The concept of ‘field’ and ‘gap’

Term Paper, 2005

32 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. The term of field in everyday language

2. Field Theories – general statements and presuppositions
2.1. Trier – Weisgerber
2.2. Lipka
2.3. Other theories

3. The concept of gaps – general statements
3.1. Durell
3.2. Lehrer

4. Attempt of a field analysis: semantic fields of ‘Basilikum’ and ‘basil’

5. Appendix:

6. Bibliography:

1. The term of field in everyday language

The starting point of my research paper on field theory and gaps is the question: what are the different interpretations of ‘field’ in our language nowadays. I started with dictionaries and went on with encyclopedias.

According to the German dictionary “Duden” (Duden (2000: 370)) a field may be e.g. an electric field. This shows that this word may be lexical ambiguous. There can also be found some word combinations with ‘field’, e.g. cross-country, ‘ins Feld (in den Krieg) ziehen’ or field crop. This example shows that there is no one-to-one correspondence in English for ‘ins Feld ziehen’. A non-native speaker has to paraphrase this expression, e.g. ‘go to war’.

However, these notions are rather primary. In order to find a more precise kind of definition, I searched the “Wikipedia” ( (access: 2005-08-02, 12:14 MEZ)) and found a very detailed description of the term ‘field’: it can represent an acre (differentiated land area to grow agricultural crop), in sports the field to play on or a certain group of pursuers, in military history the theater of war, in general a specific field, in physics a certain position, in computer science a data structure, in cutting the term for a single picture, and in a specific area of heraldry the term for the parts of a crest.

By looking up ‘field’ in the online dictionary ‘Wiktionary’ ( (access: 2005-08-02, 20:22 MEZ)), I discovered nearly the same definition as in the “Wikipedia”, but there were two pieces of extra information about ‘field’: it may be a defined as an area on a sheet of paper, a board to play on, or a screen, but it can as well depict the world outside of a laboratory.

As a last source of information I looked the word up in the “Longman Dictionary” (1998: 243). There I also found the above-mentioned explanations and some others, e.g. ‘a subject that people study’, ‘the field all the people or companies that are competing against each other’ or ‘an area where there is a strong natural force’. This supports the statement that this word is lexical ambiguous, it has more than one meaning depending on the context in which it is used.

Considering all these definitions, it is striking, that they all have one feature in common: all definitions of ‘field’ mean a separated area of something; they are a part and contribute to a whole. And this is also the case in linguistics. The vocabulary is divided into several kinds of fields, some words belong to more than one field but altogether all these fields constitute the vocabulary of a certain language. All fields are needed to examine a language adequately. Nevertheless, there might be gaps in the fields, as already seen from the example at the beginning. With this paper, I want to look at different theories concerning linguistic fields, the notion of gaps in recent research, and, finally, I want to apply this to describe a field I chose by myself.

2. Field Theories – general statements and presuppositions

There is an assumption among semantic theorists, according to Lehrer (1974: 15) that the vocabulary has an underlying structure and that the words are divided up into sets, which are related to conceptual fields. This leads her to the conclusion that all fields must be in some way connected; the mental lexicon of a speaker is a network of relationships.

Lehrer (1974: 15), among many other linguists, states that the main work on field theory was done by German linguists and American anthropologists; both “influenced by Humboldt and Saussure’s notion of ‘association’ ” (ibid: 15)). Important research was done by Coseriu, Geckeler, Lehrer, Lipka, and many others. These researchers, Lipka explains (1993: 167), use different terms, e.g. Cruse (1986: 112ff) uses the term ‘lexical configurations’, Lehrer (1974) employs ‘semantic field’ and ‘lexical field’ synonymously, and Coseriu (cf Coseriu/Geckeler (1981: 58f)) uses the term of ‘Wortfeld’ (translated as lexical field). Despite these crucial differences, there is agreement on the fact that “the meaning of a word is a function of the relationships it contracts with other words in a particular ‘field’, or lexical subsystem” (Lyons (1970:795)). Lehrer comments this as follows: “to understand lexical meaning it is necessary to look at sets of semantically related words, not simply at each word in isolation” (Lehrer (1985: 283)).

Nevertheless, it is essential to distinguish between primary and secondary vocabulary, as Boas proposes in his article when criticizing Ziegler’s notion of the non-existence of lexical gaps (Boas (1986: 148)). For Boas it is useless to treat simple and complex lexical items as if they belong to the same structural level (ibid: 148).

The agreement of speakers is high concerning very small and specific fields if they have to decide which words belong to the field and which ones do not (cf Lehrer (1974: 15)). The agreement on basic items is very high whereas on peripheral items it is rather slight. In Lehrer (ibid: 18) a typical example is cited, namely that of cooking verbs: in this field words like ‘bake’, ‘boil’, ‘fry’ and so forth can be found, which are apparently basic items; and words like ‘scald’, ‘caramelize’, ‘render’, and ‘clarify’ are clearly peripheral.

However, speakers also use their knowledge about what a lexeme denotes and information about its usage to decide which lexeme is appropriate for a certain situation. Schindler (1993: 92) explains that speakers also use their knowledge about varietal usage (like special languages or regional languages), stylistic features (colloquial, vulgar a.s.o.) and implicit attitudes (e.g. ‘Polizist’ = ‘Bulle’ = cop; has a pejorative meaning) to decide which word they are going to use in a certain situation.

To compare two languages adequately, it is of utmost importance to recognize that the lexical sets of the languages are not comparable, which means according to Lyons (1970: 795) “that a greater or lesser number of meanings recognized within the vocabulary of one language cannot be identified within the vocabulary of the other language”. Welte (1993: 163) explains further that every language has its own structure and some meanings of words in one language are not realized in the compared one. He gives the example concerning the lack of a hyperonym for ‘cupboard’, ‘wardrobe’, ‘bookcase’, ‘filing cabinet’, and ‘refrigerator’ in English whereas German has ‘Schrank’ as hyperonym for ‘Küchenschrank’, ‘Kleiderschrank’, ‘Bücherschrank’, ‘Aktenschrank’, and ‘Kühlschrank’. The aforesaid linguist concludes that you have to think of a special kind of ‘Schrank’ to translate a sentence like [Der Schrank war alt.] into English; the context determines the insertion of the most adequate lexeme.

As a final point in this paragraph I want to mention G. Ipsen (1924) who introduced the linguistic idea of field in 1924 with the term ‘Bedeutungsfeld’ (cf Welte (1993: 169)). The exact words in his work were the following (cf Hohberg (1970: 120f)): “die Eigenwörter stehen in einer Sprache nie allein, sondern sind eingeordnet in Bedeutungsgruppen; damit ist nicht eine etymologische Gruppe gemeint, am wenigsten um chimärische ‘Wurzeln’ aufgereihte Wörter, sondern solche, deren gegenständlicher Sinngehalt mit anderen Sinngehalten verknüpft ist. Diese Verknüpfung ist aber nicht als Aneinanderreihung an einem Assoziationsfaden gemeint, sondern so, daß die ganze Gruppe ein ‘Bedeutungsfeld’ absteckt, das in sich gegliedert ist; wie in einem Mosaik fügt sich hier Wort an Wort, jedes anders umrissen, doch so, daß die Konturen aneinanderpassen und alle zusammen in einer Sinneinheit höherer Ordnung auf-, nicht in einer faulen Abstraktion untergehen.”. This definition of ‘field’ belongs to the basis of Trier’s field theory, which belongs to my next part.

2.1. Trier – Weisgerber

Jost Trier is said to be a pioneer in the area of recent semantics (cf Geckeler (1971: 85)). He took the term of ‘field’ from Ipsen and modified it. De Saussure and Weisgerber also influenced his idea of ‘field’ and his basis for the term of ‘field’ was that the structure of a language is the most common and decisive feature (ibid: 101).

As far as it concerns types of fields, Trier “distinguished lexical and conceptual fields, whereby the lexical field divides the conceptual field into parts like a mosaic” (Lehrer (1974: 15)). It is essential for the word in a certain field that it “acquires its meaning by its opposition to its neighboring words in the pattern” (ibid: 15).

Linguistic fields are not isolated, but they rather “join together to form in turn fields of higher order, until finally the entire vocabulary is included” (Öhman: 127). This vocabulary is divided into word-fields, argues Trier (cf Geckeler (1971: 102)). In 1931 he defined his notion of a word-field (Trier (1931: 1)): “Das Wortfeld ist zeichenhaft zugeordnet einem mehr oder weniger geschlossenen Begriffskomplex, dessen innere Aufteilung sich im gegliederten Gefüge des Zeichenfeldes darstellt, in ihm für die Angehörigen einer Sprachgemeinschaft gegeben ist. ... Die das Wortfeld, den Wortmantel, die Wortdecke mosaikartig zusammensetzenden Einzelworte legen – im Sinne ihrer Zahl und Lagerung – Grenzen in den Begriffsblock hinein und teilen ihn auf.”. But also the word-field itself is a kind of structured whole or arrangement (cf Geckeler (1971: 102)).

The main characteristic of fields for Trier is that they can always linguistically cover a world section without gaps because he interprets language as being complete without gaps or blind spots (ibid: 105). In 1934 he gave a definition about the general term ‘field’, three years after he had defined the specific term of word-field: “Felder sind die zwischen den Einzelworten und dem Wortschatzganzen lebendigen sprachlichen Wirklichkeiten, die als Teilganze mit dem Wort das Merkmal gemeinsam haben, daß sie sich ergliedern, mit dem Wortschatz hingegen, daß sie sich ausgliedern. Die Ordnungshöhe ist dabei gleichgültig.” (Trier (1934: 430)).

Trier himself thought of a field in the sense of a horse or car race: in such a field the relative positions of the competitors move all the time. The moving process towards a target represents the historical development of a language, the riders or drivers represent the word meaning and the relative positions towards each other represent the mutual boundary of word meaning in a certain period of the language (cf Welte (1993: 169)).

Weisgerber was a student of Trier and followed his argumentation but also modified it. He defines a linguistic field as follows: “ein sprachliches Feld ist ein Ausschnitt aus der muttersprachlichen Zwischenwelt, der durch die Ganzheit einer in organischer Gliederung zusammenwirkenden Gruppe von Sprachzeichen aufgebaut wird” (Weisgerber (1964: 70)). These linguistic fields consist of word-fields and syntactic fields (cf Geckeler (1971: 109)).

Weisgerber distinguishes several layers of structure (ibid: 111): one-layered opposed to multilayered fields. In the case of one-layered fields he further differentiates between rank structure, e.g. numerical series, surface structure[1], e.g. New High German kinship words, and deep structure, e.g. color wheel. As an example for multilayered fields he mentions the semantic field of ‘die’, which I will take a closer look on in the part on gaps.


[1] divided up into different areas (‘Flächengliederung’)

Excerpt out of 32 pages


The concept of ‘field’ and ‘gap’
University of Erfurt  (Philosophische Fakultät)
Contrastive Linguistics English – German
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ISBN (Book)
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Contrastive, Linguistics, English, German
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Claudia Wipprecht (Author), 2005, The concept of ‘field’ and ‘gap’, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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