‘I am Groot’: Ambiguity is a superpower

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Superheroes are fascinating, also for researchers. A philosopher can contemplate how Superman is related to Nietzsche’s ideas of Übermensch. A historian can investigate how the superheroes change together with society, from the white male Superman to Wonder Woman and Black Panther. For a linguist, superheroes are interesting because they help to understand the limits of human language. In a previous post, I wrote about Yoda from Star Wars. His word order is truly alien because it breaks all possible rules. Today it’s the turn for Guardians of the Galaxy, which features several characters from Marvel Comics.

One of the superheroes is Groot, a tree-like humanoid. He can grow branches of different length and height, control other plants and trees, grow flowers and produce luminescent seeds. He can also regenerate and regrow from a small stem. In the film, Groot has the voice and motion capture from actor Vin Diesel.

Importantly, Groot has a very limited vocabulary. All he can say is, “I am Groot”, and only in this order (although, to be precise, he says “We are Groot” before sacrificing his life for the Guardians of the Galaxy in a battle). Fortunately, his accomplice Rocket, an intelligent racoon, can understand Groot and even lead conversations with him.

In another post, I already mentioned George K. Zipf, who found many quantitative patterns in human language, including the famous Zipf’s law. Zipf argued that languages are shaped by two conflicting forces, which he named the force of unification and the force of diversification. The force of unification represents the viewpoint of the speaker. For the speaker, it is beneficial to have only one word in the lexicon, which means everything. In that case, the speaker does not need to spend effort while choosing between different words. The force of diversification represents the viewpoint of the listener. The listener is better off when the vocabulary contains a distinct word for every meaning. In real languages, these opposing forces are balanced. There is a small bunch of short, very often used words that have multiple meanings and are therefore quite ambiguous, such as like, run, back and fine. There are also very many less commonly used words, which tend to be longer and have a more precise and therefore unambiguous meaning, such as integer or capricious.

It is easy to see that Groot’s speech represents the extreme case of the force of unification. Only one expression is used to speak about anything. It is maximally ambiguous.

But how fictional is that? If we look at real languages, we will find a lot of ambiguity. It is so common that we become aware of it only in jokes and wordplay:

  • Call me a taxi! – OK, you’re a taxi.
  • Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.
  • I’m having an old friend for dinner. (from The Silence of the Lambs, 1991)

The pervasiveness of ambiguity is the reason why some linguists believe that language has not evolved for the purposes of communication. As Noam Chomsky wrote:

“The use of language for communication might turn out to be a kind of epiphenomenon… If you want to make sure that we never misunderstand one another, for that purpose language is not well designed, because you have such properties as ambiguity. If we want to have the property that the things that we usually would like to say come out short and simple, well, it probably doesn’t have that property”

So, according to Chomsky, the ambiguity of language may be a hindrance to efficient communication. At the same time, many people believe that this potential threat of ambiguity for communication is overrated. Usually, context and intonation help us to understand the intended message. In fact, ambiguity is not only less dangerous than it is sometimes assumed, it is also very useful for communication. We can save articulatory effort by using short and ambiguous words, provided that sufficient context is available.

Want proof? Take an example from a romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally (1981). In the famous scene, where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm while sitting at a table in a crowded deli, another female customer says to a waiter: “I’ll have what she’s having”. The structure I’ll have X is a typical way of making one’s order at a restaurant. Also, the highly frequent and short verb have is used in the sense “eat “or “drink”. We can easily infer the intended interpretation from our background knowledge of everyday situations, which is organized into so-called scripts and scenarios. As a result, the ambiguous expression I’ll have X does not create any problems for communication. Moreover, it helps to save time and effort. Without this knowledge, we would have to say something like this: I ask you to bring me X, which I intend to eat and drink. I promise to pay you for X later. That would be quite effortful, wouldn’t it?

Also, some ambiguity can be useful for political or commercial advertisements. For example, the producer of Duracell batteries claimed that they “last even longer”, but longer than what? Or ambiguity can help you if you want to be diplomatic. For example, you can say tactfully to your friend, who has just written a very bad poem, “Your poem could not possibly be improved”.

To conclude, ambiguity is not a failure or defect. It is a superpower. We are Groot!

Read further

  • Chomsky, Noam. 2002. An interview on minimalism. In: Noam Chomsky, On Nature and Language, 92–161. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Piantadosi, Steven, Harry Tily and Edward Gibson. 2012. The communicative function of ambiguity in language. Cognition 122, 280-291. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2011.10.004
  • Schank,Roger C., and Robert P. Abelson. 1977. Scripts, plans, goals and understanding, an inquiry into human knowledge structures. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Wasow, Thomas. 2015. Ambiguity avoidance is overrated. In: Susanne Winkler (ed.), Ambiguity: Language and Communication, 29–47. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110403589-003

Writer: Natalia Levshina
Editor: Naomi Nota
Dutch translation: Eva Poort
German translation: Bianca Thomsen
Final editing: Eva Poort, Merel Wolf

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