An Analysis of the Relevance of Categorization and the Prominence of Basic Level Categories in Written Texts

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

37 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Introduction

2. What is categorization?

3. The cognitive and linguistic prominence of basic level categories

4. Analysis and discussion of the informants’ texts on shoes
4.1 Outline of the research study “shoes”
4.2 Analysis of the texts: General aspects
4.3 The importance of basic level categories in the informants’ texts

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

7. Attachments: Texts written by informants

1. Introduction

Friedrich Ungerer and Hans-Jörg Schmid state in their book An Introduction to Cognitive Linguistics that “we are on the whole surrounded by readily identifiable organism and objects” and that, “when it comes to categorizing these entities, we normally have a choice between categories on different levels on generality”[1].The authors even state that “basic human faculty of categorization”[2] can be ascertained by research.

In this paper I want to examine to which degree this statement can be supported by a research that had been encouraged by Prof. Dr. Amei Koll-Stobbe at the Greifswald Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University in the summer term of 2005.

In Cognitive Linguistics, an interdisciplinary scientific field which aims at combining psychological and linguistic knowledge to explain linguistic phenomena, categorization and its effects on language users have been topics of interest for quite a time.

The fact that linguists are interested in the topic ‘categorization’[3] is due to its importance for language use[4]. John R. Taylor even points out that “categorization is fundamental to all higher cognitive activity”[5], which also explains why linguists, and especially those examining connections between cognitive and linguistic issues, are so anxious to examine the effects of categorization on language users.

In this seminar paper I want to explain what categorization is and I also want to point out the importance of basic level categories for this process. The chapters dealing with these issues are meant to lay the theoretical basis for this seminar paper.

In the other chapters I intend to discuss the results that a research project developed by Prof. Dr. Amei Koll-Stobbe yielded. As it was a project that was based on texts written by several informants, the discussion of the results will often refer to the texts which are attached to the paper. The hypothesis here is then that we can also show the existence and relevance of categories in written texts.

Several aspects that linguists regard as relevant for the topic of categorization will be examined using the data of the research project as a basis. The most important aspect will be how the basic level category influences language use. Other aspects will be discussed in the analysis of the texts in the fourth chapter because it might be useful to illustrate several aspects of lesser importance using the informants’ texts.

It also needs to be mentioned that the corpus of data that has been collected is comparatively small (texts from 12 informants) and that therefore limits regarding the value of the analysis of the data must be considered. Some aspects that might be interesting for categorization processes cannot be examined due to the limited number of informants, at all.

Nevertheless, it will hopefully be possible to draw some general conclusions about the use of categories and the special cognitive and linguistic prominence of basic level categories.

2. What is categorization?

As I have already indicated in the introduction, categorization is not just a phenomenon that we find in linguistics. There seems to be a need to organize our knowledge of the world, for instance by using categories in which we – in a cognitive process – assemble things which show differences on the one hand but which, on the other hand, also have similar features.

It is not very difficult to explain that we all very frequently use categories. If we imagine that someone arrives late at work and uses some technical problem that his car, let us assume it is a Fiat Panda, had on the way to work to justify his late arrival he would rather say something like ‘something was wrong with my car’ than ‘something was wrong with my Fiat Panda’. Of course, for the person who hears this explanation it is not relevant whether the car is a Fiat, Vauxhall or another sort of car at first. But both persons in this situation, the one explaining his late arrival and the addressee, would understand that one specific car is meant although it is not specifically named as a Fiat Panda.

Both persons in this situation, like all intelligent human beings, are capable of thinking in categories – car being in this case a superordinated category for all sorts of cars produced by different companies, i.e. convertibles, jeeps, sports cars produced by Toyota, Vauxhall, Mercedes, Rover etc. There is, furthermore, a strong tendency to use certain types of categories by which we organize objects, organisms and phenomena of the world in our mind more frequently.

So, it is not only that in our cognition and our language we tend to use categories, but that in our use of categories in language we seem to have preferences.

Another example would be a child in a zoo together with its parents. If this child wanted to draw its parents attention towards a certain animal, let us assume it is a cockatoo, it would probably say to its parents something like ‘Look at that bird!’ or it would tell its grandparents after the visit in the zoo that he or she had seen lots of animals there. In this case even a child would often prefer to use categories for certain organisms and objects it perceives. Bird in this case, of course, would be the superordinate category for the cockatoo and animals a superordinate category for birds, reptiles, mammals and so on that one can see in a zoo. One explanation for this cognitive use of categories that is mirrored in language use is that in the last situation a child might not know the name of a certain type of bird it sees somewhere and that it therefore can only use the superordinate category term bird to refer to a certain bird[6]. Also part of this explanation is that “category names on a middle level like dog, cat, car, truck” or in this case ‘bird’ “are also the ones that are first learned by children” and they also “tend to be the shortest names in hierarchies” and therefore “are used most frequently”[7].

And still the use of the category term is perfectly acceptable for the speaker and the addressee and both know and understand what is meant since intelligent human beings are by their cognitive means able to design and use categories and “to see similarity in diversity.”[8]. Besides others, John R. Taylor points out that “things will get assimilated to the category on the basis of some kind of perceived similarity to the prototype”[9]. So, categorization is a cognitive process that starts in childhood and means that different and yet similar things are assembled under one common category.

Prototypes are perceived by those who make up the categories, individual human beings, as the most representative or best member of a category. Americans for instance regard ‘robin’ as a prototypical member of the category ‘bird’[10]. Prototypes are considered as the best examples for a category that can also include more marginal members that don’t share many common attributes with the prototype (e.g. ‘ostrich’ and ‘penguin’ would be often perceived as more marginal members of the category ‘bird’).

There also is a sort of hierarchical order for the categories that we design or organize in our minds. The notion of class inclusion here is a very important principle. This means that “the superordinate class includes all items on the subordinate level.”[11] For this reason it is perfectly acceptable and indeed very common to refer to a certain type of car simply as ‘car’ than to use the specific term for the type of car. The same is true for subordinated organisms in the hierarchical order of categories in the animal kingdom which could be explained by the second example.

When we think of the hierarchical order of categories in the animal kingdom we should also consider that many sciences organize the collected knowledge in categories. Ungerer and Schmid for instance refer to the Swedish botanist Carl von Linné, who aimed at a classification of all the known plants and animals[12]. But not only biology and other sciences but linguists, too “need categories in order to describe the object of investigation”[13], as Taylor puts it. So, “Just as a botanist is concerned with the botanical categorization of plants, so a linguist undertakes a linguistic categorization of linguistic objects”[14].

Finally, organizing discrete entities or even abstract phenomena that scientists are interested in into categories also seems to be about making “the age-old dream of organizing human knowledge with a claim of scientific rigidity”[15] come true.

The hierarchically organized system of categories that results from these scientific endeavours are called taxonomies. But does a scientific taxonomy that is usually very “bulky and complex”[16] – due to the fact that all known entities or phenomena of a scientific field should be able to be organized in it – necessarily reflect the cognitive organization of categories in the human mind?

Ungerer and Schmid make their readers aware of the fact that in our everyday contact with the surrounding world we might find different forms of categories for objects and organisms[17] since scientific taxonomies in their bulkiness and complexity “are neither mind-sized nor mind-orientated”[18].

There surely must be differences between scientific classifications or taxonomies that “aim to be as objective as possible”[19] and our own mentally constructed, cognitive categories in which we may regard – due to more frequent contact with the subordinated entities of these categories – some categories or category members as more important than others.

One way to show the validity of this assumption is the examination of so-called folk taxonomies.

Ungerer and Schmid refer to the pre-scientific and Non-Western system of Tzeltal plant classification. The Tzeltal people – a Mayan-speaking community in Mexico –has a system of classifying plants which offers obvious differences in comparison to the scientific taxonomies. In their system of categorization for the plants they know there are gaps and that there seems to be no need to categorize all the plants that biological science would include in a scientific taxonomy aiming at completeness. Of course, this Mayan community as a pre-scientific culture has no need to classify more plants than they experience in their everyday contact with the world. But there are surely strong restrictions for completeness in everyone’s individual cognitive system of categories. This is due to the fact that a single human being has limited mental capacities and that we have different experiences with the world and are interested in different things. A folk-taxonomy of plants by Urban Europeans would certainly be even less complete than that of the agrarian Tzeltal people whereas Europeans or US-Americans could certainly think of more items belonging to the category car[20].


[1] Ungerer/Schmid: Cognitive Linguistics, p. 60.

[2] Ungerer/Schmid: Cognitive Linguistics, p. 61.

[3] Labov cited in Taylor: Linguistic Categorization, p. 2.

[4] Taylor: Linguistic Categorization, p. iix.

[5] Taylor: Linguistic Categorization, p. iix.

[6] although Taylor also points out that young children often still have to assimilate more marginal instances of category members to the categories which might not be the case with a quite typical bird like a cockatoo; Taylor: Linguistic Categorization, p. 45.

[7] Ungerer/Schmid: Cognitive Linguistics, p. 63.

[8] Taylor: Linguistic Categorization, p. ix.

[9] Taylor: Linguistic Categorization, p. 241.

[10] Jule: The Study of Language, p. 120.

[11] Ungerer/Schmid: Cognitive Linguistics, p. 61.

[12] Ungerer/Schmid: Cognitive Linguistics, p. 61.

[13] Taylor: Linguistic Categorization, p. 1.

[14] Taylor: Linguistic Categorization, p. ix.

[15] Ungerer/Schmid: Cognitive Linguistics, p. 61.

[16] Ungerer/Schmid: Cognitive Linguistics, p. 61.

[17] Ungerer/Schmid: Cognitive Linguistics, p. 61f.

[18] Ungerer/Schmid: Cognitive Linguistics, p. 63.

[19] Ungerer/Schmid: Cognitive Linguistics, p. 62.

[20] Goddard addresses the fact that cultural difference may be a result of culturally differing needs; Goddard: Semantic Analysis, p. 243.

Excerpt out of 37 pages


An Analysis of the Relevance of Categorization and the Prominence of Basic Level Categories in Written Texts
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Institut für Anglistik / Amerikanistik)
Discursive Linguistics
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
536 KB
Analysis, Relevance, Categorization, Prominence, Basic, Level, Categories, Written, Texts, Discursive, Linguistics
Quote paper
Stefan Ruhnke (Author), 2005, An Analysis of the Relevance of Categorization and the Prominence of Basic Level Categories in Written Texts, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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