Semantics 5 – Categorisation

Earlier on, we already looked at more traditional ways of classifying words according to certain categories, mainly based on the idea of binary features. However, this approach does not sufficiently explain some of the decisions we may make in assigning words to specific categories. This is why we now want to look at a more modern approach, often employed in cognitive linguistics – that of prototypes.


The idea of a prototype is based on the concept of commonality/similarity between or of words. A prototype expresses the most salient features of a conceptual category, i.e. is its central member. A chair, for example, is commonly seen as a prototypical type of furniture, whereas a television may not be. The television is thus a more peripheral (or radial) member of the category furniture. Other examples are:

The following graphic provides an illustration of central vs. radial categories:

Just as with collocations, the prototype may often simply be the first association that comes to mind when we think of a particular category. One of the other crucial insights in prototype theory is that there there are often no discrete features that necessarily identify all members as belonging to a category (c.f. Wittgenstein’s games).

Sources & Further Reading:

Taylor, J. (1995). Linguistic Categorization: Prototypes in Linguistic Theory (2nd ed.). Oxford: OUP.

Ungerer, F. & Schmid, H.-J. (2006). An Introduction to Cognitive Linguistics (2nd ed.). Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.