Attempts have been made to identify and describe the various lexical structures into which our words are organized. These inquires, which are still at a tentative stage, are being conducted at three super-imposed levels: that of single words, that of conceptual spheres, and that of the vocabulary as a whole.
(a) At the level of single words, the most useful concept that emerged so far is that of the ‘associative field’. Every word is surrounded by a network of association which connect it with other terms related to it in form, in meaning, or in both; as Saussure graphically put it, it is like the center of a constellation, the point where an indefinite number of coordinated terms converge. To take a very simple example, the verb to write stands at the point of intersection of three associative series:
1- derivatives formed from the same stem: writing, writer, underwrite, writ, etc.;
2- words of similar or related meaning: scribble, scrabble, scrawl; letter, script, pen, print; read, say, speak, etc.;
3- Homonymous words: wright, rite, right.
In (1) the association is based on both sound and sense;
In (2) on sense alone, and in (3) on a chance identity of sound.
The associative field of a word is an unstable and highly variable structure: it differs from one speaker to another. It has been described as a ‘halo which surrounds the sign and whose outer fringes merge into their environment. In spite of its vagueness and its lack of sharp contours, it is a linguistic reality which can be studied by psychological as well as philological methods.
(b) Between the associative fields of sings words and the vocabulary in its entirety, there is an intermediate level which has attracted much attention in recent years: that of conceptual spheres or ‘lexical fields’. The concept of lexical fields first arose in the 1920s and was developed by Professor Jots Trier in his famous monograph on German terms for intellectual qualities. Trier’s view of language has been described as ‘neo-Humboltian’, and it certainly has many affinities with the idea of Humboldt and other German thinkers, in particular E. Gassier; but it is essentially an application of Saussurean principles to problems of lexical structure. Close study of the history of intellectual terminology in Old and Middle High German convinced Trier that it fundamentally wrong to consider words in isolation: they must be viewed within the context of the lexical field to which they belong. A lexical field is a closely organized sector of the vocabulary, whose elements fit together and delimits each other like pieces in a mosaic. In each field some sphere of experience is analyzed, divided up and classified in a unique way. In this sense, the vocabulary of every language embodies a peculiar vision of the universe; it implies a definite philosophy of life and hierarchy of values which is handed down from one generation to another.
How differently the raw material of experiences elaborated by various languages can be seen even in such a pre-eminently concrete field as the scale of colors. The spectrum is a continuous band, without any sharp boundaries; the number and nature of color distinctions is therefore largely a matter of habit and convention. The Greeks and Romans had a poorer palette than our modern languages; there was, for example, no generic term for ‘brown’ or ‘grey’ in Latin: modern Romance forms like French brun and gris are borrowings from Germanic. There is no single word for ‘grey’ in modern Lithuanian either; different words are used to denote the grey color of wool, of horses, cows or human hair. Color terms employed in other language will often appear more differentiated or less differentiated, than our own, although it would be more correct to say that the fields is divided up on different principles. Thus Russian distinguishes between sanity ‘dark blue’ and goluboy ‘ sky-blue’; conversely, the Greek _______ has a wide range of applications, some with and some without a notion of color: ‘gleaming, silvery; bluish-green, light blue, grey’.
It might be argued that language may have an important part to play in the analysis of a continuum, but that fields of experience where there are discrete elements will everywhere have the same linguistic structure. A glance at kinship terms in various languages shows that this is not so. It is, for example, surprising to learn that Hungarian had no term for ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ till the middle of the nineteenth century; it had instead, and still has separate words for ‘elder’ and ‘young brother’ and ‘elder’ and ‘young sister’. Malay has again a different arrangement: it has a generic term for ‘sibling or cousin’ and more specialized ones for ‘elder’ and ‘younger sibling or cousin’, the latter being further subdivided into male and female. Other family relations show the same diversity. In Swedish there is no single word for ‘grandfather’ and ‘grandmother’ only separate ones for ‘father’s father’, far far, ‘mother’s father’, mortar, and for the two kinds of grandmother: farmor and mormor.
Starting from rather different premises, the French linguist G. Mature has evolved a field concept closely akin to Trier’s, but marked by a strong sociological bias. In his book, La Methode en lexicologie (1953), he has outlined a technique for studying the structure of the vocabulary as a reflection of the structure of society. His conceptual spheres are mapped out on the basis of sociological criteria and organized around two types of important words: mots-temoins (‘witness words’), which occupy a prominent place in the hierarchy, and mots-cles (‘key-word’),which epitomize the leading ideals of each generation. M. Mature has given an illustration of his procedure in his remarkable monograph on vocabulary and society in the age of Louis-Philippe.
(c) Some linguists believe that the structural approach which has been tried out so successfully at the level of single words and conceptual spheres, can be extended to embrace the entire vocabulary of a language. To this ender. Hailing and Woven Wartburg have devised a general classification of concepts which, in their view, is both broad and flexible enough to be applied to any idiom. In this scheme, which springs basically from the same idea as Roget’s Thesaurus, concepts are divided into three groups, each of them with numerous subdivisions: the Universe, Man and Man and Universe. The aim is to provide a uniform framework for lexicological studies of different language and different periods of the same language, so that the results should be readily comparable with each other. Without claiming any special virtues for this scheme, which is only one of many possible arrangements, the adoption of a common framework offers obvious practical advantages, and a beginning has already been made in applying it in lexicological inquiries.
It can be seen from the foregoing that considerable progress has been made, during the last three decades, in the introduction of structural view-points into semantics. It is indeed symptomatic of current interest in these problems that structural semantic appeared on the agenda of the last two international congresses of linguistics, held at Oslo in 1957 and at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1962.All this makes it surprising and regrettable that many structuralists should still feel disinclined to handle problems. As a leading American linguist once put it, ‘for many linguistic students the word meaning itself has almost become anathema’ It has been suggested that language could be defined in such a way that semantic problems would lie outside the purview of linguistics proper. As Professor W. S. Allen pertinently remarked in his recent inaugural lecture at Cambridge: “Meaning, as at least one linguist has expressed it, has become a ‘dirty word’, but if the name tends to be avoided, there is no doubt that every linguist employs the concept, though some would be unwilling to admit to such improper thoughts.” At London congress of linguistics in 11952, the term crupto-semantics was coined to describe this paradoxical attitude.
Some of this reluctance to deal with semantic problems undoubtedly started as a reaction against the indiscriminate use of the term meaning and other ‘mentalistic’, abstractions; but this is surely no sufficient reason for excluding the semantic side of language from the field of linguistics.
Another reason for the avoidance of semantic by many linguists is the widespread belief that structural viewpoints are inapplicable to problems of meaning. In the light of recent developments in semantics, this position is, as we have seen, no longer tenable- unless, of course, the term structure is equated with ‘formal structure’, as is only too often the case.
But there is an even deeper cause for the structuralists’ refusal to tackle problems of meaning. For the reasons mentioned earlier on in this chapter, semantic phenomena cannot usually be described with the scientific rigor as the formal elements of language, and to many linguists scientific rigor is the supreme test of scholarship, even where the subject matter would invite a different method of approach. This attitude explains why, not so long ago, semantics was virtually ostracized by extreme structuralists. The last few years have witnessed a spectacular change of climate in linguistics, but one still has the impressions that many structuralists are merely paying lip-service to a study which has become more respectable. If this formalistic bias were to be perpetuated, linguistics would develop into a strangely unbalanced discipline and would lose much of its humanistic content. If would become an esoteric study, unable to contribute to the solution of the great problems of our time, some of which are closely bound up with the nature of our words. In this sense, not only semantics but linguistics at large is at the cross-roads, and the direction it will take may determine its future for a long time to come.
As already noted, the etymology of words are closely bound up with their ‘motivation’: the question whether there is an intrinsic conation between sound and sense or whether our words are purely conventional symbols, mere ‘ tokens current and accepted for concepts, as moneys are for values’. The whole problem, which has exercised many philosophers, writers and linguists, has been fully re-examined during the last quarter of a century, and valuable new insights have been gained into the workings of motivation and the principles of word-structure. There are four main points in particular which have been considerably clarified by recent research:
- We know that the real issue is not whether words in general are conventional or motivated, opaque or transparent since both types are present in varying proportions, in any linguistic system. We also know that motivation itself is a highly complex phenomenon which may work in three different ways:
(a) Onomatopoeic words like crash, rumble, swish, whiz, zoom are phonetically motivated: there is direct correspondence between the sounds and the sense. The uses of this principle in poetry are not innumerable, nor are they by any means confined to the imitation of noises. Sounds may also evoke light and color, as well as states of mind and moral qualities.
(b) A great many words are motivated by their morphological structure. A compound like ash-tray or motorway, a derivative like intake or fellowship, will be readily intelligible to all who know their components. Even such unorthodox formations as be utility, automation or meritocracy were perfectly comprehensible when we met them for the first time, though some others, such as beatnik or brinkmanship, whilst transparent in themselves (beatnik is obviously based on sputnik, brinkmanship on showmanship, can be fully understood only in the light of the special circumstances which called them into existence.
(c) There is also a third type of motivation. If we use a word in a transferred meaning, metaphorical of otherwise, the result will be semantically motivated: it will be transparent thanks to the connation between the two senses. Thus, when we speak of the root of an evil, the branches of a science, an offensive nipped in the bud, the flower of a country’s manhood, the fruits of peace, or a family-tree, the use of these botanical terms is not arbitrary, but motivated by some kind of similarity, or analogy between their concrete meanings and the abstract phenomena to which they are applied. Processes (b) and (c) morphological and semantic motivation, could be bracketed under the more general heading of ‘etymological motivation’ since they concern words derived from existing elements whereas phonetic motivation involves the creation of completely new forms. This also means that etymological motivation is always ‘relative’: the result is transparent but the elements themselves are opaque unless they happen to be phonetically motivated. To look again at some of the examples just cited, ash-tray is analyzable but ash and tray are not; fellowship is motivated but fellow and suffix -ship are conventional; ‘ the root of an evil’ is a self-explanatory metaphor where- as root in the literal sense is opaque.