The Cultural Dependency of Prototypes or How Bad Birds Are Able to Survive

Term Paper 2009 11 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Input on Prototype Theory
2.1. What Is a Prototype?
2.2. Origin/Formation of Prototypes
2.3. How to Discover/Detect Prototypes
2.4. Function of Prototypes

3. Prototypes between Cultures
3.1. Why and How Does Culture Have an Impact on the Notion of Prototype
3.2. Examples

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“Classification is fundamental to human reasoning. Whenever speakers think about something as a kind of thing (e.g. plant, animal, etc.), they engage in a process of categorization. In their use of language, speakers make use of linguistic categories.” ( Hornoiu 2006: 1)

The use of language in our everyday life is an automatic process we usually do not reflect on. Nevertheless - or perhaps for exactly this reason- it is influenced by the speech community we live in. Our own culture provides us with a world view that is different from all other cultures and influences our language in that it determines which concepts are salient and worth being articulated. (Saeed 1997: 42)

Prototype theory as founded by the US-American linguist Eleanor Rosch in the 1970s is an area of research situated between linguistics and psychology and deals with the internal structure of categories. Rosch pointed out that many categories cannot be defined through necessary and sufficient conditions but rather show a prototypical structure. This structure is organised by degree of membership and typicality of members of a category. As a result, there exist bad birds and better birds, good fruit, less good fruit and so on. It is a well-known fact that prototypical knowledge has significant impact on the representation of and dealing with linguistic and conceptional structures. (Bußmann 2002: 543)

In the following paper I am going to analyse in how far culture can influence our perception of concepts and also our usage of language.  The first chapter deals with theoretical facts on prototype theory. The second one provides information on cultural differences due to prototypes and gives examples.

2. Theoretical Input on Prototype Theory

2.1. What Is a Prototype?

According to Rosch, we can define a prototype as the best example and thus typical representative of a category, which contains the basic or central meaning of a category (Mangasser-Wahl 2000: 14). This implies that categories do not consist of exemplars all having the same relation to the superordinate concept, but that categories have a hierarchical inner structure. For instance an apple would be a better example of the category FRUIT than an olive in the central European point of view. Members of a speech community have a relatively wide consensus on which exemplars are better representatives of certain categories (Kleiber 1998: 31f.) . A prototype can also be seen as an abstraction, i.e. as a set of characteristic features assigned to a category. The example given by Aitchison is  from Alice in Wonderland. The Hatter obtains a watch that “tells the day of the month, and doesn't tell what o'clock it is” (Aitchison 1987: 51). This aberration from the prototypical watch that tells the time is labelled as funny (Aitchison 1987: 51).

To put it differently, we tend to categorise prototypical members of a category much faster than non-prototypical exemplars. When speakers are asked to list members of a category, prototypical members are named at first and moreover, children are able to memorise them primarily (Kleiber 1998: 38f.). But how are they constructed and where do they emerge from?

2.2. Origin of Prototypes

Prototype-formation occurs very differently since the concerning categories can be constructed very differently. Categories with fuzzy boundaries and those with sharp boundaries both have prototypes alike, so that prototypes must result from different factors. For example, those of fuzzy boundaries like 'tall man' can result from degrees of membership, those of sharp boundaries like 'bird' from the inner structure of the category. In the following I am briefly going to comment on possible principles of prototype-formation given by Rosch.

Firstly, they can be constructed on the principle of frequency. The more often a concept appears in everyday language, the more frequent it is, the more prototypical it appears to be for speakers of a speech community. For instance in the category FURNITURE, chair appears more often than shelf and is therefore a more prototypical furniture.

Secondly, 'cue validity' can be an important factor. It is about the weighting of characteristic qualities. For example, the quality 'can fly' has a higher cue validity than the quality 'to twitter' with birds. A category whose members all have at least one attribute in common has a high cue validity, e.g. all fish have gills. Here prototypes develop since their attributes possess high power to predict the category they belong to, i.e. they hold many or the most characteristics of their superordinate concept. Thus, they are the best examples for the principle of maximal cue validity within their category and can be easily assigned to this category.

Another factor is family resemblance. In a family, everyone is related even if they do not resemble each other perfectly. Members having the greatest family resemblance to other members of their category can be defined as prototypical, for instance robin, dove and sparrow for the category BIRD. Penguin and ostrich do belong to BIRD as well, but due to their different outlook and lower frequency in our culture are not so good representatives of this category for members of West European speech communities.

The last factor I want to mention is the maximal difference from other categories. Prototypical members of one category have the least attributes in common with members of other categories. (Mangasser-Wahl 2000: 15ff.)

There are further factors that can have an impact on the inner structure of categories but the ones listed above can be considered as the most important ones and suffice to be suggestive of how prototypes are generated.



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Title: The Cultural Dependency of Prototypes or How Bad Birds Are Able to Survive