Thanks to everyone who posted a response to my last challenge. You can go and check out my reply to that one as well if you’d like.
Today’s challenge is quite a bit different. It is about Semantics, which is the meanings of words, and is taken from my Lexicography class, which is a class about making dictionaries. Semantics is not my favorite, but you might get bored if I ONLY post about discourse stuff. So here we go.
Bird. What would you give as a definition of “bird?” How do you know if something is a bird or not?
Now that might sound simple, but people have been fighting about that for a long time. Two main camps that we talked about in class today are those who argue for “Necessary and Sufficient Conditions” and those who argue for “Prototypes.”
Those who argue for Necessary and Sufficient Conditions would say that there is a set of attributes such that all of those attributes are NECESSARY for something to be classified as a bird, and that if you list out all of those attributes it will be SUFFICIENT in narrowing down the list of “everything” to the list of just birds. For example, having wings and having feathers may be two of those “conditions” or “attributes” that make something “bird”y. All birds have feathers and all birds have wings. However, though those could both be called NECESSARY for something to be a bird, they aren’t yet SUFFICIENT in narrowing down your choices of all words to just those that fit the category of “bird.” You could, for example, have a Halloween costume with angel wings with feathers on it, and though that costume has both feathers and wings, it is not a bird.
If you like this idea of Necessary and Sufficient Conditions, can you think of other conditions or attributes that you would need to have to describe “bird?”
Some people, though, don’t like the idea of Necessary and Sufficient Conditions, saying that it doesn’t quite work all the time. For example, is a penguin whose feathers never came in not a bird because he doesn’t happen to have feathers? Hmm. . . . Or another Necessary and Sufficient Condition that we’d like to add is that a bird flies, but we all know that penguins and ostriches don’t fly. So as much as we’d like to say that being able to fly is like a “prerequisite” to being a bird, it doesn’t quite work.
That’s why these people who don’t like Necessary and Sufficient Conditions came up with a new theory, called Prototypes. They said that there is something, take a robin for example, that is a prototypical bird. All other birds will be somewhat like that prototypical bird, though not necessarily exactly like it, and that “family resemblance” is what makes them a bird. So a prototypical bird would have feathers and fly, but the Prototype theory would say that it’s ok to have a bird that doesn’t have feathers or doesn’t fly, since it’s still like a prototypical bird in other ways. It may, for example, have wings.
These arguments go on and on, back and forth, which is why I don’t really like theories that don’t look so practical. But based on this very brief overview, what do you think? What makes a bird a bird?
(PS. Can you see the pelican in the picture? It’s the best picture of a bird that I could find from my recent PGA trip, though we saw so many cool ones! This picture is taken in Guinea-Bissau.)