Friday, March 1, 2013

Ambiguity in Language: Purple People Eater

Well he came down to earth and he lit in a tree,
I said "Mr. Purple People Eater, don't eat me!"
I heard him say in a voice so gruff:
"I wouldn't eat you cuz you're so tough."
This is one of the first posts I wrote when I started this blog, but it never really felt finished it. So it sat un-posted and forgotten until recent events inspired me to finally post it. It still feels unfinished.

Purple People Eater is a song is about a "One eyed, one horned, flying purple people eater" that came to Earth to start a rock 'n roll band, and it goes a little something like this:

Most people imagine some sort of cycloptic, horned, purple monster that flies and eats people. This is a legitimate interpretation, but not the only one. Not even the correct one. Listen again to the verse that starts at 0:50:
I said Mr. Purple People Eater, what's your line?
He said, "Eating purple people, and it sure is fine."
According to these lyrics, the purple people eater eats purple people. This indicates that you or I should be safe (though this guy is pretty much screwed), and that Mr. Purple People Eater will most likely be pretty hungry on a planet without purple people (like ours). This is not how most people interpret it, including the creators of the 1988 Purple People Eater Movie:

The ambiguity stems from the fact that English is not associative and there is no convention for order of operations. Should the expression be evaluated from the right: purple (people eater), or from the left: (purple people) eater. [footnote 1] If we include the entire description, there are actually 5 possibilities:

Once you know to look for it, ambiguity is everywhere: Is a "big, bad dog catcher" a catcher of big, bad dogs, or a dog catcher that's big and bad? Is Dr. Seuss's book about ham and green eggs, or green eggs and green ham? Is Clifford a big, red dog, or a Big Red dog [foot note 2]? What does Candice mean when she asks for an X-Ray of a Kangaroo with three legs?

LEFT: An X-Ray (of a Kangaroo with three legs)
RIGHT: An X-Ray of a Kangaroo (with three legs)

Is this strange ambiguity unique to English, or do other languages get bogged down by purple people eaters as well? I asked around, and here is a short summery of my results:

Purple People Eater
Cantonese Chinese
1. 紫色食人物
2. 食紫色人的物體
Mandarin Chinese
1. 紫色食人者 
2. 食紫色人者 
Spanish [3]
Comedor de gente purpura
(Alternatively: Come gente purpura)
Ο άνθρωπος που τρώει μωβ άνθρωποι
1. Lila Menschenfresser
2. Der Ungeheuer frisst lila menschen
3. Der lila Ungeheuer frisst menschen
Albanian [4]
 Njerzit ngjyrë manushaqe ngrënës



[1] Here the parenthesis are being used to group words, not to indicate a parenthetical statement.


Hooray Puns!

[3] My Spanish speaking friend points out a bonus ambiguity: "Purpura" is neither masculine or feminine, so if "purpura" describes the eater, then it's unclear whether the eater is male or female.

[4] My Albanian friend's handwriting is not fantastic, so there may be some errors

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