Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Aristotle: "Avoid Ambiguities"

I. Aristotle’s Most Straightforward Word

Aristotle is sounding a lot like my linguist friend Richard Rhodes again. In Book III, Chapter 5, of the Rhetoric, Aristotle starts in on “correctness of language,” or “grammatical correctness,” or “purity” depending on who’s doing the translating into English. Then Aristotle (quite objectively mind you) gives five rules to make a speech or a written composition “easy to read and therefore easy to deliver.” (Aristotle also disparages five other people as examples of poor communicators who break the five rules). If I can make this post easy to read, then let me focus on just a single rule, Rule #3: “Avoid Ambiguities.” The questions we might ask are these: (a) whether we can meet Aristotle’s standards for “correctness of language,” (b) specifically whether we can even keep Rule #3 and “avoid ambiguities,” and (c) whether Aristotle really was better at communicating by his own standards than the people he names as bad communicators.

II. the outline

And let me spell out the intended outline for this blog post: I. (above) is my introduction with thesis statement at the end. II. (here then) I give this blog outline. III. (below) I’ll give all my blogger friend Lingamish needs to read (in English) first. IV. (then below that) I’ll give the clearest we’ve got from Aristotle in his Greek. V. (next) We’ll look at the word Aristotle uses for “ambiguities” so as to have his students avoid them. VI. (following that) We’ll look at how Homer and Hesiod used that word, and how the earliest Bible translators used that term. VII. We’ll foolishly conjecture about the difference an afrafeminist translation might make. VIII. Finally, we’ll offer some conclusions, hoping allthewhile we’ve avoided ambiguities and have been otherwise correct and have written something (again) that is easy to read, for that is the goal of all good writing and good translation of the Greek isn’t it?

III. the English translation (from Rhys Roberts)

Such, then, are the ingredients of which speech is composed. The foundation of good style is correctness of language, which falls under five heads…

The third is to avoid ambiguities; unless, indeed, you definitely desire to be ambiguous, as those do who have nothing to say but are pretending to mean something. Such people are apt to put that sort of thing into verse. Empedocles, for instance, by his long circumlocutions imposes on his hearers; these are affected in the same way as most people are when they listen to diviners, whose ambiguous utterances are received with nods of acquiescence –

“Croesus by crossing the Halys will ruin a mighty realm.”

[1407b] Diviners use these vague generalities about the matter in hand because their predictions are thus, as a rule, less likely to be falsified. We are more likely to be right, in the game of "odd and even," if we simply guess "even" or "odd" than if we guess at the actual number; and the oracle-monger is more likely to be right if he simply says that a thing will happen than if he says when it will happen, and therefore he refuses to add a definite date. All these ambiguities have the same sort of effect, and are to be avoided unless we have some such object as that mentioned.

…It is a general rule that a written composition should be easy to read and therefore easy to deliver.

IV. Aristotle’s Clear Greek (which you’d think should be τὸ ἑλληνίζειν )

ὁ μὲν οὐ̂ν λόγος συντίθεται ἐκ τούτων, ἔστι δ’ ἀρχὴ τη̂ς λέξεως τὸ ἑλληνίζειν : του̂το δ’ ἐστὶν ἐν πέντε,…

τρίτον μὴ ἀμφιβόλοις . του̂το δ’ ἂν μὴ τἀναντία προαιρη̂ται, ὅπερ ποιου̂σιν ὅταν μηδὲν μὲν ἔχωσι λέγειν, προσποιω̂νται δέ τι λέγειν: οἱ γὰρ τοιου̂τοι ἐν ποιήσει λέγουσιν ταυ̂τα, οἱ̂ον ̓Εμπεδοκλη̂ς: φενακίζει γὰρ τὸ κύκλῳ πολὺ ὄν, καὶ πάσχουσιν οἱ ἀκροαταὶ ὅπερ οἱ πολλοὶ παρὰ τοι̂ς μάντεσιν: ὅταν γὰρ λέγωσιν ἀμφίβολα, συμπαρανεύουσιν—

Κροι̂σος ̔́Αλυν διαβὰς μεγάλην ἀρχὴν καταλύσει

[1407b] --καὶ διὰ τὸ ὅλως ἔλαττον εἰ̂ναι ἁμάρτημα διὰ τω̂ν γενω̂ν του̂ πράγματος λέγουσιν οἱ μάντεις: τύχοι γὰρ ἄν τις μα̂λλον ἐν τοι̂ς ἀρτιασμοι̂ς ἄρτια ἢ περισσὰ εἰπὼν μα̂λλον ἢ πόσα ἔχει, καὶ τὸ ὅτι ἔσται ἢ τὸ πότε, διὸ οἱ χρησμολόγοι οὐ προσορίζονται τὸ πότε . ἅπαντα δὴ ταυ̂τα ὅμοια, ὥστ’ ἂν μὴ τοιούτου τινὸς ἕνεκα, φευκτέον.

…ὅλως δὲ δει̂ εὐανάγνωστον εἰ̂ναι τὸ γεγραμμένον καὶ εὔφραστον

V. Aristotle’s Word for “Ambiguities”

As we all can see, Aristotle’s word for “ambiguities” is clearly ἀμφιβόλοις (which we can transliterate amphibolois) or its variant ἀμφίβολα (which we can transliterate amphibola). And, indeed, George A. Kennedy translates Aristotle’s Rule #3 this way: “Third is not to use amphibolies.” Lest that’s not clear enough, Kennedy provides his English readers here his footnote 61: “An amphiboly (lit. ‘what shoots both ways’) is an equivocation based on a word or phrase with an ambiguous meaning, often creating a fallacious argument; see 3.18.5.” (So, for the sake of clarity, let’s pretend we don’t see the circularity in Kennedy’s footnote’s argument). Clear enough? Good.

VI.A. Ancient Poets’ Uses of His Word for “Ambiguities”

Don’t we wish the ancient poet Sappho had used the word, as ambiguous as the fragments of her writings to us seem today? I’ll have to admit to blogger friend Suzanne that the closest I’ve found is this fragment as quoted by Hermogenes and then by Demetrius long after she was gone: αμφ δ δωρ. (And this doesn’t even explain why the variant text Anne Carson translates is instead this: ἐν δ δωρ).

Not to worry, the writings of the ancient men are much better preserved! Here’s Homer first and then Hesiod.

The Illiad (17, line 742; and 23, line 97):

ο δ' ς θ' μίονοι κρατερν μένος μφιβαλόντες

λλά μοι σσον στθι: μίνυνθά περ μφιβαλόντε

The Odyssey (6, line 178; 17, line 344; 22, line 103; and 23, line 192):

στυ δέ μοι δεξον, δς δ ῥάκος μφιβαλέσθαι,

κα κρέας, ς ο χερες χάνδανον μφιβαλόντι

ατός τ' μφιβαλεμαι ἰών, δώσω δ συβώτ

τ δ' γ μφιβαλν θάλαμον δέμον, φρ' τέλεσσα,

Work and Days (of Hesiod, lines 545 and 787):

ετο μφιβάλ λέην: κεφαλφι δ' περθεν

σηκόν τ' μφιβαλεν ποιμνήϊον πιον μαρ

So how to translate these (and still avoid ambiguities)? Well, Sappho is talking about the coolness “wrapped around” the waters, we infer. And that’s just not good enough. So here’s what the men of literature are saying.

The Illiad (17, line 742; and 23, line 97):

driving strength “thrown around” the mules;

an “embrace around” a brother by another brother.

The Odyssey (6, line 178; 17, line 344; 22, line 103; and 23, line 192):

clothing to be thrown around our hero by the queen;

hands thrown around a whole loaf and pork to eat;

hands thrown around helmet, a shield, and two spears;

a chamber compartment put around a make-shift shelter.

Work and Days (lines 545 and 787):

a raincoat thrown over one’s back to keep one dry;

a fence built around a sheep pen.

VI.B. 1st Bible Translators Uses of His Word for “Ambiguities”

Well, without further adu, let’s leave the silly poets with all their throwing around and over and all their putting around these “ambiguities.” They don’t have Aristotle to critique or to correct them yet.

Let’s get to the first Bible translators, who were commissioned in the great city that Aristotle’s great student established: Alexandria. Here’s how these Jews translated the old Hebrew (albeit some poetry) into newer Greek:

Psalms 141:10 (aka 140:10 for the LXX)

πεσονται ν μφιβλήστρ ατο μαρτωλοί κατ μόνας εμ γ ως ο ν παρέλθω

Ecclesiastes (aka Qoheleth for the LXX) 9:12

τι καί γε οκ γνω νθρωπος τν καιρν ατο ς ο χθύες ο θηρευόμενοι ν μφιβλήστρ κακ κα ς ρνεα τ θηρευόμενα ν παγίδι ς ατ παγιδεύονται ο υο το ῦἀνθρώπου ες καιρν πονηρόν ταν πιπέσ π ατος φνω

Isaiah 19:8

κα στενάξουσιν ο λεες κα στενάξουσιν πάντες ο βάλλοντες γκιστρον ες τν ποταμόν κα ο βάλλοντες σαγήνας κα ο μφιβολες πενθήσουσιν

Habakkuk 1:15, 16, 17

συντέλειαν ν γκίστρ νέσπασεν κα ελκυσεν ατν ν μφιβλήστρ κα συνήγαγεν ατν ν τας σαγήναις ατο νεκεν τούτου εφρανθήσεται κα χαρήσεται καρδία ατο

νεκεν τούτου θύσει τ σαγήν ατο κα θυμιάσει τ μφιβλήστρ ατο τι ν ατος λίπανεν μερίδα ατο κα τ βρώματα ατο κλεκτά

δι τοτο μφιβαλε τ μφίβληστρον ατο κα δι παντς ποκτέννειν θνη ο φείσεται

And here’s how a couple of followers of Joshua (aka Jesus) used even newer Greek including Aristotle’s old word:

Matthew 4:18

περιπατν δ παρ τν θάλασσαν τς Γαλιλαίας εδεν δύο δελφούς Σίμωνα τν λεγόμενον Πέτρον κα νδρέαν τν δελφν ατο βάλλοντας μφίβληστρον ες τν θάλασσαν σαν γρ λιες

Mark 1:16

κα παράγων παρ τν θάλασσαν τς Γαλιλαίας εδεν Σίμωνα κα νδρέαν τν δελφν Σίμωνος μφιβάλλοντας ν τ θαλάσσ σαν γρ λιες

By now, it should be clear that the word Aristotle seems to use for “ambiguities” the straightforward term that beginning Bible translators use for “fish nets.”

VII. Foolish Ambiguous (Feminist) Conjecture

Now, let’s imagine. Let’s imagine that Pythias and Pythias (Aristotle’s first wife and their daughter) pick up a copy of Aristotle’s Rhetoric one day while he is off at the academy teaching the boys. Let’s imagine they read what we’ve read in our section IV above. Let’s imagine that Pythias says to her mother Pythias (in the Hellene mother tongue, of course): “Mom, why does Dad say ‘No Throw-Wraps’ when speaking or writing”? Would the girl be so foolish to imagine her mother might agree that Aristotle is using a word that poets have used to throw a wrap around a body? Isn’t there ambiguity here that they and the poets are creating? One single word is thrown around so many different bodies: 1) coolness wrapped around a body of water; 2) driving strength thrown around the body of beasts; 3) siblings’ arms thrown around one another in a hug; 4) the queen’s clothing granted around our hero’s tired physique; 5) hungry grateful hands on satisfying bread and sweet pig meat; 6) an entire warring wardrobe fit well on one mighty-fit warrior; 7) a room of one’s own (with furniture perhaps); 8) a London-Fog style overcoat; 9) a secure place to keep the sheep; and (with a great stretch of the imagination for the future) 10) a bunch of fish nets (and this is well before anyone imagined fish-net stockings).

VII. Conclusion

I wish I could conclude here the way Kenneth L Pike does: with a poem. But there’s too much ambiguity in that, and besides it was the poets who started all the confusion in the first place. I’m really afraid we’re going to have to end by saying Aristotle finds himself in a pickle here. No wonder the objectivist never showed his Rhetoric to the girls at home. No wonder he silences those females. No wonder he teaches the educated boys τὸ ἑλληνίζειν (or “pure correct Greek”) by μὴ ἀμφιβόλοις.


Richard A. Rhodes said...

OK, I'll bite.

Linguists have long distinguished between between vagueness and ambiguity. Vagueness is when you give too little information:

"Honey, some guy called today and said he can't come until tomorrow."

Ambiguity is when there are two distinct interpretations:

"Visiting relatives can be dangerous."

(a) going to visit relatives can be dangerous.
(b) relatives coming to visit can be dangerous.

(OK, I'll cop to the fact that there's a small middle ground between vagueness and ambiguity, but the distinction is clear most of the time, and is quite useful.)

Aristotle rails against vagueness, not ambiguity.

And there is a third kind of thing that could legitimately be called ambiguity. That is when an expression is used pragmatically to convey its implication rather than it's reference, as in our discussion of καθεδρα some time back.

The metaphor of a "wrap around thing" is perfect for vagueness.

J. K. Gayle said...

Fair enough, Rich.

Let's not be vague about what Aristotle surely, unequivocally means.

But I didn't make all this stuff up. Note all the ambiguities in "vagueness" here; and all of the vagueness in "ambiguity" there.

I do appreciate your endorsement of my "wrap around thing" (which I say is both ambiguous and vague).

But why do you suppose all the English translators of Aristotle's Greek Rhetoric (of 1686, 1818, 1823, 1890, 1926, 1954-the one I quoted at length here, 1960, 1991, and 2007), why do you suppose they mistranslate Aristotle's "vagueness" as "ambiguity"? Bad linguists who don't know better? And what of George A. Kennedy's footnote on his transliteration: “An amphiboly (lit. ‘what shoots both ways’) is an equivocation based on a word or phrase with an ambiguous meaning, often creating a fallacious argument”?

Now I don't expect you to defend all bad translators just as you don't expect me to defend all bad feminists. But don't you think that it's the translation method, the very call to eliminate sloppiness in language that Aristotle makes here, that each of the translators is following?

And would you say a parable is vague or ambiguous? Or (ambiguously) both?

Thank you again for the conversation (and your clarifications)!

Richard A. Rhodes said...

Yes. The hoi poloi use the word ambiguous ambiguously to mean either 'ambiguous' or 'vague'.

And the hoi poloi include dictionary makers (notoriously bad at semantics), literary translators, and Aristotle himself.

This is a backhanded way of saying that these are technical terms. It's only linguists who make the distinction between ambiguity and vagueness.

But the distinction is quite robust, even if there isn't an excluded middle. See this article. And it is quite useful.

You might also find the subdistinctions that specialized linguists make to be of interest, esp. the one numbered 4 here.

Notably absent from the discussion thus far is Grice, whose maxims include:

"Avoid ambiguity."

By which he meant ambiguity in the non-technical sense, unless you consider that he covers prototypical vagueness under the maxim of quantity.

We really should talk about Grice separately, because the understanding of contextualization that's implicit in his thinking convinces me that there's less ambiguity and vagueness around than the written word -- esp. those words that are "remote" in Pete Becker's sense -- leads us to think. (Alton "Pete" Becker was a student of Pike's in the 60's and is very interested in translation issues.)

So on to the question of parables. That's what I was trying to get at when I mumbled that stuff about καθεδρα being ambiguous in a third way.

Parables are spang on specific as first order communication, but they have interesting second order meanings, and the difficulty of connection to those second order meanings render them, in some sense, both vague and ambiguous.

Richard A. Rhodes said...

Rats, I forgot to say that Aristotle's example of the oracle, is prototype vagueness.

J. K. Gayle said...

Rich, So glad you feel free to use the expletive "Rats!" My siblings and I, once upon a time, were prolific comic book readers and learned that word there (I think it was from Charlie Brown); but our father(an evangelical Christian missionary in Vietnam the last 10 years of the war) forbade us from using such belligerent language (i.e., words and meanings all over again). To be fair to Dad, there were other words (Vietnamese words, which should NOT be used in comments on this blog!) which had for us children and our playmate friends and enemies meanings that he didn't share (although with these words there were sufficiently unambiguous pragmatic-only meanings for Dad). So the Vietnamese words couldn't be spoken around home either.

Appreciate your comments and the links here. Am tracking those down (and for anyone else doing the same, the "article...quite useful" is here: http://www.stanford.edu/~zwicky/ambiguity-tests-and-how-to-fail-them.pdf) Some of this may deserve a separate blog post.

Richard A. Rhodes said...

I wondered how it was that you came to know VNese. Did you read my ancient post that had a reference to cursing in VNese? If not, it's here.

Sometime, off line, I'd like to find out what was likely said. I'm not squeamish about these things the way most evangelicals are, because I've done linguistic work on interjections. (I wrote the Oxford Encyclopedia of Linguistics article on interjections.)