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The role of semantic transparency in the processing of English compound words


Correspondence should be addressed to Dr Steven Frisson, School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK (e-mail:


Experiment 1 examined whether the semantic transparency of an English unspaced compound word affected how long it took to process it in reading. Three types of opaque words were each compared with a matched set of transparent words (i.e. matched on the length and frequency of the constituents and the frequency of the word as a whole). Two sets of the opaque words were partially opaque: either the first constituent was not related to the meaning of the compound (opaque-transparent) or the second constituent was not related to the meaning of the compound (transparent-opaque). In the third set (opaque-opaque), neither constituent was related to the meaning of the compound. For all three sets, there was no significant difference between the opaque and the transparent words on any eye-movement measure. This replicates an earlier finding with Finnish compound words (Pollatsek & Hyönä, 2005) and indicates that, although there is now abundant evidence that the component constituents play a role in the encoding of compound words, the meaning of the compound word is not constructed from the parts, at least for compound words for which a lexical entry exists. Experiment 2 used the same compounds but with a space between the constituents. This presentation resulted in a transparency effect, indicating that when an assembly route is ‘forced’, transparency does play a role.