noun.
3. The third example might be read to mean either
(incorrect) a teacher hit children who were idle.
(correct) labor stoppages by teacher make their students idle because they can’t go to school
The humor comes from reading “teacher” as a subject noun instead of as an adjective, “strikes” as a verb instead of a subject noun and “idle” as an adjective instead of as a verb.
These examples are likely to startle native speakers which is why Lederer put them in his book. However, native speakers will quickly figure out what was intended. Foreign speakers, especially those who have learned English for occasional use as an international language, may be subject to a much deeper confusion.
Students of Esperanto do not run into these difficulties because most of the words of the language come with little tags, endings, which identify their part of speech and their function:
The ending –o identifies a word as a noun.
The ending –a identifies a word as an adjective.
The ending –j identifies a word as in the plural.
The ending –n identifies a word as a direct object.
The ending –e identifies a word as an adverb.
In addition to these there are six simple verb endings which indicate that a word is a verb and tells the tense or mood of the verb:
The ending –i identifies a word as a verb in the infinitive.
The ending –as identifies a word as a verb in the present tense.
The ending –is identifies a word as a verb in the past tense.
The ending –os identifies a word as a verb in the future tense.
The ending –u identifies a word as a verb in the imperative mood.
The ending –us identifies a word as a verb in the conditional mood.
If we were to translate the third headline into Esperanto we would come up with:
INSTRUISTAJ STRIKOJ SENOKUPIGAS INFANOJN.
The –aj ending for “instruistaj” shows that this word is an adjective in the plural, the –oj ending for “strikoj” shows that this word is a noun is in the plural, the –as ending for “senokupigas” shows that this word is a verb in the present tense and the –ojn ending for “infanojn” shows that this word is a plural noun used as a direct object. These endings get rid of the ambiguity that is inherent in the English headline.
Of course it is wonderful to laugh and the enjoyment created by this ambiguity for native speakers, who spend hundreds of thousands of hours practicing their language far outweighs the temporary confusion caused by the fact that English words can sometimes be easily mistaken in regard to their part of speech. However, for the foreign student who can never have hundreds of thousands of hours of practice with English but normally only one or two per cent of the amount of practice of a native speaker, this ambiguity can create serious confusion, something that ought not to be inherent in a language that is used from time to time as an interlanguage.
One of the wonderful features of English is its conciseness. If you look at information on a package that is given in English and French or English and Spanish you will notice that the information in English takes up much less space. This conciseness is a great virtue for native speakers who have thoroughly mastered their language. For foreign students of an international language it comes at too great a cost: ambiguity, confusion, misunderstanding.
 Native speakers of English will need no explanation of the humor of these examples but explanations will be provided for readers who learned English as a foreign language. My own experience with French tells me that this kind of help will be useful for many of these readers