The focus of semantics is the study of meaning and meaning related terms. This paper is an appraisal of the indispensable role of lexical field analysis in the study of meaning. The study adopts a descriptive analysis of semantic meaning, stating that it is impossible, if not, almost unrealistic to carry out a semantic analysis without lexical field analysis; thus ascertaining the indispensability of this branch of semantics.


Linguistics has been defined by Omachonu as “the scientific study of language” (7). The discipline called linguistics has various branches such as: Sociolinguistics, Anthropological linguistics, Phonetics and Phonology, Discourse Analysis, Applied linguistics, Pragmatics, Forensic linguistics, Stylistics, Semantics, etc. and linguistics as a discipline has tried to spread its tentacles to the various fields of human endeavour in order to examine the role of language in human activities with the aim of analyzing human interactions and communications. This study concerns itself with the above latter field which is the branch of linguistics that examines meaning in communication.

According to Ogbulogo (1), semantics as a term was first formally used by Breal in 1897. Hence, it can be deduced that Breal was the first to bring to the fore in a formally acceptable way, the nature of meaning in language. Though the quest for the understanding of meaning has always been of interest to scholars, semantics was not mentioned as a term and did not come up in literature until 1897 when it was first used by Breal. This first attempt to study meanings by philosophers brought about the area of semantics called philosophical semantics, which according to Ogbulogo (1) examines “the relationship between linguistic expressions and the phenomena they refer to in the external world.” Philosophical semantics focuses on examining the conditions under which such linguistic expressions and the phenomena they refer to are true or false. This can be traced to as far back as Plato and Aristotle’s works.

However, contemporary philosophical semantics can be traced to the works of authors like Rudolf Carnap (1891 – 1970), Alfred Tarski (1902) and Charles Peirce (1839 – 1914). According to Peirce, philosophical semantics developed as Semiotics in America while with the influence of Saussure in France, the term “semiology” was used. However, the idea of truth-based semantics was Tarski’s major contribution (Ogbulogo, 2). Ogbulogo goes ahead to observe that linguistic semantics emphasizes the properties of natural languages while pure or logical semantics is the study of the meaning of expressions using logical systems or calculi. Examining semantics in this dimension makes it more mathematically related than linguistic in nature. Alfred Korzybski was the first person to attempt studying semantics as a distinct discipline, separate from the discipline of philosophy. Incidentally, Korzybski was a non-linguist who was passionate about introducing a generally acceptable science of communication. Prior to the work of Korzybski, semantics has been looked at from a nonscientific perspective but Korzybski’s work was the first formal attempt at bringing in a scientific model to the study of semantics. Korzybski started by describing all entities and realities by assigning labels to them. He went further to group the names into three. He had names for common objects such as chair, stone, cow and so on. He also had labels for groups and collections like nations, animals, people and so on. Korzybski’s third group of labels does not have identifiable referents in the outside world. These labels are highly abstract and do not readily lend themselves to the assignment of concrete reality. These labels are only assignable to concrete realities by imagination. Such labels include but are not limited to freedom, love, and democracy among others. They feature in aesthetics, philosophy and politics. However, this is not the same with common objects since there seems to be a direct correspondence between items and linguistic expressions. It is interesting to also know that a serious difficulty tends to be posed by labels for groups as a result of the wide range of items within the group. The main challenge with abstract labels stems from the fact that meaning does not have an objective reference in reality because different people will react to different words differently. For instance, the word “love” would be viewed differently by different people as a result of their circumstance or present reality. One person who probably is in a loving relationship will view it positively while another in an unfulfilled relationship will view it negatively. Hence, their reactions will be different and will therefore evoke different emotions from them.

Two other scholars, Ogden and Richards came very close to the analysis of meaning by combining philosophical processes and linguistic methodologies. Although as Abohol (3) noted, they avoided the use of the word, semantics. They introduced the concept “referent” to describe the physical object or situation which the word identifies in the real world and pointed out that the representation or situation should be seen as a referent while the actual pronunciation or orthographic representation will constitute the symbol. For example, the figure or silhouette of an adult female human being will be the referent while the word used to describe the referent will constitute the symbol. The symbol is similar to Korzybski’s concept of label (Ogbulogo, 3).

Omachonu (13), states that “Semantics is the area of linguistics that deals with the study of meaning; it examines the ways in which words and sentences of various grammatical constructions are used and understood by speakers of a given language. Semantics therefore, is the science of meaning.” From the above, it should be noted that the concerns of semantics is the interpretation of meaning in communication. In semantics, the emphasis is to study the meaning of words and sentences of languages. Linguistic semantics studies meaning in a systematic and objective way. Since meaning as a concept is not static, a great deal of the idea of meaning still depends on the context and participants in the act of communication. There is a strong connection between meaning and communication. Communication is used here to mean the exchange or relay of information, message, attitude, feelings or values from one person to another (Ogbulogo, 6). This is done mainly by the use of language. It is often expressed that language is a system, which uses a set of symbols agreed upon by a group. These symbols can be spoken or written, expressed as gestures or drawings. The symbols employed in language must be patterned in a systematic way. Ogbulogo (5) observes that language is organised at four principal levels – sounds (that is phonetics/phonology), words (that is phonology, sentences (that is syntax) and meaning (that is semantics). Phonology and syntax are concerned with the expressive power of language while semantics studies the meaning of what has been expressed. Knowledge of grammar is an aspect of the innate cognitive ability of human beings. The power of interpretation compliments that innate ability. Interpretation is an aspect of semantics. Therefore, language acquisition or learning includes not only the knowledge of the organisation of sounds and structures, but also how to associate meaning to the structures. Semantics can, therefore, be characterised as the scientific study of meaning in language.

From the above, it could be seen that most linguists agree to the idea that semantics studies meaning in language; however, this leaves us with the questions of what do we really understand by “meaning”? What is that “meaning” that is organized and expressed by languages? In very general terms, speaking consists of communicating information: somebody (the speaker) has something in his/her mind (an idea, a feeling, an intention, whatnot), and decides to communicate it linguistically. Vocal noises are then emitted that are heard by a second person (the hearer), who “translates” these noises back into ideas, with the result being that this hearer somehow “knows” what the first person had in mind. That “something” that was at first in the speaker’s mind and now is also in the hearer’s mind is what can be called meaning. However, the place of semantic lexical field analysis in the interpretation of meaning is paramount because it is almost impossible to do semantics without lexical field analysis. This is the concern of this paper.

  1. Approaches to Semantics

To unveil the indispensability of lexical field analysis to the study of meaning, it is paramount to first consider some of the approaches to studying semantic meaning in other to unearth their relationship to lexical field analysis, and thus, ascertain the idea that the existence of lexical field correspond to an empirical fact about human language, and not just a methodological device.

The approaches to semantics are: Traditional, Behavioural, Semantics, Structural and Generative Semantics. However, this paper will limit its scope to structural and generative due to time and space constraints, and because they are the most recent approaches to semantics.

Structural semantics is traced to the posthumous work of the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, titled “Cours De Linguistique Generale”(A Course in General Linguistics) that marked the modern linguistic movement started at the wake of the 20th century. Saussure posits that language is a system of inter-related units and structures and that every unit of language is related to the other within the same system. Structuralism is a very efficient aspect of Semantics, as it explains the concordance in the meaning of certain words and utterances. Structuralism has giving birth to sense relations as a means of semantic interpretation. Ogbulogo (7) asserts that structural semantics is the study of relationships between the meanings of terms within a sentence, and how meaning can be composed from smaller elements. However, some critical theorists suggest that meaning is only divided into smaller structural units via its regulation in concrete social interactions; outside of these interactions, language may become meaningless. Different approaches within structuralist semantics include lexical field theory, relational semantics, and componential analysis. Structuralism has revolutionized semantics to its present state, and it also aids in the correct understanding of other aspects of linguistics. The consequential fields of structuralism in linguistics are sense relations (both lexical and sentential) among others.

From the above, it could be understood that lexical field analysis is a strong base for achieving meaning in structural semantics. To understand the structural connection between lexicons and their semantic meaning, one must first understand the relations the lexicon has with other words. Finding meaning in the unit of words will enhance understanding meaning in the connection of such words to other words.

Also, componential analysis as an offshoot of structural semantics aims at studying the semantic properties of lexical items (which is also another form of lexical field analysis) in relations to their meaning. Analysis of words through structured sets of semantic features (present, absent, indifferent with reference to feature); departs from the principle of compositionality; a method typical of structural semantics which analyzes the structure of a word’s meaning. Componential analysis (also called feature analysis or contrast analysis) is the analysis of words through structured sets of semantic features, which are given as “present”, “absent” or “indifferent with reference to feature”. The method thus departs from the principle of compositionality. Thus, according to Ottenheimer, “it reveals the cultural approaches to the study of semantic important features by which speakers of the language distinguish different words in a Semantic field or domain.”(20) This is a highly valuable approach to learning another language and understanding a specific semantic domain of Ethnography. In other words, componential analysis assumes that all meanings can be further analysed into distinctive semantic features called semes, semantic components or semantic primitives, as the ultimate components of meaning. The search for distinctive semantic features was first limited to lexical items which were intuitively felt to form natural structures of a more or less closed nature. For instance:

Father (+Human) (+male) (+adult)

Lamb (-Human) (-/+ male) (- adult)

From the above, finding distinctive features to the lexicons help to give meaning to them and this will also limit their use with other lexicons in English. For instance, it will be out of place to say “the lamb smile” since the feature of (- human) does not apply to the lamb. Once this is understood, one would now have to go further in interpreting stylistic meaning to the sentence which may interpret ‘Lamb’ to mean among other things, a human baby or an adult that behaves gentle or docile as a lamb would.

Generative semantics was  initiated by the works of various early students of Noam Chomsky: such as John R.Ross,  Paul Postal, and later James McCawley. George Lakoff and Pieter Seuren were also instrumental in developing and advocating of the theory. The approach developed out of transformational generative grammar in the mid-1960s, but stood largely apart from, and in opposition to, the work of Noam Chomsky and his later students.

According to Abochol, “Generative semanticists took Chomsky’s concept of deep structure and ran with it, assuming (contrary to later work by Chomsky and Ray Jackendoff) that deep structures were the sole input to semantic interpretation” (7). This assumption,  combined with a tendency to consider a wider range of empirical evidence than Chomskyan linguistics, led generative semanticists to develop considerably more abstract and complex theories of deep structure than those advocated by Chomsky and his students—and indeed to abandon altogether the notion of “deep structure” as a locus of lexical insertion. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, there were heated debates between generative semanticists and more orthodox Chomsky Ans. Neither side can be accurately said to have “won” those debates, as positions and theories shifted considerably along with each bit of new data that was examined.

In generative semantics, syntactic rules enumerated a set of well-formed sentences paired with syntactic structures, each of which was assigned an interpretation by the rules of a separate semantic theory. This left syntax relatively (though by no means entirely) “autonomous” with respect to semantics, and was the approach preferred by Chomsky. In contrast, generative semanticists argued that interpretations were generated directly by the grammar as deep structures, and were subsequently transformed into recognizable sentences by transformations. This approach necessitated more complex underlying structures than those proposed by Chomsky, and more complex transformations as a consequence. Despite this additional complexity, the approach was appealing in several respects. First, it offered a powerful mechanism for explaining synonymity. In his initial work in generative syntax, Chomsky motivated transformations using active/passive pairs such as; “John slapped Mary” and “Mary was slapped by John”, which despite their identical meanings have quite different surface forms. Generative semanticists wanted to account for all cases of synonymy in a similar fashion—an impressively ambitious goal before the advent of more sophisticated interpretive theories in the 1970s.

The theory had a pleasingly intuitive structure: the form of a sentence was quite literally derived from its meaning via transformations. To some, interpretive semantics seemed rather “clunky” and adhoc in comparison (14). Strictly speaking, it was not the fact that active/passive pairs are synonymous that motivated the passive transformation, but the fact that active and passive verb forms have the same selectional requirements. For example,  the agent of the verb slaughtering (i.e. the thing that’s performing the act of slaughtering) must be animate whether it is the subject of the active verb (as in “John is slaughtering a goat “) or appears in a phrase after the passive verb (“The goat was slaughtered by John”).

Generative-transformational grammar resumes many of the concerns of traditional semantics. Thus, according to this approach, semantics should include an analysis of the way in which words and sentences are related to objects and processes in reality reintroducing into the discussion the problems of reference,  denotation etc. Its second concern should be an analysis of the manner in which words and sentences are related to one another. These include an account of synonymy, antonymy, entailment, contradiction, paraphrase,  implication, presupposition, etc.

With the generative semantic models, the semantic component is the generative source of the grammar. The semantic representations which initiate the derivation of sentences are independently generated, and are then mapped on to surface (syntactic) structures by means of transformations.(Chitoran, 181).Thus there have been two ways heading to generative semantics: one, the revision of the standard model particularly of the notions of deep structure, selectional restrictions, etc. Two, are appraisal of the semantic component, more specifically of semantic representation.

From the above, it could be seen that generative semantics relates to lexical field analysis by showing relationships of synonymy, antonymy, entailment,  contradiction, paraphrase, implication, presupposition, etc. lexical field analysis, thus, remains indispensable in generative semantics.

  1. Lexical Semantics

There is a longstanding philosophical tradition of paying much attention to the meaning of words. This tradition dates back at least to the times of Socrates and Parmenides. In recent times,  according to Abochol (3), renowned linguists like Wittgenstein and Quine have centred a great deal of their studies around a number of general questions regarding the nature of meanings, how words might come to have meanings,  the relationship between words and their worldly denotations, etc. Similarly, since the 1980s, theories of grammar have become much more lexically driven, necessitating much deeper attention to issues of lexical meaning. It is these concerns that have formed the motivations and philosophy of lexical semantics; a subfield of linguistic semantics.

According to Murphy, lexical semantics is ‘the study of word meaning, but in practice it is often more specifically concerned with the study of lexical (content) word meaning, as opposed to the meanings of grammatical (function) words’ (67). In other words, it means semanticists are most interested in the open class group (nouns, adjective, verbs, adverbs) than the closed class group. He further opines that ‘lexical semantics is thus mostly exempt from considering issues that arise from the use of grammatical words, such as definiteness and modality’ (68). The units of analysis in lexical semantics are lexical units which include not only words but also sub-words or sub-units such as affixes and even compound words and phrases. Lexical units make up the catalogue of words in a language, the lexicon.

Lexical semantics also concerns itself with how the meaning of the lexical units correlates with the structure (syntax) of a language. This is referred to as syntax-semantic interface. Thus the focus of lexical semantics revolves around the classification and decomposition of lexical items, the differences and similarities in lexical semantic structure cross-linguistically and the relationship of lexical meaning to sentence meaning and syntax.

It is concerned with individual words (unlike compositional semantics, which is concerned with meanings of sentences). Of the many ways that lexical semantics can be studied, this paper will look in general terms at the meaning relationships that word meanings have with one another and the semantic features that help to differentiate similar words. Lexical semantics focuses on meanings in isolation, that is, without attention to their contribution to reference or truth conditions. Lexical units, also referred to as syntactic atoms, can stand alone such as in the case of root words or parts of compound words or when attached to other units such as prefixes and suffixes. The classification of lexical items in lexical semantics is based on whether their meanings are derived from single lexical units or from their surrounding environment. This gives room for lexical items to participate in regular patterns of association with each other. The relationship between lexical items is often categorized into the following: hyponymy, antonymy, synonymy, homonymy, polysemy, hypernymy, hyponym and metronymy.

Hyponymy: This is a sense relation that shows the relationship between more general terms (hypernyms) and specific terms (hyponyms). A hyponym is a word or phrase that includes the meaning of a more general notion or word.

Example: Dog is a hyponym of an animal because it has some animal qualities. Also, desk is a hyponym of furniture because it has the features of furniture.

The semantic field of a hyponym is more specific than a hypernym.  A hypernym/superordinate is the more general term that includes the hyponyms.

Examples: Animal is the hypernym for dog,  cat, monkey, etc. The hyponym for milk, beer and juice is drinks.

The relationship between hyponyms and hypernyms is to view a hypernym as consisting of hyponyms,  in other words, they are asymmetric. However, hyponyms are typically used to refer to nouns.

Polysemy: This is the capacity of a word,  phrase or symbol to have multiple meanings usually related by contiguity of meaning with a semantic field. These words are usually referred to as polysemes. A polysome is a word or phrase with different, but related senses.

Examples: The bank of a river and The richest bank in the city.

The plaintiff approached the bar and The man was called to bar.

Some of the semantic relations will now be broadly discussed below:


Words having more or less the same meaning are known as synonyms. E.g. hide/conceal,  avenge/revenge, broad/wide, almost/nearly, abstain/refrain, banish/exile, allow/permit, decrease/diminish, answer/reply, steal/rob, cite/quote, confer/bestow, hasten/hurry, drown/sink, enough/sufficient, jail/prison etc.

It is important to note that no two words have exactly the same meaning in all possible contexts. Even if two words have the same referential meaning, they may differ from their emotive or associative meaning. Dr Johnson, the famous lexicographer of the 19th century rightly remarked: “Words are seldom exactly synonymous”.

There are two ways in which we can know whether two words are synonymous or not. One of it is the test of substitutability. E.g. profitable/lucrative, dirty/filthy, rich/wealthy, variety/range etc.

  1. Business in this country is not as profitable as it is in other countries.
  2. Business in this country is not as lucrative as it is in other countries.
  3. Please,  take your dirty hands off me.
  4. Please,  take your filthy hands off me.
  5. Every rich family has a graduate.
  6. Every wealthy family has a graduate.
  7. He has a wide variety of goods in his shop.
  8. He has a wide range of goods in his shop.

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