Consider the following examples from different languages:

(en) The bridge has been built a couple years ago.

(de) Das Problem ist größer als vor ein paar Jahren.

(pl) Poznaliśmy się parę lat temu.

(sv) Det tar ett par veckor.

... and I am sure there are other examples too.

Clearly the notion of pair/couple has become to mean more than two (I'd even argue in these sentences it would be a stretch to interpret it as "two or more", to me it sounds clearly as "more than two"). At the same time - in other contexts, in the same languages - the word 'pair' or similar means exactly 2.

How come several languages ended up with such (same!) ambiguity? Moreover affecting involving different stems (~pair, ~couple)

  • By with such ambiguity if you mean with same ambiguity then the answer is cognates. They retain their semantics from before adoption, so these languages might have adopted the same word "with ambiguity" – WiccanKarnak Feb 3 '18 at 8:40
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    There was a recent Language Hat blog post about English "a couple", based on a Lingua Franca article by Anne Curzan ("A Couple of Thoughts"); the comments mention some other examples: HOW MANY IS A COUPLE? – brass tacks Feb 3 '18 at 9:28
  • Note that the quoted languages are in geographical proximity of each other and that there is a lot of contact between them. It may be a Sprachbund feature. – jk - Reinstate Monica Feb 3 '18 at 23:24
  • In Cantonese, loeng5 ('two') can also refer to more than two of something in an indefinite NP. I don't think it's as common as 'couple', though. – WavesWashSands Feb 7 '18 at 9:34

This is a lexical gap, also borderline case of an accidental semantic gap (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accidental_gap#Semantic_gaps).

Simply put, there is a concept that is missing a word from the lexicon. Therefore the next best thing that is available, its immediate neighbour pours into that space and integrates its meaning.

In this case, on an imaginary scale, this would be along the lines of:

plenty > many > numerous > several > a few > more than two but not quite so many that we could call them a few or several > couple / pair (as in exactly two) > one / single

In this case, few and a couple overlap and allow for a choice in everyone's personal dictionary. So this has nothing to do with stems, it is based purely in semantics. Also exists in, say Hungarian, where the word pár has the same exact connotation meaning a couple (male and female of the same species) and also a few, more than two.

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Sometimes there is an advantage in ambiguity. "Couple" means "about two", in the same way that "dozen" means "about twelve" and "score" means "about twenty". By contrast "two", "twelve" and "twenty" are exact quantities.

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  • isnt OP's question also about how the ambiguity was the same in different languages as well? – WiccanKarnak Feb 3 '18 at 12:54

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