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Things to Look for in Folk Taxonomies

There are five points to make about the taxonomy shown in figure 17.9:

  • 1. Interinformant variation is common in folk taxonomies. That is, different people may use different words to refer to the same category of things. Sometimes, in fact, terms can be almost idiosyncratic. Jack distinguished among what he called ‘‘regular cars,’’ ‘‘station wagons,’’ and ‘‘vans.’’ The term ‘‘regular cars’’ is not one your normally see in automobile ads, or hear from a salesperson on a car lot.
  • 2. Category labels do not necessarily have to be simple lexical items, but may be complex phrases. The category labeled ‘‘4-wheel drive’’ vehicles in figure 17.9 was sometimes called ‘‘off-road vehicles’’ in 1976, or even ‘‘vehicles you can go camping in or tow a horse trailer with.’’ Jack said that Jeep station wagons were both wagons and 4-wheel- drive cars you can go camping in.
  • 3. Labels change over time. By the 1990s, those cars that Jack had called ‘‘vehicles you can go camping in or tow a horse trailer with’’ were being called ‘‘utes’’ by some

FIGURE 17.9.

Part of Jack's taxonomy of cars and trucks.

people—short for “sport utility vehicle.’’ Today, the term widely used is SUV, though small SUVs are sometimes called ‘‘cute utes.’’

  • 4. There are those covert categories I mentioned—categories for which people have no label at all, or at least not one they find easily accessible. Some people insist that Corvettes, Camaros, Maseratis, and MGs are part of a single category, which they find difficult to name (one informant suggested ‘‘sporty cars’’ as a label). Others, like Jack, separate “performance cars’’ from ‘‘sports cars’’ and even subdivide sports cars into ‘‘true sports cars’’ and ‘‘rally cars.’’ Be on the lookout for unlabeled categories (that is, unlabeled nodes in a branching tree diagram) in any folk taxonomy.
  • 5. Even when there are consistent labels for categories, the categories may represent multiple dimensions, each of which has its own levels of contrast. For example, many native speakers of American English recognize a category of ‘‘foreign cars’’ that cuts across the taxonomy in figure 17.9. There are foreign sports cars, foreign luxury cars, and foreign regular cars.

Folk taxonomies can be very, very complex. One way to get at the complexity is through multidimensional scaling (see chapter 16). Another is a technique known as componential analysis (Further Reading: folk taxonomies).

 
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