What Is Semantic Field Analysis?

J. R. Firth, Papers in Linguistics 1934–1951 (OUP, 1957).

The arrangement of words (or lexemes) into groups (or fields) on the basis of an element of shared meaning. Also called lexical field analysis.

"There is no set of agreed criteria for establishing semantic fields," say Howard Jackson and Etienne Zé Amvela, "though a 'common component' of meaning might be one" (Words, Meaning and Vocabulary, 2000).

Although the terms lexical field and semantic field are usually used interchangeably, Siegfried Wyler makes this distinction: a lexical field is "a structure formed by lexemes" while a semantic field is "the underlying meaning which finds expression in lexemes" (Colour and Language: Colour Terms in English, 1992).

Examples of Semantic Field Analysis

"A lexical field is a set of lexemes that are used to talk about a defined area of experience; Lehrer (1974), for example, has an extensive discussion of the field of 'cooking' terms. A lexical field analysis will attempt to establish the lexemes that are available in the vocabulary for talking about the area under investigation and then propose how they differ from each other in meaning and use. Such an analysis begins to show how the vocabulary as a whole is structured, and more so when individual lexical fields are brought into relationship with each other. There is no prescribed or agreed method for determining what constitutes a lexical field; each scholar must draw their own boundaries and establish their own criteria. Much work still needs to be undertaken in researching this approach to vocabulary. Lexical field analysis is reflected in dictionaries that take a 'topical' or 'thematic' approach to presenting and describing words."
(Howard Jackson, Lexicography: An Introduction. Routledge, 2002)

The Semantic Field of Slang

An interesting use for semantic fields is in the anthropological study of slang. By studying the types of slang words used to describe different things researchers can better understand the values held by subcultures. 

Semantic Taggers

A semantic tagger is a way to "tag" certain words into similar groups based on how the word is used.

The word bank, for example, can mean a financial institution or it can refer to a river bank. The context of the sentence will change which semantic tag is used. 

Conceptual Domains and Semantic Fields

"When analyzing a set of lexical items, [linguist Anna] Wierzbicka does not just examine semantic information . . .. She also pays attention to the syntactic patterns displayed by the linguistic items, and furthermore orders the semantic information in more encompassing scripts or frames, which may in turn be linked to more general cultural scripts which have to do with norms of behavior. She therefore offers an explicit and systematic version of the qualitative method of analysis for finding a close equivalent of conceptual domains.

"This type of analysis may be compared with semantic field analysis by scholars such as Kittay (1987, 1992), who proposes a distinction between lexical fields and content domains. As Kittay writes: 'A content domain is identifiable but not exhausted by a lexical field' (1987: 225). In other words, lexical fields can provide an initial point of entry into content domains (or conceptual domains). Yet their analysis does not provide a full view of conceptual domains, and this is not what is claimed by Wierzbicka and her associates either. As is aptly pointed out by Kittay (1992), 'A content domain may be identified and not yet articulated [by a lexical field, GS],' which is precisely what may happen by means of novel metaphor (Kittay 1992: 227)."
(Gerard Steen, Finding Metaphor in Grammar and Usage: A Methodological Analysis of Theory and Research. John Benjamins, 2007)

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