I've read an exam question given in a class on Semantics, that was asking

Why is language necessarily underspecified

I did not find much about this at the time, which is surprising because it intuitively strikes me as an important concept.

The class was using J. I. Saeed, "Semantics", which albeit does not index the term. The notion must have been given separately in class. The student couldn't guide me any further either. What I found is too formal, e.g. there's the Wikipedia article Underspecification focused mainly on phonetic and morphologic underspecification. A random .pdf jumped right inwith syntax trees. Now I found Ambiguity in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which in turn may be too broad (I should read it eventually).

At any rate, I hope the instructor was not asking the students to synthesize an answer. Rather, I suppose they referred the idea about "necessity" to a certain line of thought, a scholar, or seminal work, in the sense that e.g. "one cannot not communicate" is attributed to Paul Watzlawick, or "I know that I know nothing" to Plato's Sokrates, even if this isn't always completely accurate.

So, looking for an authoritative answer, this is basically a reference request. A discussion, or rather a summary of the context is welcome, but I'm affraid it would have to be necessarily underspecified and thus may be kept brief.

PS: A search for "semantics underspecified" yields many results. The reference request still stands, as long as I can't answer it myself, while I postpone flipping through the results (18 months later I am none the wiser; who developed the idea?)

  • 7
    The motto (among some linguists) is "Semantics underspecifies". What they mean by it is that the details, and often the main point, of any combinational utterance is determined by pragmatics, not semantics. In other words, context overrides semantics; most folks who say this view semantics as a semi-formal variety of logic.
    – jlawler
    Aug 19 '19 at 2:29
  • 2
    Saeed (4th ed.), Semantics, Glossary, p. 456, there's an explanation of underspecification.
    – Alex B.
    Aug 19 '19 at 23:58
  • 1
    @jlawler that was my instinctual thought as well. Aug 20 '19 at 11:42
  • 1
    Also, you may want to try googling "semantic underspecification" (About 331,000 results)
    – Alex B.
    Aug 20 '19 at 12:48

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