Lie to me. Theory of semantic features vs. Prototype theory

Essay, 2012
14 Pages, Grade: 2,7




1. Introduction

2. Theory of semantic features vs. prototype theory
2.1 Theory of semantic features
2.2 Prototype theory

3. Prototype schema for lie

4. Prototype analysis of lie

5. Experiment
5.1 Prototype analysis of the example stories
5.2 Results Coleman and Kay
5.3 Expectations and results of our experiment
5.4 Comparison of the results of Coleman and Kay and of our experiment

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Parents lie to their children about sex to spare them knowledge they think their children are not ready for, just as their children when they become adolescents, will conceal sexual adventures because the parents won't understand. Lies occur between friends, witness and jury, lawyer and client, salesperson and customer. Lying is such a central characteristic of life that better understanding of it is relevant to almost all human affairs.” (Ekmann 2009:23)

But what is a lie and which features make an utterance becoming a lie?

Two possible theories for a semantic analysis of lie exist, one the one hand the theory of semantic features, and on the other other hand the semantic prototype theory.

This paper will deal with a prototypical analysis of lie.

At first both theories will be shortly explained and it will be explained why the prototype theory is more suitable for the analysis of, than the theory of semantic features. Then a prototype schema for lie, as well as a prototype analysis of lie will be given.

To confirm the general prototype hypothesis, the prototype definition of lie, and other hypotheses that will be made, an experiment of Coleman and Kay will be explained and its results will be analyzed.

To check and confirm the hypotheses of Coleman and Kay again, two fellow students and me did the same experiment within the context of our presentation about linguistic clues to lie detection. The expectations we had and the results will be presented and our results will be compared with that of Coleman and Kay.

Finally a conclusion will be drawn and the most important points will be summarized.

2. Theory of semantic features vs. Prototype theory

2.1 Theory of semantic features

Word meanings in linguistics are based on the idea of semantic features, which are discrete properties that contrast discretely with one another, and the meaning of a word then is represented as a set of features, possibly with a single member (Coleman, Kay 1981:26).

The theories built upon this notion have been characterized by Fillmore 1975 as Checklist theories (Coleman, Kay 1981:26). According to this theories the definition of a semantically complex word consists of features such that a given object is called by the word only when it corresponds to each feature in the definition (Coleman, Kay 1981:26). The list of features amounts to a set of necessary conditions which a thing must satisfy to be an example of the category described by the word, thus the applicability of a word to a thing is a matter of yes or no and no partial fit of word to object is possible (Coleman, Kay 1981:26-27). An example of semantic feature analysis can be seen in Table 1.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table 1 (Meyer 2003:114)

For example a man has to be adult and human, and it is impossible that a man is female. A man has to show all of this three features and it is not possible that a man shows only one or two of this features and is therefore “partly a man”.

This theory doesn't allow a degree of membership of a semantic category.

2.2 Prototype theory

In contrast to the theory of semantic features, the prototype theory is based on the assumption that semantic categories are fuzzy and allow degrees of membership, what means that the applicability of a word to a thing is not a matter of yes or no, but of more or less (Coleman, Kay 1981:27).

The closer something is to its prototype (the ideal representative of a category), the easier it is to classify the referent and to distinguish it from members of other categories (Meyer 2003:116).

The prototype theory assumes different degrees of membership of members of a category, with the prototype at its center and it recognizes the fact that the boundaries of a category are often not clear-cut but fuzzy, so that the referent may be put into different categories, according to context and personal judgment (Meyer 2003:116-117). Furthermore it allows to see connections between the literal meaning and the metaphorical use of a word, which is important because it is often difficult to draw a line between literal and metaphorical meanings (Meyer 2003:117).

Lie is not an object with unique features and it can be interpreted in different ways, according to personal judgment. The applicability of the word lie is not a thing of yes or no, but of more or less. That's why a prototype analysis is more suitable for lie than an analysis with the theory of semantic features.

3. Prototype schema for lie

A semantic prototype investigates a word or phrase with a cogntitive schema, so that a speaker is able to judge the degree to which an object matches this prototype schema (Coleman, Kay 1981:27).

According to Coleman and Kay (27-28), the word lie has the following prototype schema:

1) It contains a finite list of properties, which functions like a checklist
2) The individual properties are dichotomous, what means they are either satisfied or not
3) Membership in the category lie is a gradient phenomenon
4) Satisfaction of each property contributes to the degree of membership of an individual in the category
5) Satisfaction of each property doesn't necessarily contribute equally to the degree of membership of an individual in the category, because properties may be of different importance
6) Concepts of necessity and sufficiency do not apply.

4. Prototype analysis of lie

When defining lie, the first that comes into ones mind is the idea of saying something which is not true. This definition is not suitable because people often say things that are not true but are nevertheless not called lies, for example honest mistakes or innocent misrepresentations (Coleman, Kay 1981:28). Thus the definition needs a second element, which is that the speaker believes that what he is saying is false (Coleman, Kay 1981:289). However a large number of utterances exists which shouldn't be called lies, even though they are not true, as for example metaphoric speech (He's a pig), sarcasm (You're a real genius, all right!) and hyperbole (It's so hot out there, you could fry an egg on the sidewalk). They differ from real lies where the speaker isn't trying to induce the hearer to believe something which isn't true. This leads to the third element of the definition of lie, that the speaker intends to deceive the hearer (Coleman, Kay 1981:289).

The resulting definition is: When a speaker (S) asserts a proposition (P) to an addressee (A):

a) P is false
b) S believes P to be false
c) In uttering P, S intends to deceive A (Coleman, Kay 1981:28)

As a conclusion the prototypical lie is characterized by falsehood which is deliberate and intended to deceive. The prototype theory now leads to the result, that utterances which include all of the three elements a-c are considered as full-fledged lies, and that utterances which only have one or two of the elements might still be classed as lies, but less clearly (Coleman, Kay 1981:28).


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Lie to me. Theory of semantic features vs. Prototype theory
University of Bayreuth
Forensic Linguistics
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Lie, Prototype theory
Quote paper
Cindy Härcher (Author), 2012, Lie to me. Theory of semantic features vs. Prototype theory, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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