What is Semantic Transparency?

semantic transparency
The word blueberry is semantically transparent; the word strawberry is not. (James A. Guilliam/Getty Images)

Semantic transparency is the degree to which the meaning of a compound word or an idiom can be inferred from its parts (or morphemes).

Peter Trudgill offers examples of non-transparent and transparent compounds: "The English word dentist is not semantically transparent whereas the Norwegian word tannlege, literally 'tooth doctor,' is" (A Glossary of Sociolinguistics, 2003).

A word that is not semantically transparent is said to be opaque.

Examples and Observations

  • "Intuitively speaking, [semantic transparency] can be seen as a property of surface structures enabling listeners to carry out semantic interpretation with the least possible machinery amd with the least possible requirements regarding language learning."
    (Pieter A.M. Seuren and Herman Wekker, "Semantic Transparency as a Factor in Creole Genesis." Substrata Versus Universals in Creole Genesis, ed. by P. Muysken and N. Smith. John Benjamins, 1986)
  • "Semantic transparency can be viewed as a continuum. One end reflects a more superficial, literal correspondence and the opposite end reflects a deeper, more elusive and figurative correspondence. Previous studies have concluded that transparent idioms are generally easier to decipher than opaque idioms (Nippold & Taylor, 1995; Norbury, 2004)."
    (Belinda Fusté-Herrmann, "Idiom Comprehension in Bilingual and Monolingual Adolescents." PhD Dissertation, University of South Florida, 2008)
  • "Teaching students strategies for dealing with figurative language will help them to take advantage of the semantic transparency of some idioms. If they can figure out the meaning of an idiom by themselves, they will have a link from the idiomatic to the literal words, which will help them learn the idiom."
    (Suzanne Irujo, "Steering Clear: Avoidance in the Production of Idioms." International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 1993)

    Types of Semantic Transparency: Blueberries vs. Strawberries

    • "[Gary] Libben (1998) presents a model of compound representation and processing in which the crucial notion is that of semantic transparency. . . .

      "Libben's model distinguishes between semantically transparent compounds (blueberry) and semantically lexicalised biomorphemic units which, as Libben assumes, are monomorphemic in the minds of language users (strawberry). To put it another way, native speakers realise that while strawberry can be analysed into straw and berry, strawberry does not contain the meaning of straw. This difference in semantic transparency is captured at the conceptual level. Libben distinguishes two types of semantic transparency. Constituency pertains to the use of morphemes in their original/shifted meaning (in shoehorn, shoe is transparent because it is used in its original meaning, while horn is opaque). Componentiality bears on the meaning of a compound as a whole: for example, bighorn is non-componential because the meaning of this word cannot be inferred from the meanings of its constituents even if these are related to independent morphemes. This makes it possible to inhibit, for example, the lexical representation of boy of the lexical unit boycott, and to inhibit the meaning of straw to interfere with the interpretation of strawberry.

      "By referring to these considerations in Libben (1998), [Wolfgang] Dressler (in press) distinguishes four fundamental degrees of morphosemantic transparency of compounds:
      1. transparency of both members of the compound, e.g., door-bell;
      2. transparency of the head member, opacity of the non-head member, e.g., straw-berry;
      3. transparency of the non-head member, opacity of the head member, e.g., jail-bird;
      4. opacity of both members of the compound: hum-bug.
      It goes without saying that type 1 is the most appropriate and type 4 the least appropriate in terms of meaning predictability."
      (Pavol Štekauer, Meaning Predictability in Word Formation. John Benjamins, 2005)

      Linguistic Borrowing

      • "In theory, all content items and function words in any Y are potentially borrowable by speakers of any X irrespective of morphological typology because all languages have content items and function words. In practice, X will not borrow all the forms of Y (whether they are borrowable or not). Perceptual salience and semantic transparency, in themselves relative notions, will conspire together to promote individual form classes. Other factors, for example frequency and intensity of exposure and relevance, will further restrict the list of possible candidates. Obviously, the actual list of borrowed forms may, in fact, vary from speaker to speaker depending on such factors as degree of education (and, therefore, familiarity with and exposure to Y), occupation (restricting exposure to certain semantic domains), and so on."
        (Frederick W. Field, Linguistic Borrowing in Bilingual Contexts. John Benjamins, 2002)