Words index  Vivian Cook

Levels of meaning

Eleanor Rosch's theory of what words mean suggests that we use three levels of meaning in our minds:

-    basic level terms for the most common everyday instances of things, for example potato and car

-    superordinate level terms, i.e. abstract categories that group together many examples of the basic level, vegetable and motor vehicle

-    subordinate level terms, i.e. more particular cases of a basic level term, Jersey potato and Fiat Punto

Some examples of levels of categories
in English

Superordinate 

Basic

Subordinate

fruit

apple

Cox's Orange Pippin

 

peach 

cling peach

tools 

hammer

 claw hammer

 

saw 

fretsaw

 

screwdriver 

Phillips screwdriver

fish 

salmon 

wild salmon

 

trout 

rainbow trout

 

herring 

smoked herring

reading matter 

books 

novels

 

newspapers 

The Sun

 

letters

business letters


It is claimed that the basic level:

i) is the first one that comes automatically to our minds look around the room and you will notice chairs, tables etc rather than furniture or an office chair.

ii) is the one that children acquire first, perhaps because their parents draw their attention to dogs and cats rather than animals or Doberman Pinschers.

Primary source: Rosch, E. (1977), 'Human categorisation', in N. Warren (ed .), Studies in Cross-Cultural Psychology, Academic Press

L2 vocabulary