[b-greek] Discreet vs prototypical categorization

From: Kimmo Huovila (kimmo.huovila@helsinki.fi)
Date: Thu Oct 19 2000 - 10:21:53 EDT

clayton stirling bartholomew wrote:

> There is a linguistic dragon lurking just below the surface of this
> confusion. The linguistic dragon (YAM, the sea) is the now very prevalent
> notion that DISCREET functional categories are passe, outmode residuals of
> structuralism and "Early Chomsky (1965)." Several different schools of
> "functionalism" have adopted as an axiom the idea that "SCALARS" are more
> useful than discreet functions. This means that the whole idea a discreet
> functional category is now considered suspect. This would apply to all
> categories semantic, pragmatic and so forth.
> The implications of this shift in thinking are enormous. For example,
> instead of talking about definate/indefinate substantives we end up talking
> about a range from indefinite to definite. When this kind of thinking takes
> over your entire linguistic model you are going to be in big trouble.


> My thinking on this is that the wholesale abandonment of discreet functions
> is the equivalent of intellectual suicide. It is jumping ship in the midst
> of a gale. The weather was getting rough with discreet functions so lets
> jump overboard and drown in scalars.


Many linguistic phenomena are scalar by nature, as shown by
psycholinguistic experiments in the 1970s. Languages tend to describe
prototypical categories in discreet terms (ie, a construction is or is
not used to describe the category, which itself is not discreet), with
the result that most linguistic categories are somewhat fuzzy. Not to
recognize this is to force the language to suit the model built by the
analyst, but one that does not really help discover the original meaning
(either of the text nor of the grammatical categories). This is a
problem I feel many theologians often fall victim to (just my opinion).
If you proceed from the assumption that linguistic categories describe
discreet categories (as opposed to linguistic categorization by
prototype), and you try to define your passage in terms of that
categorization, you may very well end up making questions that were not
relevant at all to the original speaker or the audience, especially if
you tend to multiply categories ad infinitum. It is more useful to see
the range of typical and possible meanings and relate this to the
context. This does not deny the possibility to use discreet categories
to describe them, but one must be careful to realize that the discreet
metalanguage does not make the phenomenon itself discreet. I assume most
linguists working with actual corpora are familiar with the difficulty
of trying to define where to draw the line where a phenomenon passes
from one category to another. (This is not to say that sometimes two
categories have no overlap - perhaps there is a third category in

I am not trying to get rid of discreet functions altogether (and I do
not think that the trend has been that, either), but I cannot see why it
would be an intellectual suicide to realize the scalar (or prototypical)
nature of language, and come fully to grips with it (BTW I did not take
that personally :-). On the contrary, that assumption yields more
insight to the function to language, in my opinion. This view of
language in no way makes everything too fuzzy to make very specific
analyses (perhaps might have been your concern, I do not know), as shown
by actual analyses made within that paradigm of linguistics.

I would actually like to see more theologians grasp the explanatory
power of the prototype theory for exegesis. The better understanding the
exegete has of the way languages function, the better his chances are of
making good exegesis. In other words, the general linguistic model an
exegete uses has a big influence on how he approaches his task as an
interpreter. I assume that most theological institutes do not provide
theological scholars adequate training in general linguistic theory.

Clay, I appreciate your linguistic musings, and I assume that we agree
on the importance of linguistic background, even if here it seems that
our views of its nature are different (unless I misunderstood you).

Kimmo Huovila

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