From Standardness to Creativity
5. The theoretical background: A brief history of cognitive linguistics
The notion of prototypes which as was seen in the previous chapter is central to the construction and functioning of mental models is also essential in later developments of cognitive-oriented linguistics. Developed by Eleanor Rosch and other researchers (1978), prototype theory studies the internal structure of categories, as well as our ability to interpret and organise experience. It studies how we assimilate, store and implement experience, and how it relates to our “mental dictionary”. All these operations are carried out in terms of categories, and categorisation is described as a basic cognitive function that we perform automatically and unconsciously whenever we see something or experience something, think or reason about something, or perform any kind of action. The theory contends that even though the things we see, do or experience are never the same, we are able to recognise and classify them because they share certain traits which identify them in our minds as members of a category. According to Rosch and her associates, categorisation is neither arbitrary nor necessarily imposed by conditions of discreteness present in the real world.
Prototype theory maintains that human beings do not have a category for every object, experience, or action in the world. A large proportion of our mental categories are not categories of things, they are categories of abstract entities represented in the human mind by the best or most representative example of that category. That example which often is the more familiar to us is called a prototype. A...
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