Main Currents of Categorization Theory: Psycholinguistic Perspectives within Semantics

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2003 19 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents


1. Introduction

2. Linguistics within cognitive science
2.1. Preface
2.2. The role of language within thought
2.3. Categorization – concrete contact between linguistics and cognitive psychology

3. A survey of categorization theories
3.1. The classical view of categorization
3.2. Prototypes and stereotypes
3.3. Towards a more integrated view on categorization: LAKOFF´s ICMs

4. Psycholinguistic perspectives
4.1. Basic ideas
4.2. What psycholinguists can get from ICMs
4.3. A final remark on linguistic theories in general.

5. Summary and Outlook



Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

1. Introduction

From the beginning of arts subject in the ancient Greece to modern cognitive science, scholars have been seeking to discover the nature of the relationship between language and thought. This relationship and the basic processes that underlie reason phenomena in general are today called cognitions. Modern cognitive science consists of an interdisciplinary ensemble of various subjects. Findings from the research for artificial intelligence, results of cognitive psychology, neurophysiology, philosophy, and finally linguistics contribute to a better understanding of any type of mental information processing. As language is said to be among the most characteristic human cognitive activities (see LAKOFF, 1987, p 113; see also BIRBAUMER, 1999, p 675), one aim of this work is to show in what respect linguistic findings are crucial to the aims of cognitive science.

For this purpose I will discuss theories around the concept of categorization which is relevant for the traditional linguistic field of semantics, and also applicable to cognitive psychology and furthermore to psycholinguistics. The categorization approach seems to allow explanation for the communicative functions of language and how humans organize knowledge in general. It seems that: “Categorization is everywhere. Life is full of decisions and every choice involves a selection between a variety of competing options. These choices are guided by the category structure (…), both in language as elsewhere in cognition.” (CORRIGAN et al., 1989, p 195) The process of categorization means that we unconsciously group together every sensory input to meaningful categories. That is, we economically organize the mental representations of the outer world.

From the beginning to the late 1970s and again during the 80s cognitive approaches of psychologists and linguists by the name of e.g. ELEANOR ROSCH, HILARY PUTNAM, and not too long ago GEORGE LAKOFF challenged the classical view of how humans organize knowledge while performing language. Whereas their ideas mainly provided a more integrated view of meaning within language at first, these scholars and especially LAKOFF contributed to a more detailed understanding of the fundamental human ability of categorization. Via the outline of the main currents in categorization theory, my argumentation will lead to emphasising psycholinguistic perspectives in semantic theory, as at least LAKOFF`s approach may represent a theoretical basis for neuropsychological studies. Certainly, within the scope of this work it will not be possible to examine LAKOFF `s and others` entire work – for LAKOFF `s famous book “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things” from 1987 is rather complete. Though, I will try to give a short overview of these complex approaches.

2. Linguistics within cognitive science

2.1 Preface

Within linguistics, the field of semantics is one of the basic approaches to explain the communicative function of language, since utterances need to have content that varies through their morphological structure, different sound patterns, and their syntactic organisation. In fact, despite many centuries of study, we still know very little about the nature of meaning or how it is represented in the human mind. Though, “(…) psycholinguistic studies have revealed that many of the concepts employed in the analysis of sound structure, word structure, and sentence structure also play a role in language processing” (O`GRADY, 1996, p 272). This should count for semantic analyses, too, but it seems to be difficult to establish contacts between linguistics and cognitive psychology at first glance. One of the problems in fact is, as WENDT (1989) stated, that the classic cognition literature used to confine itself to only describe reason phenomena. Concerning categorization within language, even “(…) linguists and psychologists have only recently begun to examine the actual dynamics of categorization and the ways in which these dynamics affect the shape of language” (CORRIGAN et al., 1989, p 195). “While there is general agreement that categorization is a fundamental human ability” (CORRIGAN et al., 1989, p 3), it is necessary to clarify the role of language within thought in general. This should provide a first answer to the question in what respect language and thought are fundamentally related.

2.2 The role of language within thought

With the development of psychology during the 20th century, different attitudes concerning the relationship between language and thought have been competing with each other. Whereas early traditional ideas supposed associations between word and meaning, sign and signifier, gestalt psychologists (e.g. SELZ) and substitutes of the Würzburger Schule looked upon thought as a process independent of language. For them, language was just a tool for performing thoughts. Behaviourists (e.g. WATSON) believed that thought is impossible without language and just a rudimentary inner performance of speech. WHORF supposed dominance of language over thought which was in contrast to PIAGET`s opinion that the structure of thoughts represents the environment, instrumentally learned and independent of language. This shall be sufficient as a concise survey.

From the various findings one can conclude that formation of notion and reason is possible even without language. Though, it seems that language supports the formation of notion, as it is easier to handle concrete or abstract notions if there are terms ´labelled` to them. This support function of language is also called labelling. It means that it is easier to mentally store objects if they have a name. So, language might not be a necessary condition, but it is an essential aspect of human reason, yet (see WENDT, 1989), and for that a fundamental cognitive activity.

2.3 Categorization – concrete contact between linguistics and cognitive psychology

Categorization phenomena appear in every cognitive domain. Besides categorization in language, which I will discuss in detail in the next paragraph, thought is all about categorization, too, as most notions or internal representations are related to categories and not to individual symbols (see KLEIBER, 1993, p 4). When perceiving an oak as a tree, at least according to the classical view of categorization, this happens because it has certain characteristics that define the category tree. “Because there are too many unique objects in the world to be able to deal with them as totally individual items, we group them together into categories.” (CORRIGAN et al., 1989, p 2) As there are categorization phenomena in language and in other cognitive domains, too, this is another fundamental relation between these abilities. If language takes a central position within thought and if it is a fundamental cognitive activity in itself, we can assume that systematic relationships of categorization phenomena in language processing bear systematic relationships in any cognitive domain, too (see CORRIGAN et al., 1989, p 1). That is, clarifying any systematic within internal representations of categorization phenomena would allow deep insight into any cognitive processes, such as language comprehension and language production. The more concrete our theoretical concepts of categorization processes are, the easier we might be able to identify even neuronal mechanisms of language processing. This then is a matter of psycholinguistics which shall be of interest again at the end of this work.



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Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg – Institute for Foreign Language Philology
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Main Currents Categorization Theory Psycholinguistic Perspectives Semantics Semantic




Title: Main Currents of Categorization Theory: Psycholinguistic Perspectives within Semantics