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Ambiguity is a phenomenon within language and communication that is likewise of interest for linguistics and literary studies. Both disciplines regard ambiguity as being rather productive. Surprisingly enough, this is the end of the common ground. On closer examination it turns out that linguistics and literary studies follow completely contrary concepts of ambiguity, especially concerning the question of productivity.
For linguistics, the phenomena of ambiguity as to language system and language use are of special interest because they deliver power that leads to unambiguousness. This so-called principle of "disambiguation" within linguistic theory is always connected to an abstract descriptive model. The goal of a linguistic analysis of ambiguity is to detect the various linguistic data (words, sentences, texts) and to reassign them to strategies of disambiguation processes via small-grained descriptions within morphology, lexicon, syntax, semantics and pragmatics, all of which lead to a definite representation. Ambiguity is characterized by the suspension of the symmetry between concept and content of linguistic signs (cf. Saussure (1916) Cours de linguistique générale) and can be observed on all levels of language - accordingly, applying disambiguation strategies on more and more complex linguistic structures is the prime challenge for linguistic research.
The longing for a better understanding of the real nature of ambiguity has been a central theme throughout scientific and philosophical investigations of language and communication since ancient times. Aristotle mentions the concept of homonymy several times (Artistotle (ed. Rolfes, 1958) Kategorien/Lehre vom Satz, 43) and aims at differentiating between phoneme sequences (names) and the real nature of the depicted. Disambiguation, too, plays a central role for sequencing information structure on the sentence level. H. Paul ((1880) Prinzipien der Sprachgeschichte) showed the correlation between intonation and meaning within one sentence ('Karl fährt morgen nach Berlin'): Short texts can be disambiguated strategically by implicit questions. Functional pairs like theme/rheme, topic/comment, focus/background are strongly connected to phonology and segmentation of a sentence (cf. later works of the Prague School, e.g. Mathesius (1929) "Functional Linguistics"; Bristish School, e.g. Halliday (1972) Explorations in the Functions of Language; new publications on information structure, e.g. Molnár/Winkler (2006) The Architecture of Focus, Schwabe/Winkler (2007) Information Structure, Meaning and Form: Generalization Across Languages).
Early investigations within functional and text-oriented linguistics were repressed by taxonomic structuralism which centered on empirical investigations in the first half of the 20th century. The behavioral approach led to neglecting meaning components of language (cf. Bloomfield (1935) Language, 20). Structuralism, then, was detached by Generative Grammar which is based on the concept of an internalized grammar of a competent speaker and constitutes a rationalistically coined theory. This paradigmatic turn coincided with a change in goals of grammar theory: The meaning and interpretation of a sentence was emphasized again, but simultaneously the concept of linguistic representation was bound to a definite model of grammar on a certain level of language (cf. Chomsky (1957) Syntactic Structures). The principle of disambiguation is bound to a reconstruction of language at a level of meaning and consequently leads to a formalistic handling of language. Further work on the level of syntax has been accomplished in connection with cognitive approaches during the last decade (e.g. Culicover/Jackendoff (2005) Simpler Syntax).
For lexical semantics, polysemy is in the focus of investigation. Monosemic approaches, especially structural provenience (e.g. Geckeler (1971) Zur Wortfeldiskussion: Untersuchungen zur Gliederung des Wortfeldes "alt - jung - neu" in heutigen Französisch.; Picoche (1986) Structures sémantiques du lexique français) try to push ambiguity aside, either to contingency (homonymy) or to discourse. Logical semantic approaches (cf. Pinkal (1985) Logik und Lexikon; Croft/Cruse (2004) Cognitive Linguistics) develop a system of gradual and continual nuances of ambiguity types ranging up to 'capillary' meaning effects in discourse. The principle of disambiguation also coined the multifaceted research traditions of the semantics-pragmatics interface (Grice (1975) Meaning; Sperber/Wilson (1995) Relevance; Levinson (2000) Presumptive Meanings). Even in literary texts disambiguation is (consciously) highlighted, as the following passage shows, in which a potential ambiguity is resolved through a paraphrase of the non-immediate reading: "'I see nobody on the road,' said Alice. 'I only wish I had such eyes,' the King remarked in a fretful tone. 'To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too!'" (Lewis Carroll (1872) Through the Looking-Glass). Disambiguation of potentially ambiguous concepts is the central theme of various approaches within literary studies.
Linguistics considers ambiguity as productive because it triggers processes of disambiguation. To literary studies, on the other hand, ambiguity is of interest because it generates various meanings, showing the complexity of an increasingly distinct topoi. This process may even demonstrate that a literary text in general is epistemologically 'undecidable'. Its primary relation to reality thus consists in the depiction of the always just illusory nature of decidability. According to this concept, disambiguation (i.e. 'definite' interpretation) has been frowned upon for some decades. One reason for this is, amongst others, that it would take one of its last attributes of definition from studies of literature by questioning its mimetic function.
Literary studies are thus concerned with an epistemological model shaped by the Platonic distinction between things and ideas. Although both of these are called 'homonyms', they are not identical. From this perspective, in its definition ambiguity is not restricted to any differences in meaning connected to processes of denoting and understanding. In the 20th century, mainly Empson ((1931) Seven Types of Ambiguity, 53) applied this wider notion of ambiguity to literature. To Empson, ambiguity is everything leading to a different reaction to the same "piece of language". He tried as well to introduce categories ("seven types"). That is why his approach has been criticized by later works as being theoretically inadequate (cf. Bode (1988) Ästhetik der Ambiguität). It has been weakened especially by critical texts based on post-structuralist theories of literature and epistemology (Perloff (1981) The Poetics of Indeterminacy) and their underlying fundamental doubts about 'actual' meanings introduced by Nietzsche. Exposing this basic fact by its self-referentiality is a characteristic of literary language (cf. Lotman, Jakobson, Barthes). In this context, ambiguity figures as an attribute of literature in general, but also as a feature of certain epochs and developments, especially of the modern era (Eco (1967) Opera aperta).
Besides reflecting on the fundamental composition of literary texts and language, within research ambiguity has also been regarded as a special kind of constitutive criterion. Concerning communication, rhetorics on the one hand considers ambiguity as a failure (cf. Quintilian): The longing for perspicuitas (i.e. clarity) is accompanied by the avoidance of obscuritas (i.e. obscuration). On the other hand, ambiguity is created voluntarily, e.g. to serve sophism or wit or special religious, economic, political or forensic purposes: In oracles, advertising slogans, or other texts with a persuasive function, ambiguity (e.g. as a witty pun) is even explicitly in demand. All these strategies are also part of literary texts; therefore, they are under debate in literary research as well. We are particularly interested in studies of concrete ambiguity in texts regarding the overall intention and effect of the whole literary work, i.e. concerning poetry (e.g. Bauer (1995) Paronomasia celata) as well as prose and drama (cf. Rimmon (1977) The Concept of Ambiguity; Mittelbach (2003) Die Kunst des Widerspruchs). So far, research on ambiguity in literary texts, again, is concerned with the creative potential that ambiguity holds on a higher level of sense constitution rather than disambiguation processes.