Transparency (linguistic)

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Linguistic transparency is a phrase which is used in multiple, overlapping subjects in the fields of linguistics and the philosophy of language. It has both normative and descriptive senses.

Normative[edit]

Normatively, the phrase can be used to describe the effort to suit one's rhetoric to the widest possible audience, without losing relevant information in the process.

Advocates of normative linguistic transparency often argue that linguistic opacity is dangerous to a democracy. These critics point out that jargon is deliberately employed in government and business. It encrypts morally suspect information in order to dull reaction to it: for example, the phrase "collateral damage" to refer to the manslaughter of innocents.

One play upon this view was by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, who in the Elements of Style ruled that the writer ought to "eschew obfuscation".

The Plain Language Movement is an example of people who advocate using clearer, common language within the wider academic community.

Professor at New York University Alan Sokal, perpetrator of the Sokal hoax, is another noteworthy example of an advocate of linguistic transparency.

Writer and political philosopher George Orwell was a proponent of this view, which he captured in the landmark essay, "Politics and the English Language." Orwell wrote a novel, 1984, about a dystopian future controlled through a politically crafted language called "Newspeak." Newspeak is a language that is linguistically transparent in the descriptive sense, but not in the normative one.

Comedian George Carlin has famously parodied the phenomenon in his stand-up comedy.

The approach may sound like common sense, but it faces the difficulty of figuring out how to communicate complex and uncommon ideas in a popular way.

Descriptive[edit]

Semantic transparency is a descriptive phrase that has been used in linguistics to describe endocentric compounds. Endocentric compound words are those whose whole meaning can be figured out by an analysis of its parts or "morphemes". An example of an endocentric compound is the word "car-wash". By contrast, some compound words are exocentric, meaning their whole meaning cannot be established by an analysis of parts; for example, the word "hogwash". Exocentric words are also known as semantically opaque.

References[edit]

  • Libben, G., Gibson, M., Yoon, Y-B. & Sandra D. (2003). Compound fracture: The role of semantic transparency and morphological headedness. Brain and Language, 84, 50-64.