Semantic Antics

April 13, 2021 Category: Miscellaneous

Lexical Multi-valence

At the time of this writing, the Oxford English Dictionary offers these tabulations regarding possible definitions for the following words:

  • “set” has 464 (at last count)
  • “run” has 396 (though Simon Winchester has recently counted up to 645 distinct meanings)
  • “go” has 368
  • “take” has 343
  • “stand” has 334
  • “get” has 289
  • “turn” has 288
  • “put” has 268
  • “fall” has 264
  • “strike” has 250…and counting.

How is it that we do not have an aneurism each time we read a text that uses any of the above words?  Most English-speaking children have mastered virtually all of the above words by the time they have reached adolescence (though not necessarily every definition).  There has never been a dilemma translating any of these words into alternate languages—REGARDLESS of how they are used.

What does such lexical multi-valence mean for translation?  Imagine a translator encountering the sentence: 

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo.

The statement means: X that are bullied by other X, in turn bully X that are bullied by other X (where X is bison from up-state New York). {1}  Imagine someone who was not well-versed in English tasked with interpreting this sequence (i.e. the same lexeme repeated eleven times).

A variation on this involves canines addled by other canines further addling each other: “Dogs dogs dog dog dogs dogs dog.”  Make it about dauntless canines in the past tense, and one can refer to when dogged dogs dogged dogged dogs.

How about when a badger badgers badgers while a horse horse horses around? {2}    For the same word being used several times in a row, there are myriad examples.  Lexical ambiguity is compounded when one uses neither punctuation nor emphasis, inflection, and pauses where it is crucial to conveying meaning–as with: “Bob, while John who had had ‘had’, had had ‘had had’; ‘had had’ had had a better effect.”  (Here also, the same phoneme occurs eleven times consecutively.)

Language does funny things, but any competent translator can surmise what the author was most likely “getting at” (and just as helpful: where he was “coming from”).  This task can be accomplished in the same manner he might figure ANYTHING out: by employing deductive reasoning.  With interpretation, this is usually done by considering what was said in the rest of the exposition (a.k.a. “intertextuality”).

As Shakespeare demonstrated, no language is more idiomatically versatile than English.  The good news is that a competently-procured annotation is capable of explicating what something means.

A master of exploiting the idiosyncrasies of the English language was the stand-up comedian, Steven Wright.  (Such idiosyncrasies were exploited for years of hilarious material.) Let’s look at some of the more fascinating semantic quirks.

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