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Prototype Theory

  Prototype theory, in linguistics, provides an explanation for the way word meanings are organized in the mind. It is argued that words are categorized on the basis of a whole range of typical features. For example, a prototypical bird has feathers, wings, a beak, the ability to fly and so on. Decisions about category membership are then made by matching the features of a given concept against a prototype.

There is, in fact, strong agreement about what counts as the best exemplar of a particular category. For example, most people consider chair to be the most typical instance of the category furniture. Peripheral category members can be accommodated, because it is not necessary for any one member to possess all the features of the prototype. Thus, despite being flightless, an ostrich can still be classified as a bird, since it possesses other bird-like features.

One problem with prototype theory is that each category adopts an idiosyncratic range of criterial features. Furthermore, decisions about the number and type of features to be included in a prototype are by no means straightforward. And although certain features appear to be more central than others, it has often proven difficult to establish which ones take priority when we make decisions about category membership. MS

See also lexicology; psycholinguistics.



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