Semantic ambiguity within and across languages: An integrative review

Tamar Degani, Natasha Tokowicz

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Semantic ambiguity often occurs within a language (e.g., the word "organ" in English means both a body part and a musical instrument), but it can also cross a language boundary, such that a given word form is shared in two languages, but its meanings are different (e.g., the word "angel" means "sting" in Dutch). Bilingual individuals are therefore faced not only with ambiguity in each of their languages, but also with ambiguity across languages. The current review focuses on studies that explored such cross-language ambiguity and examines how the results from these studies can be integrated with what we have learned about within-language ambiguity resolution. In particular, this review examines how interactions of frequency and context manifest themselves in ambiguity that crosses a language boundary and call for the inclusion of language context as a contributing factor. An extension of the monolingual reordered access model (Duffy, Morris, & Rayner, 1988) is outlined to discuss the interactions between these factors. Furthermore, the effects of the similarity between the two meanings, task differences, and individual differences are explored. This review highlights the need for studies that test within- and cross-language ambiguity in the same individuals before strong conclusions can be made about the nature of interactions between frequency, semantic context, and language context.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1266-1303
Number of pages38
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Interlingual homographs
  • Semantic ambiguity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Physiology (medical)


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