Some Useful Linguistic Concepts for the General Edification, part 1

This post is the first in a series on ideas from linguistics that the general public should be familiar with.

Calque: Sometimes Language A, lacking a word found in Language B, will use a literal piece-by-piece translation of the Language B word. So, for example, the German word for “television” is “Fernsehen,” because Greek “tele-” means English “far” means German “Fern” and Greek “vision” means English “seeing” means German “sehen.” In that case, “Fernsehen” and “television” are calques of each other, and if there were an English word “farseeing,” that would be a calque too.

Markedness: See my earlier post, On Race, Markedness, and Stuff White People Like.

Productivity: A morpheme (unit of meaning) is productive in Language X when modern X speakers can use it on the fly. So the suffix “-able” is very productive in English, because you could easily say or envision someone saying a word like “create-able,” even though that word would not be found in a dictionary (and, were it to be found in a dictionary, it would probably use the more Latinate form “creable”). Other productive morphemes include “pre-,” “-ity,” “-ize,” and especially “-ism” and “ist.” “-(i)fy” (which is Latin) is still somewhat productive, but seems to have given way somewhat to “-ize” (which is Greek) in more recent times. All of the morphemes I’ve mentioned so far are from Latin or Greek; “-ish” and “-est” are examples of productive Germanic morphemes, and “-esque” is Romance (but etymologically related to English “-ish”). I cannot think of any productive morphemes in modern English that are not from Latin, Greek, or Germanic, but I am sure there are some. Can you think of any?

Prototypicality: Now this one is cool. The easiest example is this: “table”(1) and “chair” are prototypes for the category “furniture.” When you think of “furniture,” you are most likely to think of those two obejcts, followed maybe by “sofa,” then “bed.” “Filing cabinet” would be considerably further down. Dirk Geeraerts, a Dutch linguistics professor who has done a lot of work on prototypicality, summarizes the four hypotheses that try to explain it as follows:
1. Physiological: Maybe certain colors (like red and blue) are prototypical because of the biology of the eye and sensory apparatus. This only applies in a limited number of cases.
2. Referential: Also called the “family resemblance” model (by Rosch and Mervis). The prototypical elements of the set have more in common with the other elements than the peripheral elements do. Tables and chairs have legs and flat surfaces—both common features of furniture—while filing cabinets have flat surfaces but no legs, thus making the latter more peripheral. This is related (but not identical) to Wittgenstein’s concept of Familienähnlichkeit.
3. Statistical: Relatively straightforward. The most commonly experienced element in a set is the prototypical one. Tables and chairs are more common than filing cabinets.
4. Psychological: Called also the “functional” hypothesis (by Geeraerts). I will let him speak for himself here, because I’m not sure I can accurately paraphrase: “It states that it is cognitively advantageous to maximize the conceptual richness of each category through the incorporation of closely related nuances into a single concept because this makes the conceptual system more economical. Because of the maximal conceptual density of each category, the most information can be provided with the least cognitive effort.”(2) If you think you can paraphrase this, please post your paraphrase as a comment.

As a final note, recent research has suggested that one category may have multiple, dissimilar prototypes. See Wikipedia for details.

Questions for commenters: What is the difference between prototypicality, unmarkedness, and stereotypicality? E.g., what is a “prototypical American,” an “unmarked American”(3), and a “stereotypical American”? Or maybe there is no difference, or it is comparing apples and oranges?

(1) Eleanor Rosch’s original paper, which (I think) originated the idea of prototypicality, had college students rank objects as good examples of the category “furniture.” Rosch’s results found that “sofa” ranked higher than, and “couch” tied with, “table.” I dispute the general applicability of this particular ranking. I think sofas and couches are more central to the lives of college students, and tables are more central to the lives of the general population.

(2) Geeraerts, Dirk. “Where does prototypicality come from?” The Cognitive Linguistics Reader, pp. 168-185.

(3) “The Unmarked American” would be a great name for a movie.


One Response to “Some Useful Linguistic Concepts for the General Edification, part 1”

  1. […] from Empire Avenue. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Some Useful Linguistic Concepts for the General Edification, part 1On Etymology and Etymon-ologyMy, How You’ve Changed: Second-Person Pronouns in Modern […]

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