At this summer’s residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was in workshop with the inimitable DG. Among other things, we talked about image patterns and their role in buttressing the spine of a story. I was having trouble, though, differentiating between images that clearly possess thematic importance (what some call a symbol) and images that contribute to the story’s backdrop. Here’s an example—do frequent mention of stars in Star Wars mean stars should be read as an image pattern? If not, what can we call these images that repeat because they’re ubiquitous in the story’s setting?
I recalled that in French grammar school—and on through middle and high school—I learned about something called a champ lexical, or “lexical (or semantic) field.” My fellow French-Americans and I would read a text and have to highlight, for example, all the words in the text that refer (either literally or figuratively) to the sea. Then we could raise our hands, hope the teacher calls on us, and proudly claim we’d found the text’s lexical field of the sea. (Then the beloved French teacher would scowl, as I remember it.)
This concept seemed relevant to image patterns so I quickly googled it to refresh my memory. The definition from this French exercise site captured it:
“Un champ lexical est l’ensemble des mots qui, dans un texte, se rapportent à une même notion.”
Or: A lexical field is the group of words that, in a text, refer to one same notion.
One online resource shows an example of this grade school exercise in interpretation. The authors separate various lexical fields in Baudelaire’s “Autumn Song” and warn readers not to reduce their study of the poem to one lexical field (death) but rather to explore more specific ones that add up to something larger—they identify “temporal adverbs” in red, “sensations of cold” in purple, “auditory sensations” in blue, and “funereal terms” in green.
In French literature we also use the notion of a lexical field to include words from the same etymological family. So, you see, lexical field is a concept that encapsulates denotation and connotation, synonym and semantic family. Do we anglophones discuss images (or motifs) in quite the same way?
Ultimately, “champ lexical” theory dates back to early linguistics. It was formulated by German linguist Jost Trier and was influenced by the ideas of structuralist Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. What linguists call a lexical field shares a history with the literary concept, but linguists are isolating and studying “lexemes” whereas French k-12 readers are playing with highlighters. (That’s just scratching the surface, though. The authors of the above article go further with the literary concept, suggesting that we distinguish between denotative fields, which the authors call a lexical field, and metaphorical or connotative fields, which they call a lexical network.)
There are less productive ways to play with highlighters, I have to say. It’s fascinating to look at other education systems and see how they form readers.
Turning quickly to the term “symbol,” we see that the French definition of symbol resembles the English one: élément ou énoncé descriptif ou narratif susceptible d’une double interprétation sur le plan réaliste et sur le plan des idées. To paraphrase in translation: a word used to evoke a secondary meaning.
In the beginning of my investigation into this foreign concept, I thought it might be interesting to think of image patterning as the umbrella over two things: 1) the concrete, bodily, setting-relevant lexical fields and 2) the abstract, metaphorical, theme-related symbols. Now, I think image patterning and lexical fields are closer to synonyms than I had realized, since both terms incorporate the denotative and the connotative. If nothing else, it’s good to remember that the stars in Star Wars are not necessarily symbols. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important.