Language has a way of incidentally revealing what people think and believe about the world. For example, in the Catholic rosary, believers call out to Mary as the Holy Mother of God The reference to the Mother of God is distinctly Catholic, and it implicitly draws on background knowledge of Christian traditions related to Jesus, Mar)', and the Bible. The precise wording conveys a particular perspective about the nature of both Mar)' and God and consequently the Christian religion. The expressions Mother of Jesus and Mother of God clearly express a different viewpoint since the qualifying use of God instead of Jesus considerably changes the background knowledge one accesses when making sense of this noun phrase. In a subtler but equally way, even our use and understanding of the word mother reveals a particular view of the world. This can be demonstrated by asking the simple question: what is a mother?

At first glance, this question is simple enough to answer—either someone is a mother of a child or they are not. However, as one delves further into this seemingly simple question, several complexities become apparent. Is a mother someone who gives birth to a child, or is it the person who raises a child? If there is a mother, does there necessarily have to be a father? Is it possible to have more than one mother? The different senses of mother reflect divergent understandings of the concept elicited by various discourse contexts and speakers.

Lakoff (1987b) uses mother to illustrate how people categorize the world around them in terms of cluster models; for example, by conceptualizing motherhood based on a birth model, a nurturance model, or a marriage model (among others). Each model is associated with distinct sets of attributes or actions, although there may be some overlap between them. Our understanding of Mother of God draws on different models of what it means to be a mother in relation to Jesus and the Christian understanding of him as both a Sort of Man and a Son of God. Lakoff goes on to make the crucial point that despite the fact that individuals are aware of and make use of different models, they often have a “strong pull to view one as the most important” (p. 75). He employs Rosch’s (1975) notion of prototypes to describe this as a prototype effect (discussed in Section 2.2).

Although people often view categories like mother as being straightforward, objective, and readily verifiable, upon closer inspection, categories often take the form of idealized models that exhibit prototype effects.These effects are important in religious language because of their many real-world consequences, such as when people think of one particular model of a religious belief as more prototypical than another. Orthodoxy, or viewing and adhering to one set of beliefs as correct within a particular religious tradition, can be closely related to prototype effects in that committed religious believers often have a strong “objective” sense that a particular model of a divine entity or textual interpretation represents truth. The notion of prototype effects, as mapped out by Rosch (1975) and Lakoff (1987b), thus seems to be particularly relevant to notions of religious certainty, orthodoxy, and heresy.

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