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Postgraduate Program "Dimensions of Ambiguity"

PhD Projects

The PhD projects belong to one of the thematic groups listed here.

Topic 1: Ambiguity and Play (Bauer/Winkler)

Puns are a classic field of ambiguity and a paradigm for the interconnectedness of linguistics, rhetoric and literary studies. We will use concrete texts for an analysis of conceptions and theories of the genre of play to examine phenomena of ambiguity (e.g. Huizinga (1949) Homo ludens; Spariosu (1982) Literature, Mimesis and Play; Iser (1993) The Fictive and the Imaginary). In this sense, the aforementioned bidirectional movement of ambiguation and disambiguation can be examined in an exemplary fashion: From a literary point of view, the self-referential status of linguistic signs in a dimension of the play is of major interest - it is both direct and transcending as it is both a mimesis of human activity and of reality. Texts like Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense point to that claim equally as experimental language poetry of the late 20th century or baroque figural poems. Conversely, the relation of homonymy and polysemy can help reflect alternative interpretations of syntactic representations and the indirectness of speech acts.

Felix Balmer, "Phonetic Ambiguity: Processing Mishearings." [Abstract]

Topic 2: Ambiguity as Constituting Genre and Principle of Action (Bauer/Knape)

So far, literary ambiguity has mostly been examined on the level of rhetorical elements of textual design (e.g. in its relation to puns, paronomasia, etc.) or at the level of multiple meanings and the hermetic qualities of the text in general. The role ambiguity plays in the construction of action, however, is comparatively unexplored. Yet it is essential especially in the constitution of certain genres. An example is tragicomedy, which may be defined as a hybrid connection of elements of plot. Since the early modern period (to be emphasized in particular is the European discussion about Guarini's Il Pastor fido) it is of central interest whether this hybrid nature results from a mere addition of elements of tragedy and comedy, or whether tragicomedy as a 'mixed genre' is something different altogether. An answer to this question seems impossible, but the fact alone that the discussion exists indicates the ambiguous nature of the genre: Certain patterns of action are evoked and counteracted at the same time. The death of an important character, an element of plot traditionally found in tragedy, may thus be presented in a way which makes it appear dubious itself or even as non-tragic.

Another generic example is the detective novel. It illustrates semiotic processes in two ways: On the one hand, ambiguous signs are presented to the reader and s/he has to construct the action from these. On the other hand, the reader is confronted with the disambiguation of these signs by the character of the detective. The significance of lexical and syntactic ambiguity for the construction of action with multiple meanings would have to be analysed in both genres. Central questions are: How are linguistic ambiguities connected with each other at the level of genre and individual discourse? How are they linked with lexical-semantic and syntactic ambiguity in the area of individual language and on the universal level of speaking?

Olga Springer, "The Concealed I: Ambiguities and Secrets in Charlotte Brontë's Villette." [Abstract]

Topic 3: Ambiguity and Language Change (Koch/Winkler)

One of our central and most innovative tasks is to define the production of ambiguity as a source of linguistic innovation and thus of language change. We will build both pragmatic conditions and semantic-cognitive bridges that make these processes explicit. Thus, new fields of diachronic linguistic inquiry are made available, or: old phenomena are seen in a completely new light.

One area in which ambiguity becomes both a problem of language change and of synchronic organization of the lexicon is the classification of such categories as "existence" and "localization". Who has not heard such sentences produced by French people who speak a good yet not very good German: Da unten am Fluss gibt es ein Haus (= Down there on the river is a house, instead of [...] ist/steht ein Haus)? Just as in many other languages, existence and localization are expressed in one and the same way in French: by using the expression il y a. The question now is whether this seems to be a case of ambiguity only from the point of view of a German listener (and thus does not make any difference for French people) or whether it is a case of polysemy for speakers of French (and comparable languages), too. This will be examined in an extensive cross-linguistic analysis of Romance languages - both synchronically using corpora and psycholinguistic texts and diachronically using longitudinal examinations of texts of different language phases. We will not only include verbs of existence and localization, but also more complex alternatives of expression (e.g. unaccusative verbs) that can be found in literary texts (fr. Sur la colline se dressait un château; Les insectes pullulent autour de la maison).

A further possible area of research is the phenomenon of "reconceptualization" known in all languages of the world: In these cases, objects appear as both compact units as well as internally composed collectiva (e.g. lat. Intestinum, n.Sg. - intestina, n.Pl. "bowel"; fr. (old) puomon - (modern) poumons "both lobes of the lung"). Just one example that has not been considered from this point of view is the problem of Latin neutra that become Romance feminina (lat. folium "leaf" fr. feuille "leaf"). A special challenge is the fact that ambiguity does not only signify two meanings of one word in a semasiological sense, but also opens two perspectives in which an object can be seen in an onomasiological sense (with a corresponding differentiation in the linguistic sign).

Markus Ising, "Cognitive Ambiguity: The Role of Collective and Dual Reconceptualisations in Grammar and Lexicon of the Romance Languages." [Abstract]

Topic 4: Coherence and Ambiguity in Dialogue, Speech and Text (Winkler/Knape)

The aim of this project is to evaluate the claim that those means supposed to evoke coherence (e.g. reference, economy-strategies, focus) in dialogues, speeches and texts can also evoke ambiguity. These investigations are based on the observation of referential expressions (e.g. pronouns, deixis, proforms), economy-strategies (e.g. application of ellipses, fragments, reduced structures) and focus strategies (e.g. application of emphasis and contrast, parallel structures, polarity) which can cause ambiguity. We assume that ambiguity is triggered here because, firstly, the application of functional categories and reduced structures triggers processes of interpretation, and, secondly, economy and focus strategies in dialogue, speech and text are subject to dynamic processes of construction and reconstruction of discourse referents. This is illustrated in the following example:

"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we." (G. W. Bush, 08-05-2004)

The combination of contrast marking by parallel structures with different forms of proforms and ellipsis leads to an ambiguity which triggers the recipient to look for an alternative solution. The investigation accounts for syntactic, semantic, prosodic as well as pragmatic licensing conditions of coherence triggering linguistic cues, which in turn depend on the information structural segmentation of the utterance. The investigations will be accompanied by a systematic analysis of written (literary texts, interviews) and spoken data (speeches, interviews). We aim at a better understanding of the relation between form and meaning of devices that trigger coherence and the explanation of their ambiguity potential and function in discourse. A central question is concerned with the role of world knowledge and the construction of fictional events and how these influence language-specific interpretation processes. To account for these processes, we will consider methods of rhetoric, literary studies and linguistics.

Melanie Henschke, "The Role of Functional Aspects for (Un-)Ambiguous Elliptical Constructions: An Interdisciplinary Investigation of Public Speeches" [Abstract]

Thomas Susanka, "Mehrdeutigkeit in bildlichen Persuasionsvorgängen."  [Abstract only available in German]

Nikola Gisela Wiegeler, "Silent codes. Kinesic signs as rhetorical elements in communicative interaction. Pantomime, Commedia dell’arte, Ballet, Theatre und Silent films." [Abstract only available in German]