At the prototype stage, by Rachel Watson

There are many apparent dualisms that have been uncovered during our research at the Crossroads, and I believe that their resolution will be one of the major contributions of the project to multilingualism research. Indeed, at its very foundations the study is motivated by the observation that speakers in the Crossroads area speak so many uncodified, minority languages, and maintain them in a way not predicted by many models of multilingualism. Alex and Friederike have done much in recent months to further our understanding of the fact that while people in the Casamance pay much attention to ‘ethnic’ and social and linguistic differences, at the same time they share virtually identical material and religious culture, and furthermore exhibit great fluidity – to the point of seeming contradiction – in their identities, including the way they perform these through linguistic practice.

From structural point of view, I have been struggling with a parallel dichotomy. On the one hand, much of the linguistic practice that we observe is wildly multilingual, with borrowings, switches and mixes all blending into one – not helped of course by the fact that many of the languages involved are similar to one another, precluding the identification of many items as definitively belonging to one language or another. Even more problematic is the multilingualism of the speakers (problematic for our research that is – the speakers have no problems at all with it!). Their constant exposure to many languages, and uniquely personal linguistic biographies and repertoires mean that variation is ubiquitous, both intra- and inter-speaker. However, on the other hand, there is a deeply held sense among speakers – particular native (i.e. from birth or very early life) – of what constitutes a given language. This is no doubt ideologically linked to the patrilineal heritage associated with a given village and thus its nominally associated language. However, the fact remains that this ideology manifests itself in real, and to an extent, measurable, judgements and linguistic performance.

How to align this with our own observations that ‘pure’ language is to all extents and purposes non-existent in the real world, even in more-or-less monolingual mode (cf. Green and Atalebi 2013), quite apart from the fact that there are plentiful instances where speakers do not agree on a ‘correct’ word or pronunciation, say, and definitely let’s not mention those times when you can receive different answers from one and the same speaker depending on time of day. A possible solution we have (very) recently started exploring is the use of prototype theory in the understanding of what constitutes language in the Crossroads setting.

It should have occurred to us earlier really, since prototype theory as developed by Eleanor Rosch and her colleagues, has been a major influence on our understanding of categories in language. In particular it has informed approaches on noun classification as elaborated by Lakoff, and appropriated for Atlantic languages by Serge Sagna, then Alex Cobbinah and yours truly. The premise of prototype theory, briefly, is that we do not categorize items according to a strict list of necessary and sufficient conditions, because this would exclude non-prototypical, but perfectly valid members of that category. The classic example is the category BIRD. What does an entity need to be or do or have to be considered a bird? Ability to fly perhaps? But then this means we cannot consider a penguin or an emu a bird. Possession of a beak, or two legs perhaps? But does this mean that a mutilated London pigeon ceases to be a bird. On the other hand, what is sufficient to be considered a bird? Possesion of feathers springs to mind, until we are reminded of the completely awesome fact that some dinosaurs are now known to have had feathers.

On reflection it becomes clear that it is practically impossible to find a criteria for membership of this category for which an exception cannot be made. At the same time, there is a strong intuition (borne out by Rosch’s experiments) that some birds are more ‘birdy’ than others – they are more prototypical of the category. Pigeons and sparrows are pretty high up there for an average Brit. At the other end of the scale, there may be quite extreme examples where the individual is not 100% sure whether the entity in question is a bird, and there may not be absolute consensus from person to person.


Baby penguins aside, the reasoning now goes, if we can consider a language as a category – to which a given linguistic item can be considered as belonging, or not – then we may apply principles of prototype theory to the language. It is certainly true that some items may be considered more prototypical of a language, in that they can readily be assessed as belonging to that category. A simple example would be names of common trees or animals (although Friederike observes some funny things going on with cats in Agnack), as well as categories such as the noun class system and certain aspects of pronunciation (watch this space for our joint paper on this).

I’ve started trying to represent this graphically, because that’s the sort of thing I like to do. Taking Kujireray as the example, what we expect to find is that, for an individual, there are many items that can categorially be categorized as Kujireray – these are found in the region inside the circle marked K. There will be others that can easily be dismissed as not belonging to Kujieray, whether or not an alternative home is identified for these items – this is essentially the entire region outside the circle. There will be others where there is less certainty – these fall in the grey area.

indiv prototype

Bear in mind that this state of affairs is not static. A speaker may learn new words to include inside the circle, or through learning another language identify an item as a borrowing, thus banishing it to the outer region or the grey area. They may change their judgements according to who. they have spent time with on a given day. All that said, it is clear that there is a substantial core, inside the circle that can reasonably be taken to be Kujireray for this speaker. Furthermore, the items within the grey area should not be considered problematic, but rather identified as important areas for investigation – why are they peripheral while other items are central? – à la Construction Grammar, which we also heart down here at Crossroads HQ.

So, if this is Kujireray on the individual level, what is Kujireray on the societal level. Here, too, there is a clear and substantial area of consensus on what does and doesn’t constitute ‘good’ or ‘pure’ Kujireray. This can be represented as a kind of Venn diagram, where speakers’ individual prototypes are superimposed, and the common region can be considered the societal prototype for Kujireray. This is represented below for just two speakers, where each circle represents an individual speaker’s prototype. We see that there is considerable overlap in what is considered Kujieray. There is also overlap of what is considered marginal (the grey areas). There is also of course an added level of complexity in that there are some regions where speakers judgments on what constitutes Kujireray, not Kujireray, or marginal Kujireray. This is complex, but not ultimately problematic; these facts can be very helpful to us in identifying what we might expect to see in terms of variation.

pair prototype

For now I think this way of looking at things is very promising, and quite powerful. It is possible to model a lot of the situation using just the fuzzy-edged prototype concept along with the Venn diagram-type superposition, just scaling it up wards and outwards for different degrees of complexity. For example, if the diagram above shows the combined prototype of two people, a larger community of practice can be modelled simply by multiplying the individual prototypes. In doing so the grey areas become greater, the area of consensus becomes slightly smaller, but at the same time reinforced, so we get an even stronger picture of the communal prototype.

group prototype

Our task now is to populate the various regions of these diagrams in determining what is prototypical for each of the languages and what is marginal. These can then in turn be used to investigate variation. We can also start combining and comparing the prototypes of different languages to see where, for example there is overlap in lexicon or pronunciation, and where there are divergences. For example, in terms of lexicon, we will see much greater overlap between Kujireray and Eegimaa than with either of these and Gubëeher, although the comparative word list we have been collecting already hints at a rather complicated and intriguing story – with many different permutations of similarity and difference.

More exciting graphic representations to follow……!

2 thoughts on “At the prototype stage, by Rachel Watson

  1. Pdicarlo says:

    Thank you Rachel for this nice piece! I agree 100% with what you wrote.
    By the way, I am curious to know more about the Green and Atalebi 2013 paper you mention. I have looked for it but could not find it anywhere. Can you help me on this? Thanks!


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