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General linguistics. An introductory survey

Semantic field theory

The theory (or theories, as the basic conception has been developed in different ways) of the linguistic field,or the field theory of meaning, is concerned to show that the lexical content of a language, its total vocabulary, or such of it as is available to a speaker at any time, is not a mere conglomeration or aggregation of independent items, and that word meanings cannot be understood or adequately described as if it were. Word meaning is best understood as the contribution a word can make to the meaning or function of the sentences in which it may appear; and this depends, not just on its reference, or any other aspect of its meaning considered simply as the property of the word in isolation from all other words in the language. In part the meaning and use of most words are governed by the presence in the language of availability to a speaker of other words whose semantic functions are related in one or more ways to the same area of situational environment or culture.

It was observed above that the use of many words presupposes the imposition of order and stability on the sequences of sensory experience, and that the employment of certain words rests on a high degree of such abstract ordering. It appears that certain features of this sort of ordering are universal, or at least very general, and this is the basis of the translatability of the utterance of one language into those of another; but other features are peculiar to particular cultural traditions of particular areas, with the consequence that the translation of words and sentences relating to such features requires more explanation and circumlocution. In no case is the lexical content of a language equivalent to a nomenclature, the labelling with separate words of independently existing entities. Nomenclature is possible when linguistic labels are secondarily put to entities already distinguished as a class by the lexicon of a language, as in the cases of the naming of individual houses in a street, of streets in a town, or of rooms in a mansion. 'The world as we know it' is in part the product both of our culture and of the lexical system of our own language.

In a language each word with a reference to the external words bears the meaning it does, functions as it does in sentences, in that it relates to a part of the world in some way differently from all other words. Every such word is, therefore, determined in its meaning by the presence of other words in the vocabulary of the language related to the same or to associated ranges of phenomena, and its meaning is liable to be further determined or altered both by the appearance of other words in a speaker's available vocabulary or by changes in the meanings of associated words.

By the nature of things as they are perceived by all men, and by the nature of certain specific aspects of different cultures, some words are more tightly bound in systems than others, and the semantic fields involved are more readily separated. Colour terms, which notoriously do not correspond from one language to another, are an obvious example of naturally delimited fields. Every language has a range of words that divide up the potentially all but unlimited range of colour differences in visible phenomena. It is probable that children learn the principal colour words fairly closely together in time (e.g. in English, red, green, blue, yellow, white, black; the fact that green is not a primary colour and that white and black are not colours in the sense that the others are is not relevant here). Certainly one only knows the meaning of red as a colour word (knows how to use it in a sentence) when one knows also the colour words bordering on it in various directions (pink, purple, orange, brown, etc.) and the principal words for colours comprised within the class designated by red (e. g. vermillion, scarlet, rose).

Colour constitutes a naturally separable field of reference; or semantic field, for which every language may be expected to provide sets of lexical terms in which the meaning of each is determined by the co-presence of the others in a speaker's vocabulary. It is well known that languages do not correspond in their most used colour vocabulary. Welsh gwyrdd, glas, and llwyd roughly cover the same colour range as English green, blue, grey, and brown, but do not have the same approximate boundaries. The same surfaces designated green, blue and grey in English might all be called glas in Welsh. Likewise in Japanese the adjective aoi refers to much of the range of colour distinguished in English by blue and green.

Military ranks and ranks of any strictly hierarchical organization of people in relationship of seniority, command, and subordination are examples of a culturally produced field that is closely delimited and ordered. Part of the meaning of any military rank word (major, captain, corporal, etc.) is the product of the whole system of such terms in the relevant part of the language and of the exact place of each in relation to the others. These factors may be decisive in the translation of words referring to ranks in armed services and the like from one language to another.

In a very practical context of situation, the selection and grading of hotels, the word good has a very different meaning when used non-technically (in the field of bad, indifferent, etc.) from when it is used, as it is by some travel agents, in a strictly limited system of comparative gradings as the lowest in the field of first class, luxurious, superior, good.

Part of the power and flexibility of language lies in the ability of speakers to multiply their vocabulary in any given field in the interests of greater precision and clarity. It follows that the more words there are closely associated in meaning the more specific each one's meaning may be in the particular field (irrespective of its uses in other fields). As an organization becomes more complex and its members more numerous, new ranks and grades appropriately named may be devised, restricting the holders to an exact place in the hierarchy. Occupations whose operations involve much colour discrimination (paint manu­facture, textile manufacture, etc.) develop an extensive technical vocabulary, partly from existing colour words, partly by adding new and specialized meanings to words having reference to coloured things (e. g. magnolia, cream), partly by adapting other words and phrases to give them a definite place in the technical field of colour terms (summer blue, mistletoe green, etc.). Such technical vocabularies may sometimes employ numbers of words unknown to non-technical speakers of the language and devise meanings for others quite different from those they bear outside these specialized contexts.

The supreme example of this infinite flexibility is in the use of numerical terms with reference to measurable features of the world. Between any two adjacent number terms another may be added for greater precision; between eleven and twelve may be put eleven and a half, and between eleven and eleven and a half may be put eleven and a quarter, and so on indefinitely. Those who speak of the infinite divisibility of matter may be doing no more than drawing attention to this potentiality of the mathematical language of the physical sciences.

It is apparent from the investigation of collocations and semantic field associations in their relations with the full description and analysis of the meanings of words, that syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations are nearly as important in dealing with the lexicon of a language as they are at the levels of grammar and phonology. Internal relations of elements within complex wholes are of the essence of language. 'Un systeme ou tout se tient', one all-embracing system, was the characterization of language by the French linguist Meillet. This emphasizes one of the most fundamental features of language and of the treatment of language in modern linguistics. But it might be more appropriate to think not so much of one overall system, as of many interlocking and interdependent structures and systems at all levels, the functions of every linguistic element and abstraction being dependent on its relative places therein.

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