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On the ambiguity of words

On the ambiguity of words

by David Veksler

Words are a very imperfect means of conveying our thoughts. The original idea is distorted by a vague and stereotyped vocabulary, ambiguous grammar and meaning. And then it is distorted again by the different definitions and mental models of the recipient.

Meaning is in people. Words are very imperfect symbols for communicating an idea.

When we speak, we take an enormous set of abstractions linked with sensorial associations in our mind, distill them down to a short set of symbolic associations which are then re-linked with an entirely different set of associations in someone else. It is a lot to ask of an animal brain evolved to convey data about a hunting and gathering lifestyle to fit all the complexity of modernity into that medium.

Sometimes we can accompany our words with body language and pictorial imagery, but the modern civilized lifestyle demands more and more abstract and hypothetical thinking. It stretches the limits of verbal communication. It is possible for two people to have a conversation about art or theology or politics with both thinking that they had a meaningful interaction without a single idea ever being shared. Two brains expressing, but never really communicating.

It is for this reason that I like science, engineering, and programming. When we repeat experimental results, or implement a blueprint, or collaborate on software, the result is unambiguous. The unity of a shared reality confirms the tie between our minds.

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