Resolving Ambiguity

Having studied language (especially English) with the intention of finding all of the little aspects of natural language that break the poor computer programs that try to understand it, in order to better said programs, I’m particularly delighted when I find Esperanto features that help to eliminate these problems.

Here’s one such feature. Pretend I said to you:

“I like fishes more than cats.”

There are two fairly obvious, starkly different interpretations of this sentence:

1. I like fishes more than (I like) cats.

2. I like fishes more than cats (like fishes).

With such English sentences, one interpretation may sometimes be more likely than the other, but it’s still ambiguous.

Not with Esperanto though! Here are the corresponding sentences in Esperanto:

1. Mi ŝatas fiŝojn pli multe ol katojn.

2. Mi ŝatas fiŝojn pli multe ol katoj.

Notice that the only difference is the “n” on the end of “katoj” (“cats”). This “n” is used to point out the objects of verbs (as opposed to subjects).

We know that in both these sentences, “I” is the subject of the verb, because I am doing the liking. “Fishes” is an object (marked with “n”) because it is receiving the liking. However, it’s up to us to choose whether the cat also receiving the liking like an object (sentence 1), or whether it is doing the liking like a subject (sentence 2)

Neat huh?

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3 thoughts on “Resolving Ambiguity

  1. It’s not like English doesn’t have a solution:

    1. I like fishes more than cats.
    2. I like fishes more than cats do.

    Here are some ambiguities in Esperanto, which you may or may not have discussed in your other posts:

    la frato de Ben, kiu estas mia amiko
    (Who’s my friend? The brother of Ben, or Ben?)

    bele rugxa kaj blua balo
    (What’s beautiful? The color of red, the color of red and blue, or the red and blue ball?)

    Li estas nur infano.
    (He’s just a child, or he’s the only child?)

    povas senkoste uzi
    (What’s free of charge: the ability, or the usage?)

    trianguloj
    (When spoken: is it “trianguloj” (triangles), or “tri anguloj” (three angles)?)

    kunligo
    (When spoken: is it “kunlingo” (a noun), or “kun ligo” (a preposition + a noun)?)

    sano
    (When spoken: is it “sano” (health), or “Sano” (a Japanese family name)?)

    • Hehe, I’m sure I have a slight bias toward Esperanto!

      English wouldn’t be very useful if it didn’t have solutions in times of ambiguity, so I’m sure it’ll always have -a- solution.

      But here, I particularly like how the ambiguity is resolved just by simple expression of the usual sentence. It’s hard to explain… Esperanto doesn’t have to drag in an emphasis word like English “do” here. It’s just the plain ole accusative “n”. Seems elegant that the usual accusative ending just doesn’t leave this ambiguity open.

      While you’re right about those sentences, a lot of those example sentences would be ambiguous in both languages, so there’s ultimately no advantage to either. What’s interesting is when one language has an elegant way of expressing something that the other does not 🙂

      (Though as a side note, I don’t think it makes sense to use “nur” like the English “only child” there. So in fact, that ambiguity is only an english one)

      And certainly all languages have words and phrases that sound similar when spoken, or even written! Though stress and context usually solves those problems.

      The word building aspect in Esperanto sometimes makes lexical ambiguity quite amusing. E.g. the well known joke:

      – Kial gxirafoj neniam estas solecaj?
      – Cxar cxiam ili havas kolegon.

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