What is a lie? Is it merely a false statement? Is it a false statement that the speaker believes to be false? Is it a false statement that the speaker uses in order to deceive another person? Is it all of the above? And how do we know? In their article “Prototype Semantics: The English Word Lie,” Linda Coleman and Paul Kay examine these questions using the linguistic theory of prototype semantics.
Let's begin by defining some terms. Coleman and Kay explain that many linguists follow the “checklist” theory. They define a word by comparing it to a checklist of features. If each feature correctly describes the object labeled by the word, then the object fits the proposed definition, and the word may be used to describe it. If the object does not actually display the features included in the checklist, then it fails the test and should not be described by the proposed word. For example, let's say someone is trying to define the word “duck.” The person makes a checklist of the characteristics of a “duck” (quacks, waddles, has feathers, flies, etc.) and then examines the object normally labeled “duck.” Does it meet every item on the checklist? Yes? Then it is a duck. No? Then it is not a duck at all, and the word “duck” should not be used to describe it.
Coleman and Kay, however, argue that the checklist theory is too rigid. What happens if a duck has lost its ability to fly? What if it has laryngitis and cannot quack? Is it still a duck? According to the checklist theory, it is not. Yet common sense tells us that the bird in question is still a duck even though it now fails to meet some of the criteria.
In place of the checklist theory, Coleman and Kay offer a prototype view. They still propose a checklist of elements for each definition, but instead of a strict “yes or no” determination, they suggest a “more or less” standard. A word may be used to define an object if that object more or less fits the elements of its prototype (the mental “cognitive schema or image” that most speakers use to judge and label objects, ideas, etc.). A duck may still be called a duck if it more or less meets the elements of the definition. So our duck with a broken wing and laryngitis may still be called a duck even though it no longer meets the strict requirements of the checklist.
Coleman and Kay illustrate the prototype theory with a study of the word “lie.” They suggest three elements to be included in the prototype of a lie: 1. The proposition is false. 2. The speaker believes it is false. 3. The speaker intends to deceive the addressee with the false proposition. The two linguists then describe the study they conducted, in which they presented participants with eight stories and asked them to identify whether or not the character in each story told a lie and how sure they were about their determination. Each story offered a different combination of the three prototype elements.
In the end, Coleman and Kay discovered that the prototype theory works quite well in defining “lie.” Study participants were comfortable identifying statements as “lies” that “more or less” met each element of the prototype or even that met only one or two elements of the prototype. They did not require the strict checklist theory to identify and label a lie, for they already carried a prototype of a lie in their minds, were able to determine how much each situation fit the prototype, and then could label it accordingly.