Prototype semantics and the emergence of motor vehicle categories

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McElhanon, Kenneth A
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SIL International
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SIL e-Books 19
pages 246-272

This article is in response to Anna Wierzbicka’s criticism that “the notion of prototype has to prove its usefulness through semantic description, or through semantic theorizing” (1990:305). I claim that the development of motor vehicle categories exemplifies the power of prototype imagery. The first era in the history of motor vehicles—an era of under-determination—was characterized by “technological anarchy” as some two-thousand makers produced one or more motor vehicles. This was followed by the decade of the 1890s which saw the emergence of prototypes for motor carriages as well as motorcycles. By the start of the twentieth century, the wide variation that characterized the 1890s had passed from the scene, and carriages with gasoline engines at the front and forward-facing passengers dominated. There is no more certain indication that a prototype existed than that of the steamers and electrics being superficially redesigned to conform to the prototype of the front-engine, gasoline driven carriage. This was done by both those who built steam driven and battery driven vehicles, and later by English three-wheelers. Further support for the value of prototype theory is drawn from the development of subcategories, when imitations of the anomalous Willys JEEP gave rise to the subcategory of SUVs. The strength of the prototype of the SUV was verified by the way in which the anomalous Hummer conformed to the image of the SUV rather than giving rise to a new subcategory of super cars.

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A Mosaic of languages and cultures: studies celebrating the career of Karl J. Franklin, Kenneth A. McElhanon and Ger Reesink
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