Prototype Theory: an evaluation

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Prototype Theory: an evaluation

1. Preliminaries

This paper discusses prototype theory and aims to evaluate the proposal that prototype structures can serve as word meanings. It has been proposed that prototype structures have cognitive representations that could serve as representations of real world categories. This issue is discussed on the basis of a mainly theoretical approach, while particular issues are more extensively exemplified. A central conclusion is that prototype structures can be considered as having a supplementary role to word meanings, yet do not form an adequate or non-problematic basis overall. The following section introduces some basic features of prototype theory.

2. Prototype Theory: the underlining theory for prototype structures

“What kind of bird are you, if you cannot fly”, said the little bird to the duck. “What kind of bird are you, if you cannot swim”, said the duck and dived. (Prokofiér, Peter und der Wolf)[1]

Prototype theory, within the field of prototype semantics, originated in the mid 1970s with the psycholinguistic research of Eleanor Rosch into the internal structure of categories. Its revolutionary character marked a new era for the discussions on lexical meaning and brought existing theories (such as the classical view) into question.

The above quote represents the essence of the prototypical conception of the structures of categories; people create categories of things and assign the same name (or label) to things that are not exactly the same but similar. In the example although the duck easily observes that the little bird (which could be a sparrow or a blackbird for instance) could not swim and the little bird similarly observes that the duck cannot fly, they still call...

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Lehrer, A., “Prototype theory and its implications for lexical analysis” in Tsohatzidis, S.L. (ed.), Meanings and Prototypes: Studies in Linguistic Categorization (London: Routledge, 1989).

Rosch, E., “Principles of categorization” in Rosch, E. and B.B. Lloyd, (eds.), Cognition and Categorization (Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum. 1978).

Taylor, J.R. (ed.), Linguistic Categorization, Prototypes in Linguistic Theory, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).

Wierzbicka, A., “Prototypes save: on the uses and abuses of the notion of ‘prototype’ in linguistics and related fields”, in Tsohatzidis, see Lehrer above

Wittgentein, L., Philosophical Investigations, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).

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