Dish or plate? Prototype theory and English vocabulary

What’s the difference between a plate and a dish in English? In some languages there’s just one word.
It’s not a simple answer because the meanings of words often overlap.
In this English lesson we explain when we say dish or plate and look at the features of:
– plates, dishes, cups, mugs and bowls
– different kinds of games
We show how the meanings of words can be fuzzy at the edges and it leads us to linguistic prototype theory.
We draw on the work of two different writers:
– the philosopher Wittgenstein and his work on words that share a family resemblance
– the psychologist Eleanor Rosch and prototype theory
If you’re interested in this topic, a great book to read is ‘Words in the Mind’ by Jean Aitchison. She explores how we store words in our brain.

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Plate or dish?

We had a great question from a viewer called Aurum last week.
Aurum asked what’s the difference between a dish and a plate? Some languages have only one word.
A dish is a container or bowl. It’s usually pretty shallow, so not very deep.
We serve food from a dish and sometimes we cook food in it too.
But sometimes a dish is a particular type of food that’s served as part of a meal.
Like a fish dish or a pasta dish.
A plate is flat and usually round. We put our food on it and eat from it.
And in American English, a plate can also be a whole main course of a meal.
But not in British English.
No?
No. Aurum’s question looked simple, but when you go deeper, it’s quite tricky.
There are lots more words like this. Let’s look at some.

What do we call this in our house, Jay?
This is a mug.
And why do we call it a mug?
Because it has a handle and I drink coffee out of it.
OK. What’s the difference between a mug and a cup?
Well a mug doesn’t have a saucer and it’s taller.
OK. Then what’s this?
Well, this is what we call your coffee cup. Cup!
But it doesn’t have a saucer and it’s tall.
Yes, but it has curved sides and mugs have straight sides.
So we call this a cup because it has curved sides. OK, what’s this?
This is a bowl.
And what’s this?
That’s a bowl too.
So size doesn’t matter.
Well size always matters but in this case what’s important is that they have curved sides.
OK. What’s this?
That’s a bowl.
But it has straight sides.
Yeah, but it’s a bowl.
It isn’t a mug?
No. Cups and mugs have handles and bowls don’t.
OK. So this isn’t a bowl?
Yes, I’d call that a bowl because it’s bigger than a cup.
But you just said size doesn’t matter for bowls. OK. What about this?
It’s a bowl.
And not a plate, right?
No, plates are flat. Bowls are deeper like that. But it’s also a dish.
Why?
Well, we share food from it. If we share food from it, it’s a dish.
So it’s a bowl and a dish.
Yes!

Wow! That was confusing!
Yes. It’s because the meaning of words often overlap with other words. Another meaning starts before one meaning has finished.
So we call this a cup, but we could also call it a mug. It’s part cup and part mug.
Exactly. The boundaries between the words are fuzzy. There’s no clear dividing line between their meanings.
Are there more words like this?
Oh yes, lots. What about the word game? What does game mean?

Wittgenstein and words that share a family resemblance

You mean a board game like Monopoly, or a card game like poker?
Yes. Or a game like football or tennis.
Or computer games.
Or the Olympic Games. What do they all have in common?
Well there’s competition. We compete against another person or another team. If it’s a game we can win or lose.
But there’s also the game of patience.
We call that solitaire. It’s a card game you play on your own.
And what if a child throws a ball against a wall? It’s a game, but it’s not a competition.
OK. Is it that games are all amusing and fun?
Well, that’s often true, but some games are quite serious like chess, or war games.
Is it about skill? We need to learn and practice a game to play well – like chess or football? They require skill.
Skill can be important, but in some games, you can win by chance. Like roulette or bingo. You don’t need skill to win them.
So there are different features of the word ‘game’: competitive, amusing, skillful. But we don’t need all the features to call something a game.
Exactly. The meanings of words are often a group of ideas that are similar. But they don’t all have to be true for the meaning to work. They just have to have a family resemblance.
OK. Here’s a big question. What does this mean if you’re learning English?
It means words you have in your language might not match English words exactly. They could be similar in some ways but different in others.
Because the word boundaries might be different.
That’s right. And there’s some interesting research about that.

Prototype theory and English vocabulary

In the 1970s a psychologist, called Eleanor Rosch, ran some experiments on prototypes. A prototype is a typical example of something. For example, she showed people lots of dogs and asked them what’s the doggiest dog for you? A sheep dog, a bull dog, a collie, a dachshund, a Pekingese? So she wasn’t asking what dogs people liked. She was asking what kind of dog is most typical of all dogs.
She asked the same question about lots of different categories of things. For example birds, vegetables, toys, pieces of furniture. And she discovered two things. The first one was people kept ranking things in the same way. Their answers were very consistent. For example, most people thought a chair was the best example of a piece of furniture and a lamp wasn’t very good.
And the second thing Eleanor discovered was very curious. People believed the words must share some common features. So for example, they’d look at different birds and say they’re birds because they can all fly. But a penguin can’t fly and an ostrich can’t fly. Flying is a common feature of birds but it’s not a necessary feature. People kept looking for necessary features that don’t exist.

So things in her categories shared some features, but not all of them.
Yeah, and the things that shared the most features were the best prototypes.
It was like the word ‘game’. Different games have some features in common, but they don’t share all of them.
Our brains want to think that words fit neatly into categories and that there are clear boundaries where one word stops and another begins.
But that’s not how it works. The meanings of words are fuzzy at the edges.
You can’t always separate them with clear lines.
And this is something that’s true for all languages.
I have a question.
What’s that?
What’s the birdiest bird for you?
Oh it’s the robin. Definitely.
For me it’s the sparrow.
Really? But robins are such a common bird.
But in the UK, the most common bird is a sparrow.
Wow. So maybe we have different ideas of what a bird is.
And maybe you have different ideas about birds, or what dishes and plates are.
Write and tell us in the comments if you do.
And if you’ve enjoyed this video, please share it with a friend.
And Aurum, thank you for a great question. See you all next week everyone. Bye-bye.
Bye.

Click here to see more vocabulary videos.
Click here to learn about Fix It – our free checklist to help you fix common mistakes
Click these links to see more videos on common false friends: sympathetic and nice, story and history, actually and currently, sensible and sensitive.

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