A semantic field is a set of words (or lexemes) related in meaning. The phrase is also known as a word field, lexical field, field of meaning, and semantic system. Linguist Adrienne Lehrer has defined semantic field more specifically as "a set of lexemes which cover a certain conceptual domain and which bear certain specifiable relations to one another" (1985).
Examples and Observations
The subject matter often unites a semantic field.
"The words in a semantic field share a common semantic property. Most often, fields are defined by subject matter, such as body parts, landforms, diseases, colors, foods, or kinship relations…
"Let's consider some examples of semantic fields… The field of 'stages of life' is arranged sequentially, though there is considerable overlap between terms (e.g., child, toddler) as well as some apparent gaps (e.g., there are no simple terms for the different stages of adulthood). Note that a term such as minor or juvenile belongs to a technical register, a term such as kid or tot to a colloquial register, and a term such as sexagenarian or octogenarian to a more formal register. The semantic field of 'water' could be divided into a number of subfields; in addition, there would appear to be a great deal of overlap between terms such as sound/fjord or cove/harbor/bay."
(Laurel J. Brinton, "The Structure of Modern English: A Linguistic Introduction." John Benjamins, 2000)
Metaphors and Semantic Fields
Semantic fields are also sometimes called fields of meaning:
"Cultural attitudes to particular areas of human activity can often be seen in the choices of metaphor used when that activity is discussed. A useful linguistic concept to be aware of here is that of semantic field, sometimes called just field, or field of meaning…
"The semantic field of war and battle is one that sports writers often draw on. Sport, particularly football, in our culture is also associated with conflict and violence."
(Ronald Carter, "Working With Texts: A Core Introduction to Language Analysis." Routledge, 2001)
More and Less Marked Members of a Semantic Field
Color terms also help illustrate how words are grouped into a semantic field.
"In a semantic field, not all lexical items necessarily have the same status. Consider the following sets, which together form the semantic field of color terms (of course, there are other terms in the same field):
- Blue, red, yellow, green, black, purple
- Indigo, saffron, royal blue, aquamarine, bisque
The colors referred to by the words of set 1 are more 'usual' than those described in set 2. They are said to be less marked members of the semantic field than those of set 2. The less marked members of a semantic field are usually easier to learn and remember than more marked members. Children learn the term blue before they learn the terms indigo,, royal blue, or aquamarine. Often, a less marked word consists of only one morpheme, in contrast to more marked words (contrast blue with royal blue or aquamarine). The less marked member of a semantic field cannot be described by using the name of another member of the same field, whereas more marked members can be thus described (indigo is a kind of blue, but blue is not a kind of indigo).
"Less marked terms also tend to be used more frequently than more marked terms; for example, blue occurs considerably more frequently in conversation and writing than indigo or aquamarine… Less marked terms are also often broader in meaning than more marked terms… Finally, less marked words are not the result of the metaphorical usage of the name of another object or concept, whereas more marked words often are; for example, saffron is the color of a spice that lent its name to the color."
(Edward Finegan. "Language: Its Structure and Use, 5th ed." Thomson Wadsworth, 2008)