Lemmatic Ambiguity

Lemmatic communication may not be as crippled as you think.

Lemmatic communication is problematic because it is crippled compared with unrestricted communication.

Yes, it is crippled, but other kinds of communication, too, are crippled, and yet they are widely used and venerated.

For example, monochrome photography. No color.

And writing. No prosody, facial expressions, gestures, or posture.

And natural language. No guaranteed correspondence between form and meaning.

More generally, Roy Blount Jr. asserts, “the only thing universal in communication is our inability to say exactly what we mean.” (Often, I suspect, because we don’t know exactly what we mean.)

Courtney Humphries in “An Evolving Foe” (Harvard Magazine, March–April 2010) writes “In Malawi, he says, many more people die of malaria than in Senegal” (p. 75). I don’t know what that means. Perhaps the malarial death count is higher in Malawi. Perhaps it’s higher per-capita but not absolutely. Perhaps what’s being compared is deaths per case of malaria, not total or per-capita malarial deaths. Or the denominator may be different: malarial deaths as a fraction of all deaths. And does this assertion apply to the present and the indefinite past?

If full, unrestricted natural language in written form is used as sloppily as this, how disabling would a lemmatic constraint really be? Would you know much less about the facts if you read a lemmatic passage like this?:

malaria kill Senegal person quantity

malaria kill Malawi person quantity more

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