Language and Linguistics

Associative field characteristics and examples

Associative field

The associative field can be defined as the linguistic space where sets of words that correspond to the same theme or field of reality are related. These words do not necessarily have to belong to the same grammatical category (nouns, verbs, or adjectives ), nor do they need to have a common root. Associative field characteristics and examples

In this sense, the link between them can be subjective and related to the knowledge of the world. This conception is one of several attempts to explain the general principles for organizing vocabulary. According to this approach, each word is wrapped in a network of associations that connect it with other terms. Associative field characteristics and examples

The term associative field was first used by Charles Bally (1865-1947) in 1940. This Swiss linguist, from the structuralist school, compared words to constellations. In them, each word was in the center, becoming the point where an indefinite number of other coordinated terms converged.

Later, this word was adopted by the also linguist, of Hungarian origin, Stephen Ullmann (1914-1976). However, unlike Bally, it only considered semantic associations between words (Bally also included those that had a common root). Associative field characteristics and examples

Associative field and structural semantics

Associative field theory is one of the approaches to paradigmatic relationships. The dichotomy between syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships was one of the most important distinctions made by the renowned Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). In a language system, these relate two units on the same level.

In this way, two language units are in a syntagmatic relationship if they are composed or appear together in some expression (for example: clear water).

You are in a paradigmatic relationship if they appear in similar contexts, or are interchangeable to some extent (for example  clear water or clean water ).

In turn, most of the theoretical approaches associated with paradigmatic relationships have their origin in various traditions of structural linguistics. Together, these traditions have given rise to what is known as structural semantics.

Associative semantics

In general, three trends can be distinguished within structural semantics. One refers to the relationship between the meanings of the same word. This is mainly interested in polysemy (multiple meanings of the same word) and homonymy (different words that are spelled the same).

On the other hand, there is the analytical structural semantics. This is concerned with studying the organization of vocabulary in terms of its contrasting relationships. In short, they analyze the components of the meaning of words.

Now, the notion of associative field is inserted within the trend of associative semantics. This is attributed to Saussure and his followers. It differs from the previous two because its field of study is the association of words with other words (or things) that somehow go with them. The association can be semantic, syntactic or morphological.

Charles Bally and his associative field theory

Charles Bally was a prominent disciple of Saussure. For the latter, the study of relationships was fundamental in any approach to language.

The Swiss considered that the sign by itself had no significance. For words to be meaningful, they need to be related to other words. Associative field characteristics and examples

In this way, these become the point of convergence of an indefinite number of elements that are coordinated. However, Saussure‘s associative relationships were not limited by any fixed number of relationship types. Nor did it distinguish between semantics and other types of relationship.

However, Bally did set limits. He turned his attention to the semantic associations between words. Thus, he described the associative field of a word as a “halo” radiating from it and dissipating.

For example, the word bed can bring to mind other related words from different categories: sheets, pillows, sleep, mattress, room, among others. In addition, it can be associated, according to each personal experience, with relaxation and rest.


One of the characteristics of the associative field is that it has an unstable and totally variable structure. This happens because it can change from one individual to another, from one social group to another, and from one event to another. For example, the associative field of the expression “right-wing government” can be diametrically opposite from one person to another.

Related to the above is its high degree of subjectivity. This is because each field takes into account a sphere of experience that is uniquely divided and classified.

As a third characteristic, it can be mentioned that an associative field does not have any type of restrictions regarding the type of relationship that can be incorporated. These can be paradigmatic (synonyms), syntagmatic (thirst – water relationship) and even idiosyncratic (grandmother-rocking chair).

In addition, it should be noted that, although they are related, the associative field is different from the concept of the semantic field. The latter refers to a set of words that cover a certain conceptual domain and that have certain specifiable relationships with each other.

It can be said that the associative field has a centrifugal character, insofar as they extend without control. For its part, a semantic field has a centripetal character. It is a system whose structure is established based on the semantic differences between its members.


Associative relationships can be due to the presence of a common root. This is the case of goalkeeper and goalkeeper. But there can also be a parallel set of relationship with respect to meaning.

Following the example of a goalkeeper, you have: ball, goal, penalty or soccer match. It can even be related to hand, Sundays, physical condition and others.

Another example is found in the word read. With the same root, they are: reading, rereading or reader. The word can also be related to readable, letter, page, book, education, recreation and many others. Associative field characteristics and examples

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