Semantic field
A semantic field is a technical term in the discipline of linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

 to describe a set of words grouped by meaning in a certain way. The term is also used in other academic disciplines, such as anthropology
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

 and computational semiotics
Computational semiotics
Computational semiotics is an interdisciplinary field that applies, conducts, and draws on research in logic, mathematics, the theory and practice of computation, formal and natural language studies, the cognitive sciences generally, and semiotics proper...


Definition and usage

Brinton (2000: p.112) defines "semantic field" or "semantic domain" and relates the linguistic concept to hyponymy:
"Related to the concept of hyponymy, but more loosely defined, is the notion of a semantic field or domain. A semantic field denotes a segment of reality symbolized by a set of related words. The words in a semantic field share a common semantic property
Semantic property
Semantic properties or meaning properties are those aspects of a linguistic unit, such as a morpheme, word, or sentence, that contribute to the meaning of that unit...


A general and intuitive description is that words in a semantic field are not synonymous, but are all used to talk about the same general phenomenon. A meaning of a word is dependent partly on its relation to other words in the same conceptual area. The kinds of semantic fields vary from culture to culture and anthropologists use them to study belief systems and reasoning across cultural groups.

Andersen (1990: p.327) identifies the traditional usage of "semantic field" theory as:
"Traditionally, semantic fields have been used for comparing the lexical structure of different languages and different states of the same language."


The origin of the field theory of semantics is the lexical field theory
Lexical field theory
Lexical field theory, or word-field theory, was introduced on March 12, 1931 by the German linguist Jost Trier. Trier argued that words acquired their meaning through their relationships to other words within the same word-field. An extension of the sense of one word narrows the meaning of...

 introduced by Jost Trier
Jost Trier
Jost Trier was a German Germanic linguist .He taught as a professor at Münster University .In 1968 he was awarded the Konrad-Duden-Preis.-Literary works:...

 in the 1930s, although according to John Lyons
John Lyons (linguist)
Sir John Lyons, LittD, FBA is an English linguist, most famous for his work on semantics.John Lyons was educated at St Bede's College, Manchester, and at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he took a degree in Classics in 1953 and a Diploma in Education in 1954. After doing his national service in...

 it has historical roots in the ideas of Wilhelm von Humboldt
Wilhelm von Humboldt
Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand Freiherr von Humboldt was a German philosopher, government functionary, diplomat, and founder of Humboldt Universität. He is especially remembered as a linguist who made important contributions to the philosophy of language and to the theory and practice...

 and Johann Gottfried Herder
Johann Gottfried Herder
Johann Gottfried von Herder was a German philosopher, theologian, poet, and literary critic. He is associated with the periods of Enlightenment, Sturm und Drang, and Weimar Classicism.-Biography:...

. In the 1960s Stephen Ullmann
Stephen Ullmann
Stephen Ullmann was a Hungarian linguist who spent most of his life in England and wrote about style and semantics in Romance and common languages....

 saw semantic fields as crystallising and perpetuating the values of society. For John Lyons in the 1970s words related in any sense belonged to the same semantic field, and the semantic field was simply a lexical category
Lexical category
In grammar, a part of speech is a linguistic category of words , which is generally defined by the syntactic or morphological behaviour of the lexical item in question. Common linguistic categories include noun and verb, among others...

, which he described as a lexical field. Lyons emphasised the distinction between semantic fields and semantic networks. In the 1980s Eva Kittay developed a semantic field theory of metaphor
A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea; e.g., "Her eyes were glistening jewels." Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via...

. This approach is based on the idea that the items in a semantic field have specific relations to other items in the same field, and that a metaphor works by re-ordering the relations of a field by mapping them on to the existing relations of another field. Sue Atkins
B. T. S. Atkins
Beryl T. Atkins has been a professional lexicographer since 1966, first with Collins Publishers , where she was General Editor of the first 'modern' English-French dictionary, the Collins-Robert English-French Dictionary, then as Lexicographic Adviser to Oxford University Press, where she...

 and Charles J. Fillmore
Charles J. Fillmore
Charles J. Fillmore is an American linguist, and an Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He received his Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Michigan in 1961. Professor Fillmore spent ten years at The Ohio State University before joining Berkeley's...

 in the 1990s proposed frame semantics
Frame semantics (linguistics)
Frame semantics is a theory of linguistic meaning that extends Charles J. Fillmore's case grammar. It relates linguistic semantics to encyclopaedic knowledge....

 as an alternative to semantic field theory.

Semantic shifts

The semantic field of a given word shifts over time — see "semantic shift." For example, the English
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

 word "man" used to mean "human being" exclusively, while today it predominantly means "adult male," but its semantic field still extends in some uses to the generic "human
Humans are the only living species in the Homo genus...

" (see Mannaz).

Overlapping semantic fields are problematic, especially in translation
Translation is the communication of the meaning of a source-language text by means of an equivalent target-language text. Whereas interpreting undoubtedly antedates writing, translation began only after the appearance of written literature; there exist partial translations of the Sumerian Epic of...

. Words that have multiple meanings (called polysemous words) are often untranslatable, especially with all their connotations. Such words are frequently loaned
A loanword is a word borrowed from a donor language and incorporated into a recipient language. By contrast, a calque or loan translation is a related concept where the meaning or idiom is borrowed rather than the lexical item itself. The word loanword is itself a calque of the German Lehnwort,...

 instead of translated. Examples include "chivalry
Chivalry is a term related to the medieval institution of knighthood which has an aristocratic military origin of individual training and service to others. Chivalry was also the term used to refer to a group of mounted men-at-arms as well as to martial valour...

" (literally "horsemanship," related to "cavalry"), "dharma
Dharma means Law or Natural Law and is a concept of central importance in Indian philosophy and religion. In the context of Hinduism, it refers to one's personal obligations, calling and duties, and a Hindu's dharma is affected by the person's age, caste, class, occupation, and gender...

" (literally, "support"), and "taboo
A taboo is a strong social prohibition relating to any area of human activity or social custom that is sacred and or forbidden based on moral judgment, religious beliefs and or scientific consensus. Breaking the taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent by society...


Anthropological discourse

Semantic field theory has informed the discourse of Anthropology as Ingold (1996: p.127) relates:
"Semiology is not, of course, the same as semantics. Semiology is based on the idea that signs have meaning in relation to each other, such that a whole society is made up of relationally held meanings. But semantic fields do not stand in relations of opposition to each other, nor do they derive their distinctiveness in this way, nor indeed are they securely bounded at all. Rather, semantic fields are constantly flowing into each other. I may define a field of religion, but it soon becomes that of ethnic identity and then of politics and selfhood, and so on. In the very act of specifying semantic fields, people engage in an act of closure whereby they become conscious of what they have excluded and what they must therefore include."
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