Basic level categories (Rosch)

May 15, 2010

Just as Hunn (1975) argued that the basic level for animal categories is the only level at which categorization is determined by overall gestalt perception (without distinctive feature analysis), so Rosch and others (1976) have found that the basic level is:

  • The highest level at which category members have similarly perceived overall shapes.
  • The highest level at which a single mental image can reflect the entire category.
  • The highest level at which a person uses similar motor actions for interacting with category members.
  • The level at which subjects are fastest at identifying category members.
  • The level with the most commonly used labels for category members.
  • The first level named and understood by children.
  • The first level to enter the lexicon of a language.
  • The level with the shortest primary lexemes.
  • The level at which terms are used in neutral contexts. For example, There’s a dog on the porch can be used in a neutral context, whereas special contexts are needed for There’s a mammal on the porch or There’s a wire-haired terrier on the porch. (See Cruse 1977.)
  • The level at which most of our knowledge is organized.

Thus basic-level categories are basic in four respects:

  • Perception: Overall perceived shape; single mental image; fast identicfication.
  • Function: General motor program.
  • Communication: Shortest, most commonly used and contextually neutral words, first learned by children and first to enter the lexicon.
  • Knowledge Organization: Most attributes of category members are stored at this level.

Lakoff (1987), p.46-7

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