Standards In Irish
Sir, - Malachy O'Rourke in his article "Writing the Wrongs" (Weekend, September 26th) suggests that the Irish language "must devise ways, as a matter of urgency, to ensure that total clarity and a complete absence of ambiguity are the hallmarks of the language from now on." Of the 4,000-6,000 world languages which are extant, has anyone yet uncovered a language which in both its spoken and written form is without ambiguity? I think not. The Irish language is not alone in this. The English language is a bastion of great ambiguities when it is politically or culturally expedient for it to be so - as we have witnessed in the Clinton tribulations, or in the ambiguities of newspaper headlines, the language used in advertising, auctioneering, etc.
We may see ambiguity in language as part of its richness in word-play and part of its danger as in, for example, propaganda. The view that language can be unambiguous, that words have fixed meanings, is an ancient one which extends back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle in the fourth century BC. This view can really exist only for technical terms such as that of a square as a "closed flat figure, with four sides of equal length, and all interior angles equal." In the world of linguistic realities, vague linguistic and semantic boundaries and "fuzzy edges" are the norm. I quote Jean Aitchison from her excellent 1996 BBC Reith Lectures "The Language Web - The Power and Problem of Words": "Word meanings are like stretchy pullovers, whose outline contour is visible, but whose detailed shape varies with use: the proper meaning of a word ... is never something upon which the word sits like a gull on a stone; it is something over which the word hovers like a gull over a ship's stern."
We cannot delete ambiguity from any language but we can place emphasis on good, clear communications in the written and spoken world. As Aitchison says, good communicators are "like cooks squeezing a lemon, they extract the essence, then convey the full flavour to the consumers, whether in speech or writing." - Is mise, Deirdre Ni Chuanachain,