Lexical Semantics: Semantic Fields and Collocations

Seminar Paper, 2011
12 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents:

1. Introduction

2. Paradigmatic relations: semantic fields
2.1 The beginning: structuralist approaches
2.2 Further development: cognitive approaches

3. Syntagmatic relations: collocations
3.1 Collocations: definition and examples
3.2 Statistically significant and institutionalized collocations
3.3 Idioms versus collocations

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Semantics is a sub-discipline of linguistics that is concerned with analysing and describing the literal meaning of linguistic expressions, from entire sentences to single words (cf. Bussmann 1996: 423). One sub-division of semantics is „lexical semantics’, which is defined by Saeed (2003: 53) as the study of the meaning of words and traditionally has two descriptive aims: on the one hand, to represent the meaning of each word in a language, and on the other hand to examine how the meanings of words are interrelated.

This term paper will focus on the second aspect of lexical semantics: interrelations of word meanings, freely adapted from the English linguist John Rupert Firth, who said: “You shall know a word by the company it keeps” (1951, cited in Palmer 1981: 75, 76). With his statement, Firth wanted to point out that it is important to analyze word meaning not by looking at isolated words, but to also consider associations and relations with other words. According to the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, these relations may be divided into two groups: those on a paradigmatic and those on a syntagmatic level (cf. Palmer 1981: 67).

Starting with paradigmatic word relations, the paper will cover the topic of semantic fields first, describing the history of how this aspect was introduced to semantics and explaining the theoretical background behind the topic. Furthermore the development of different theories from the first structuralist approaches in the 1930s to the more recent approaches of cognitive semantics and the frame theory will be outlined.

In the second part, the paper will cover the topic of syntagmatic relations of word meanings, namely collocations. The term will be defined and examples will be mentioned, before dealing with the important concepts of „statistically significant’ and „institutionalized collocations’. Finally there will be a demarcation to the phenomenon of idioms, before the term paper finishes with a conclusion about the whole topic.

2. Paradigmatic relations: semantic fields

As already stated, „semantic fields’ is the first topic to be examined, as it represents semantic relations of words on a paradigmatic level. Palmer (1981: 67, 68) explains that paradigmatic relations are those into which a linguistic unit may enter by being contrasted or substituted with other similar units. Thus, for example in a blue car and a green car, blue and green are in a paradigmatic relation.

2.1 The beginning: structuralist approaches

In the 1930s, the German linguist Jost Trier published his monograph „Der Deutsche Wortschatz im Sinnbezirk des Verstandes: Die Geschichte eines sprachlichen Feldes ’, which is today seen as the “single most influential study in the history of lexical field theory” (Geeraerts 2010: 53). In his study, Trier gives a theoretical outline of the field approach (cf. Geeraerts 2010: 53) and examines the development of so-called „lexical fields’ in the German language.

Trier’s theory comes from a structuralist point of view, assuming, that the value of a word depends basically on the demarcation from other words (cf. Geeraerts 2010: 53), or as the structuralist de Saussure (cited in Palmer 1981: 67) said: there are “only differences and no positive terms”. Emphasizing on these semantic relations, every linguistic element is seen as being integrated into the structure of the language just like a stone is integrated into a mosaic (cf. Geeraerts 2010: 53). Words do not exist isolated, but form lexical fields together with other semantically related words (cf. Bieswanger and Becker 2010: 139). The terms robin, parrot and blackbird for example, would therefore belong to the lexical field of birds.

In his study, Trier did not only give a theoretical outline to the lexical field approach, he also examined how a lexical field in Old High German evolved over time (cf. Geeraerts 2010: 53). Therefore, Trier picked the field of the „intellectual’ aspect of German language at the beginning of the 13th, respectively at the beginning of the 14th century. Around the year 1200, the field was divided into the notions of kunst (referring to courtly qualities) and list (referring to non-courtly qualities) and the term wîsheit, covering the whole (cf. Palmer 1981: 68). One century later however, the field had changed significantly: list is replaced by the term wizzen, having a slightly different meaning than the former list, as it refers now to rather technical skills, like those of a craftsman. Kunst denotes forms of science and art and wîsheit now refers to rather religious knowledge and is no longer a general term (cf. Geeraerts 2010: 55). The following table from Palmer (1981: 68) shows the development:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1: Development of lexical fields in German according to Trier

Even though Trier’s work is seen as an important and influential study of the topic, there have also been critical voices. Geeraerts (2010: 56, 57) criticizes, that Trier’s terminology is quite vague and unstable, as he treats the terms lexical field, semantic field and word field as synonyms, whereas other authors differentiate between them: Lyons (1977, cited in Geerarts 2010: 57) for example distinguishes between lexical field and semantic field according to whether the field contains only words or also other (idiomatic) expressions.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there have been several other linguists, doing research on the topic, in keeping with structuralist ideas. Two examples are Hjelmslev, who compared the colour system of English and literary Welsh, and Nida, who discussed the words for noise in a Mexican language (Palmer 1981: 68, 69).

Palmer (1981: 69, 70) sums up, that in every example of semantic or lexical fields that Trier, Hjelmslev, or Nida came up with, there is a list of (mostly unordered) words referring to items of a particular class, that divide up the field. Furthermore, he adds, that the single words of such a field are often incompatible and not interchangeable. Taking the example of the earlier mentioned field of birds, it would not make any sense to say There is a robin on the tree and to the same bird There is a parrot on the tree.

As already mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, the lexical field theory is based on structuralist ideas and theories. However linguists developed new ideas and theories over time that lead to new approaches to the topic.

2.2 Further development: cognitive approaches

Since the 1980s, linguists have come up with the theory of cognitive semantics, which also influenced the theories about semantic relations of words on a paradigmatic level. Cognitive semantics is an approach that integrates rather than separates meaning and cognition, and introduces new models of description and analysis (cf. Geeraerts 2010: 275). Language is considered as part of our cognitive ability through which we organize and classify all of our personal experiences (cf. Bieswanger and Becker 2010: 139). Our knowledge is not organized in single concepts, but in broader categories of knowledge: for example the knowledge how to make pancakes, or what it takes to go to the library and borrow a book. This extends the boundaries of a single lexical item by far and requires a way to represent those chunks of knowledge along with linking the relevant lexical items to that broader conceptual structure (cf. Geeraerts 2010: 222).


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Lexical Semantics: Semantic Fields and Collocations
University of Würzburg
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Lexical semantics, Collocations, Semantic Fields, Paradigmatic, Syntagmatic, Semantic, Field, Lexical
Quote paper
U. Dürr (Author), 2011, Lexical Semantics: Semantic Fields and Collocations, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/186932


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