Source or object?

From Rick Gladsone and Anne Bernard, “U.S. Officials Say Hezbollah Helps Syria’s Military”, NYT 8/11/12, p. A1:

The accusations, which went beyond previous American claims about Hezbollah support for Syria’s government, seemed intended to counter Obama administration critics who say the White House is not doing enough to support the Syrian opposition now that diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict are paralyzed.

… Some Hezbollah experts expressed skepticism, however, saying the accusations should be approached with caution unless more evidence was presented.

I’ve boldfaced two N + N compounds: [ Obama administration ] [ critics ] and [Hezbollah experts ]. Taken out of context, both are ambiguous, with two relevant interpretations, N1 as source vs. N1 as object:

Obama administration critics: Source ‘critics in/from the Obama administration’; Object ‘critics of the Obama administration

Hezbollah experts: Source ‘experts in/from Hezbollah; Object ‘experts on Hezbollah’

The intended interpretation is Object in both cases. This is clear enough for the first compound, given the immediate context, but the second could still be taken either way; we need more context to be sure.

There’s nothing special or unusual about these examples. An N + N compound has the virtue of great brevity — the two Ns are merely juxtaposed, with no formal indication of the relationship between the parts, so that we can interpret it in an almost endless number of ways.  There are some standard, or canonical, semantic relationships (Source and Object among them), but beyond those, given background knowledge, we can see all sorts of relationships in context, the only boundary condition being that N1 should have something to do with N2. That opens the door to “distant compounds” like canoe wife (here, with many other examples in postings on Language Log and this blog).

I mention these familiar points only because many people view (potential) ambiguity as a great flaw, while it is in fact a prominent feature of language; languages revel in it. Understanding language depends not only on what’s “in” expressions, but also crucially uses our abilities to take context, background knowedge, previous experience, and assessments of conversational goals into account.

So if you go looking for possibly problematic ambiguities — in the second example above, for instance — you’ll find them all over the place. The question is what’s likely to work, in this context, with this audience, and that’s a matter of judgment.

Compounding provides nearly as much brevity as you can get in expressing conceptual combinations. (Only unanalyzable lexical items with complex meanings can go further.) Going in the other direction, there are many levels of greater explicitness — for compounds, PP modification, as in experts on Hezbollah as an alternative to one sense of Hezbollah experts. (You can go on to provide more details about the experts or the expertise in question, as in experts who have studied the workings of Hezbollah, and so on.) How much explicitness to provide is, again, a matter of judgment.



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