#Random Thoughts# — 4

A rebuttal essay of classical semantic theory — word meanings are not fixed

Yes, Rosch’s work on prototypes present us a set of experimental data on how people interpret the meanings of words, which cannot be readily explained by the classical semantic theory decompositional approach.

Words are the fundamental building blocks of languages, the channels to convey the internal thoughts to the external world. Therefore, a natural question arises – what is the meaning of words? Or to ask in a different way, how do words link with their corresponding concepts? Linguists and philosophers have been trying ages to answer this question, and many theories have been proposed ever since.

1. Classical Semantic Theory

In the classical semantic theory, a word’s meaning is viewed as fixed, as it remains unchanged among different usages in various situation. In other words, words are a fixed set of tools. People with adequate fluency with any languages should know exactly which sets of tools to use, when trying to express certain concepts in their minds.

In order to describe the meanings of words, Nida (1975) and Katz & Fodor (1963), along with several other European and American linguists developed componential analysis. This analysis claims that every word existing in any human language could be decomposed into a finite number of indivisible universal meaningful subsets. These subsets are the building blocks of words in languages, and different combinations give words different meanings.

For example, “bachelor” can be decomposed into [+HUMAN] [+ADULT] [+MALE] [-MARRIED]. It is worth noticing the phrases used here, such as HUMAN, ADULT, MALE etc., are not words, instead they are representations of a particular concept, and this concept is believed to be indivisible – not able to be further divided into more basic subsets, universal – understood by all human beings regardless of their personal experiences and upbringing, and constant – relatively stable and resistant to change. In this way, based on this classical semantic theory, every word is believed to be able to be decomposed into their own indivisible meaningful subsets, and since those subsets are relatively stable, the meanings of words cannot and will not change easily.

If every word, as the classical semantic theory describes, could be decomposed into these universal elementary basis sets, this is equivalent to say that there is a clear cut around the boundaries of word meanings. Moreover, it implies that words sharing same basis sets are on the common grounds in terms of those sets. It is easier to understand this argument using set theory. According to the decompositional approach, for words x and y, we have x = y = . Let’s say x and y have certain similarities in semantics, which means they share certain subsets, denoting with . First of all, this method of denotation eliminates any possibility in ambiguity. Any word either “yes” – belongs to S, or “no” – does not belong to S. There is no grey area, where it is controversial to determine whether a word belongs to S or not. However, as we see in nature, not everything exhibits a clear boundary. Secondly, for words having the same basis set S, in this case, x and y, because S is absolute and invariable. It implies that, when we are prompted with the concept represented by S, our brains should treat x and y equally. However, as we will soon see, this implication has been found problematic by the experiments on prototypes.

2. Prototype Theory

Rosch (1975) formulated prototype theory from a series of experimental data obtained from students in University of California, Berkeley. In this experiment, subjects were asked to rank words in a category, based on their judgments on how well or poorly the words fit the category.


For example, in the category “bird”, robin, sparrow and bluejay are considered as the “birdiest” birds, whereas owl, geese and peacock are less prototypical, followed by turkey, ostrich and penguin. It is worth mentioning that most people after thorough consideration will still agree the animals mentioned above, even for outliners such as penguins, should be categorised as birds. This experiment is more than a simple “yes or no” question. It touches something deeper, namely different words demonstrating various degrees of agreement with respect to the ideal representation of certain category.

This experiment was very crafted designed, because a preliminary experiment was conducted to find out appropriate categories and corresponding member words (Rosch, 1973). Subjects were asked to verify “A (member) is a (category)”. Their reaction time was used as an indicator whether this particular member is a good representation of its category or not.

In this way, the words were very carefully chosen, so that everyone will agree, they all belong to their category technically. However, some are better representations of the category than others; or as the paper said, some birds are birdier than others. This prototypical effect is an often encountered phenomenon in daily life. For example, if a friend offers me salad for dinner, and then it turns out to be a bowl of potato salad. I would be naturally surprised, because in my mind the most prototypical salad is Caesar salad, with a lot of leafy greens and fresh vegetables, maybe topped with a bit Parmesan cheese. Even though potato salad fits the definition of salad, and I sure do recognise it as a type of salad, it is far less from the prototypical salad for me, and as a result I will be startled by the outcome. This raises a huge problem for classical semantic theory advocates, because one can easily deduce from the decompositional approach, that words like “robin”, “peacock” and “ostrich” will share a common elementary subset — [+BIRD]. However, it cannot explain why those North American university students prompted with “birds”, it is a robin that emerge first from their minds not the other two, even though everyone would agree they all belong to the very same category — birds. This experiment result demonstrates that the meanings of words exist on a spectrum; on one end, we have words closer associated to the prototypes, which require less reaction time for us to think about them; on the other end, there are words which are remotely related to the prototypes, and we need more time to think about them. Unfortunately, the decompositional approach and stable meaning theory in general, fails to address this more finely grained distinctions in meanings of closely related words. A word either belongs to the category or not. There is no middle ground to account for the subtle differences in the reaction time for words belonging to the same category. It is really a major problem for the classical semantic theory, because it simply does not do justice of the complexity of human brains’ cognitive activity in associating meanings with concept.

Another issue is about the meanings of the same word across different cultures, especially about their prototypes involved. For example, in China, Pak Choi, together with some other leafy greens, is considered the most prototypical vegetable, whereas in the North America, the most prototypical vegetable is pea (Rosch, 1975). Another example is sandwich in North America versus it in West Europe. In North America, when prompted with the word sandwich (as in an utterance “shall we have a sandwich later”), people will more likely to associate it with a toasted cheese sandwich. However, in the European context, people will more likely to expect a baguette with some slices of cheese and ham.

Once again, if meanings are fixed, this will be impossible. How come the very same word, when uttered in a different land, gives people different expectations? Of course, some advocates of stable meaning theory may dismiss such distinctions in meanings as insignificant, as they’re only part of connotations. However, the way in which the boundary was drawn between connotations and denotations is rather arbitrary at the very first place, which is in turn a strong argument for the innate fuzziness of words, as the meanings of words are so fuzzy that it is impossible to find a clear cut way to draw boundaries between its “real meanings” and its implications.

Lastly, Putnam (1975) as well as other advocates for the fixed meaning theory senses the challenges it is facing, and instead of abandoning the theory completely, they try to moderate the theory to account for the prototypical effect. What they are arguing is that for most people — ordinary people — words are fuzzy, and there are no clean cut around their boundaries. This is why prototypical effect exists. However, in order to know the “real meanings” of words, one must consult proper scholars to figure out. Therefore, the meanings of words are still fundamentally stable, except for the fact that most people are using them inattentively inaccurate. I find this argument extremely illogical, not only because of its elitist attitude towards ordinary people, but also because I believe every fluent language user is an expert in their own language. Taking my personal experience as an example, after learning the prototypical effect, I started a small experiment by asking my friends what their prototypes for various categories are. I realise that everyone has so many ideas to share and things to say about it. That is exactly what I mean by saying every active user of any language is indeed an incredible expert on the word meanings, because otherwise how come they can still convey their thoughts to others through daily exchange of utterances. In short, it is unreasonable to assume that only so-called “scholars” truly understand what meanings of words are.

In conclusion, even though there is certain innate simplistic beauty in the decompositional approach and perhaps pedagogical values in the classical semantic theory, its shortcomings are too prominent to be neglected, namely the challenges raised by the prototypical effect. To start with, it cannot account for the fact that certain elements of a particular category require less reaction time than the others. Moreover, the differences in word meanings, which arise from various cultural backgrounds, cannot be readily explained by indivisible universal elementary sets in the decompositional approach. Lastly, even though some supporters of the stable meaning theory propose a modified version, it is still not satisfying. Therefore, from Rosch’s experimental results on prototypes, the belief that word meanings are stable is undoubtedly rebutted.


#Random Thoughts# — 2

It’s been a long time since I posted my last blog. Anyway, I’m back with more linguistics related contents and enthusiasm to share them! Los geht’s!


Recently I am reading the Language Instinct written by Steven Pinker, which inspires me to think a lot. This article I would like to discuss “genders” in languages in general.

The Bantu “genders” refer to kinds like humans, animals, extended objects, clusters of objects and body parts.

Steven Pinker

When I first encountered grammatical genders, I think it was French classes in my primary school, and frankly I forgot most of the French words I learned already. Nevertheless, it still leaves such impressions on me that grammatical genders have something to do with biological sex, as in the primary distinguish between male and female. Even for seemingly genderless objects such as tables and chairs, they are still assigned with grammatical genders. Later when I learned German in university, this intuition just grows stronger, and its sexist nature started to bother me a lot. For example a girl in German is “das Mädchen” — neuter, but a boy is automatically “der Junge” — masculine.

However, if we look at the word “gender” from its etymology.

Middle English gendre, from Anglo-French genre, gendre, from Latin gener-, genus birth, race, kind, gender

Merriam-Webster

This offers me an alternative to interpret genders in languages — instead of viewing genders as a binary divider of social constructs, they should be interpreted as a way of classification. Indeed, babies often “wrongly” classify all young ladies as “mama’. I would argue the ability and tendency to classify — putting things similar into one basket — is fundamental to humans’ cognitive approach to explore the world.

Moving on, bearing this new realisation of grammatical genders in mind, I develop a new theory about measuring words in Mandarin and Japanese (I am more fluent in Mandarin so the following examples will be given in Mandarin, but I’m more than certain that measuring words in Japanese function similarly). Many Mandarin learners are troubled by the idea of measuring words, namely for every noun there is a certain classifier to match with. Use English analogy that will be “a pile of paper” “a bottle of water”. It is worth noticing that though some measuring words may carry certain semantical meanings as “pile” and “bottle” in the case of English, most measuring words are purely grammatical. For example, 一張桌子(a “zhang” table), 一把椅子 (a “ba” chair), both of them have no semantical significance, but essential to formulate a grammatical correct sentence. So, a natural question arises from this observation— what are they? I propose that they are nothing but a different realisation of grammatical genders.

This theory does sound quite counter-intuitive, especially considering that Mandarin is always labelled as the language “without” grammars. (sigh this is the topic for another article to rebut) However, hear me out. It is actually really logical to think measuring words as grammatical genders.

First of all, as I mentioned, if we move away from the biological sex related definition of genders and move towards its original meaning about classification, we’ll see that measuring words are also another way to classify nouns. For example, 張 (zhang) could be used for tables, beds, bed sheets, paper and photos. We can see the rationale behind this classification, a range of objects from things with a relative large flat surface area to things that are thin and flat in nature.

Secondly, genders are critical for grammatical completeness. Measuring words, though they may as the name suggests, starting from certain words referring to the measurements of other words, have evolved into an indivisible parts of grammars already. Therefore, I argue that measuring words are truly another cases of grammatical genders.

My dearest readers, I present this novel ideas that measuring words are a different realisation of grammatical genders. What are your thoughts on this quite bold theory? Comment below!

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#Blog Update#

Hey everyone, I’m back!


A lot of things, fortunate and unfortunate, have happened in the past 2 years. I am still dealing with ramifications and trying to live with the true version of me. I’ve been through darkest time, considered ending my life. I’d be lying if I say I have been fully recovered from all those obnoxious thoughts and people, but I’ve been trying to fight back. For now, I don’t think I will share anything intimate on this blog, but may in future, I will open up and start writing.

First thing, as some of my readers may notice, is that I change my blog name from “Linguiphilic” to “Lingphilic”. The main idea doesn’t change: the first half is from “Linguistics”, as mentioned in the very first entry, my love for linguistics in general is my original motivation to write this blog; the second half is from Greek, philos dear, friendly. In general, this blog is a place to document my love and share my love for linguistics and through linguistics. The reason for this change is pretty simple — I think 3 syllables sounds better than 4 haha! Unfortunately, I cannot change my website address. Sigh Guess life constitutes of constant regrets. Nevertheless, I hope I will be happy with this new name for the foreseeable future.

I really love this platform, because it allows me to convey my thoughts in a more articulated way without strings on those instant social media platforms. No need to worry about social consequences, no need to wait for a reply and just spit out my mind and express myself. I set a tiny goal for me: I want to publish one entry every week for the coming year.


Also, at the moment when I hit my tenth entry on this blog, I will start sharing this website with my friends in real life. I think that will be another motivation for me to move forward with this blog.

Next, I would like to introduce some new sections on this blog.

1. Module Reviews
2. Random Thoughts
3. Movie Reviews
4. Thought Storage
5. Social Observation
Continue reading “#Blog Update#”