Prototype Categories in Émigré Russian: Cognition and Culture

David Andrews, Georgetown University

This paper will report on a study in progress, in which I examine lexical and structural innovations in émigré Russian and argue that they are the aftereffects of category restructuring, with both a cognitive and cultural motivation. On this basis I am attempting to articulate a theory of language contact that gives equal weight to internal linguistic mechanisms and external social influences.

Wittgenstein laid the foundation for semantic prototypes (Philosophical Investigations, 1953) by refuting the classical notion of categories, i.e. that they are defined by a specific set of properties shared equally by all members. He shows that the many different activities referred to as "games" do not constitute a discrete category; instead they share some, but rarely all, of the traits attributed to them collectively. In Basic Color Terms (1969) anthropologists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay propose the existence of first-tier or "basic" color categories. For example, red is basic in English, while crimson, scarlet, reddish-gold and blood-red are all subordinate terms, variations of prototypical red. Prototype categories were more fully articulated by psychologist Eleanor Rosch in the 1970s and early 1980s and incorporated into the growing body of scholarship on cognitive linguistics in the 1980s and 1990s, one of the theoretical pillars of this project. In cases of language contact, however, one must also investigate culture-specific determinations of categories and prototypes, as most fully articulated in the work of Anna Wierzbicka. These approaches are not contradictory, as some might argue, but rather two sides of the same coin.

I first approached émigré Russian from a cognitive-semantic perspective in my experimental analysis of the words sinij 'dark blue' and goluboj 'light blue,' both basic colors in the standard language. In short, I proved that sinij and goluboj remain basic for Russian-dominant bilinguals, but not for the English-dominant subjects. For the latter the superordinate English blue has become their basic-level cognitive category, and sinij and goluboj subordinate terms within it.

Semantic reconfigurations of this type are also prevalent among English-dominant bilinguals in their use of motion verbs, e.g. conflation of idti, xodit', exat', and ezdit' into a single category inspired by English to go. Prototype analysis can explain other lexical peculiarities of émigré Russian as well. Consider the Russian word dom 'house, apartment building.' For a Russian-speaking child in an American suburb, a "normal" sentence like V nashem dome ne rabotaet lift 'The elevator in our dom isn't working' elicits surprise. Nor is this approach restricted to semantic anomalies. Conflation of cases and attrition of aspect by English-dominant bilinguals can also be fruitfully analyzed through the prism of prototypes categories, or more specifically of prototypical endings and syntactic environments that remain the most salient in a situation of language attrition.