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Language as category: using prototype theory to create reference points for the study of multilingual data



In this paper I present a framework for the conceptualization of languages based on the prototype theory of categorization proposed by Eleanor Rosch and her colleagues for natural semantic categories. It is motivated by research in the Casamance region of southern Senegal, where a high level of multilingualism in non-standardized varieties is the norm, making accurate description of languages, and thus analysis of multilingual discourse, problematic. I show that languages in this context can be conceived of as categories, of which linguistic features may be more or less prototypical members. Such an approach can form the basis for a more robust method of language description, integrating rich sociolinguistic data, and facilitating more nuanced analysis of multilingual discourse data.


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This paper forms part of the research output of the Leverhulme Research Leadership Award Project ‘At the Crossroads – investigating the unexplored side of multilingualism’ led by Professor Friederike Lüpke at SOAS. Our project website is at <>. I am grateful for the support of the funder, as well as the invaluable input of my colleagues on the project. Alexander Cobbinah, Samantha Goodchild, Abbie Hantgan, Friederike Lüpke, and Mia Weidl have provided detailed feedback on versions of this paper, which have been immensely helpful in formulating and expressing the framework described herein, as have the generous comments of three anonymous reviewers. I am continually grateful to our research assistants, collaborators, consultants, and friends in Casamance, without whom no such research would be possible. Any errors or misconceptions remain my own.



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Language as category: using prototype theory to create reference points for the study of multilingual data



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