The notion of stereotype in language study

Elena L. Vilinbakhova
St. Petersburg State University

1. Introduction

Originally, the word stereotype derives from two Ancient Greek roots: στερεός ‘solid’ and τύπος ‘impression’. It was first used by the French printer Firmin Didot in 1796 as a typographical term. Later, it became a part of everyday language (in the beginning, it was used mostly in the form of an adjective stéréotypé ‘stereotyped’) to describe repetitive situations that lacked originality or spontaneity.

In 1922, it was introduced into the social, cultural and psychological studies by the American writer Walter Lippmann in his book “Public Opinion”. He saw stereotypes as pictures in our heads which simplify reality: “[stereotypes] may not be a complete picture of the world, but they are a picture of a possible world to which we are adapted” (Ibid.).

Nowadays, the notion of stereotype is widely used in different areas, and even in linguistics, there are two major traditions of understanding it. The first approach defines stereotype as a fixed form, fixed expression, or even fixed text. According to the second approach, stereotype is seen as a fixed content, a fixed mental image of a person, an object or an event. Both definitions of stereotype share the same characteristic of stability, but it is either the stability of form or the stability of content (сf. the terms formal vs. semantic stereotype (Bartmiński 2005), Sprachstereotype ‘stereotype of speech’ vs. Denkstereotype ‘stereotype of thought’ (Gülich 1978), stéréotype de langue ‘stereotype of language’ vs. stéréotype de pensée ‘stereotype of thought’ (Schapira 1999), etc. My focus here will be on semantic, rather then formal, stereotypes.

2. Putnam’s theory of stereotype

Stereotype was first regarded as a subject of linguistics in the studies of the American philosopher Hilary Whitehall Putnam and discussed in his papers “Is semantics possible?” (1970) and “The meaning of «meaning»” (1975).

Putnam suggests that the description of meaning for natural kind terms like water, lemon, tiger and electricity (that includes grammatical and encyclopedic information about the subject) should be enriched by a stereotypical component. Putnam takes the definition of stereotype from ordinary parlance, where it is understood as “a conventional (frequently malicious) idea (which may be wildly inaccurate) of what X looks like or acts like or is” (Putnam 1975: 249).

The notion of stereotype is associated with two points of Putnam’s theory: linguistic obligation and division of linguistic labor. Linguistic obligation concerns the information in stereotypical component (like yellow color for lemon) that should be known to all language users with the required minimum level of competence to communicate with others. Division of the linguistic labor implies that some members of the linguistic community (experts, in Putnam’s terminology) are more competent than others to determine the characteristics that an object should satisfy to be named with a word x. Experts and common language users make an agreement about certain terms: taking into account the purposes of the linguistic community, they choose a number of features to be used in everyday language (as colorless, transparent and tasteless for water), while other features are left for experts’, or scientific, knowledge (as H2O for water). Putnam argues that ordinary speakers’ understanding of words doesn’t have to be complete and objective to satisfy their communicative purposes, and stereotypes as social tools are no less important than scientific definitions.

3. Stereotype vs. prototype

Since then the notion of stereotype has been discussed in various aspects. For instance, it was often compared with the notion of prototype introduced by E. Rosch approximately at the same time as Putnam’s theory. Because the theory of prototype was more widespread and better known than Putnam’s approach, stereotype was sometimes regarded as a synonym of prototype (cf. Lyons 1995: 96), leading to the confusion of both notions. Indeed, both approaches have something in common: they emphasize the value of certain features that account for the most typical (or normal), though not all, members of the category (like striped for tiger, or fly for bird). These features do not necessarily distinguish one category from the other, so their combination is more a positive than a differential description. However, as Dirk Geeraerts (2008: 24) notices, there is an important difference: “prototypicality is basically a psychological notion, whereas stereotypicality is a sociolinguistic notion”. Geeraerts (1985; 2007) also suggests that both theories could be successfully combined and used by lexicographers to describe various types of dictionaries – professional (experts knowledge only), standard desk (stereotypical information) and large-scale (both types of information) dictionaries.

4. Stereotype as an object of study

Furthermore, stereotypes are regarded as objects of study and investigated on linguistic data from one or several languages (cf. Dabrowska 1999, Bartmiński 2005, etc.). Bartmiński suggests taking into account three types of data: system of the language, experimental surveys and folklore texts. Other sources include different corpora and Internet search engines. The most popular subject of such investigations, especially in Russia, are ethnic stereotypes. There are even some dictionaries of stereotypes, for instance, The Dictionary of Folk Stereotypes and Symbols (Bartmiński & Niebrzegowska 1996) on Polish language data and Russian Cultural Space: Linguistic-Cultural Dictionary (Bril’ova et al. 2004) on Russian language data.

5. Stereotype as a tool of study

Stereotypes also proved to be helpful in the explanation and analysis of various linguistic phenomena. One example of such application of Putnam’s theory are nominal tautologies like War is war or A husband is a husband. R. Gibbs and N. McCarrell (1990: 129) argue that “people’s stereotypical attitudes toward the people, activities and objects referred to by the noun phrases in nominal tautologies should play an important role in the use and acceptability of these colloquial expressions”. They experimentally show that tautologies with human roles (boys, mothers, teachers, etc.) are seen as more acceptable and easy to understand than tautologies with concrete objects (carrots, beds, hats) because the former have “stronger” (more detailed and emotional) stereotypes. Tania Autenrieth (1997) and Jörg Meibauer (2008) regard the second noun phrase in tautology as predicative and suggest that stereotypical knowledge about the properties of the subject should be applied (A car is a car means that a car have a stereotypical property of a car relevant to the conversation, for instance ‘cars are harmful to the environment) (Meibauer 2008: 445).

Next, the notion of stereotype is found in the studies of associative anaphora (cf. Fradin 1984; Kleiber 2003). George Kleiber gives the example, We entered a village. The church was situated on a hill, and comments on the definite article in the second phrase: “within the relationship between church and village the latter serves as a functional stereotypical localization for the former” (Kleiber 2003: 44).

Finally, Jean-Claude Anscombre, who elaborated on Putnam’s theory of stereotypes, applies it to French constructions N à N like moulin à vent ‘windmill’ and adjectives with negative prefix in- that lack positive antonyms like *mense / immense ‘immense’, *coloré / incoloré ‘colourless’, etc. (Anscombre 2001). He argues that (un)acceptability of a particular construction N à N or the (un)grammaticality of such adjectives depends on the linguistic community’s stereotypical knowledge about the referred objects. Stereotypical properties of an object seen as common and regular (like wings of a plane and an engine of a car) are assumed by default and should not be mentioned in discourse, therefore *avion à ailes ‘plane with wings’ or *voiture à moteur ‘car with engine’ are unacceptable; the same applies to the property of having a color, so the adjective with such meaning is superfluous. Similar ideas are found in the monograph of A. V. Golovacheva (2000) based on the data from Russian and West Slavic languages.

6. Conclusion

In sum, the notion of stereotype came into language studies not so long ago, but it has already been applied to various branches like lexicography, semantics and pragmatics, and has good chances to be integrated in modern linguistic theories.

Note: This post draws in considerable part on (Vilinbakhova 2012 and Vilinbakhova In Press); more details and references can be found in those works.


Anscombre, Jean-Claude. 2001. “Dénomination, sens et reference dans une théorie des stéréotypes nominaux”. Cahiers de praxématique 36.43-72.

Autenrieth, Tania. 1997. Tautologien sind Tautologien // Pragmatik. Implikaturen und Sprechakte [ = Linguistische Berichte. Sonderheft 8]. E. Rolf (ed). Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag. 12-32.

Bartmiński, Jerzy. 2005. Jazykovoj obraz mira: očerki po etnolongvistike [Linguistic Image of the World: Essays on Ethnolinguistics]. Moskva: Indrik.

Bartmiński Jerzy & Stanisława Niebrzegowska (eds.). 1996. Słownik stereotypów i symboli ludowych [The Dictionary of Folk Stereotypes and Symbols]. Vol. 1. Kosmos [Cosmos]. Part 1. Niebo, światła niebieskie, ogień, kamienie [Sky, celestial bodies, fire, stones]. Lublin.

Bril’ova, Irina S. et al. (eds.). 2004. Russkoje kul’turnoje prostranstvo: lingvokul’turnyj slovar’ [Russian Cultural Space: Linguistic-Cultural Dictionary]. Vol. 1. Moscow: Gnozis. = Брылёва И.С. и др. (ред.). 2004. Русское культурное пространство: Лингвокультурологический словарь. Т.1. М.: Гнозис.

Dabrowska, Jarochna. 1999. Stereotype und ihr sprachlicher Ausdruck im Polenbild der deutschen Presse: eine textlinguistische Untersuchung. (= Studien zurdeutschen Sprache, 17). Tübingen: Narr.

Fradin, Bernard. 1984. “Anaphorisation et stéréotypes nominaux”. Lingua 64.325–369.

Geeraerts, Dirk. 1985. “Les données stéréotypiques, prototypiques et encyclopédiques dans le dictionnaire”. Cahiers de Lexicologie 46.27-43.

——— . 2007. “Lexicography”. The Oxford Handbook of cognitive linguistics. Ed. by Dirk Geeraerts & Hubert Cuyckens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1160-1174.

——— . 2008. “Prototypes, stereotypes, and semantic norms”. Cognitive Sociolinguistics: Language Variation, Cultural Modals, Social systems. (= Cognitive linguistics research, 39) Ed. by Gitte Kristiansen & René Dirven, 21-44. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Gibbs, R. W., McCarrell N. S. 1990. Why Boys will be boys and girls will be girls: Understanding colloquial tautologies. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research. Vol. 19.125-145.

Golovacheva, Alexandra V. 2000. Stereotipnye Mental’nye Structury i LInguistika Teksta [Stereotypical mental structures and linguistics of text]. Moskva. = Головачёва А.В. 2000. Стереотипные ментальные структуры и лингвистика текста. М.

Gülich, Elisabeth. 1978. “Was sein muß, muß sein.” Überlegungen zum Gemeinplatz und seiner Verwendung. Bielefelder Papiere zur Linguistik und Literaturwissenschaft 7.1-41.

Kleiber, George. 2003. “The possessive via associative anaphor”. From NP to DP: The Expression of Possession in Noun Phrases. (= Linguistik Aktuell, 56). Ed. by Martine Coene & Yves D’Hulst, vol. II, 43-71. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Lippmann, Walter. 1922. Public opinion. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Lyons, John. 1995. Linguistic Semantics: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Meibauer, Jörg. 2008. Tautology as presumptive meaning. Pragmatics and Cognition. Vol. 16. 439-470.

Putnam, Hilary. 1975 (1970). Is Semantics Possible? Mind, Language and Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 139–152.

——— . 1975. “The meaning of “meaning” ”. Mind, Language and Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 215-271.

Schapira, Charlotte. 1999. Les stéréotypes en français: proverbes at autres formules. Paris: Ophrys.

Vilinbakhova, Elena L. 2012. Stereotip v linvistike: ob’ject ili instrument issledovanija? [Stereotype in linguistics: object or instrument of linguistic study?]. Problemy yazyka [Problems of language]. Ed. by Dev’atkina et al. 19–28. Moskva. = Вилинбахова Е.Л. 2012. Стереотип в лингвистике: объект или инструмент исследования? / Проблемы языка. Под ред. Е. М. Девяткиной и др. М.

Vilinbakhova, Elena L. In Press. Stereotype in linguistic : History of the study. Yazyk i rechevaja deyatel’nost’ [Language and language behavior]. Ed. by Vadim B. Kasevich. St. Petersburg.

How to cite this post:

Vilinbakhova, Elena L. 2013. ‘The notion of stereotype in language study’. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Article, Linguistics, Semantics
5 comments on “The notion of stereotype in language study
  1. EduardBarbu says:

    Thanks for the article!
    I am interested in the difference between stereotypes and prototypes. You say :
    quoting Dirk Geeraerts that “prototypicality is basically a psychological notion, whereas stereotypicality is a sociolinguistic notion”. This comment does not offer a criterion to differentiate prototypical from stereotypical constructions.
    Why are they different? If I am going to list a set of prototypical properties for some concepts :(dog, horse, apple) and then the set of stereotypic constructions for the same concepts do I obtain different lists of properties? How much overlap is and why there is difference?

  2. elenavil says:

    Thanks for your comment. The quote from Dirk Geeraerts indicates the difference of perspective on constructing prototypical and stereotypical properties – the former are salient for our acquisition processes (they are easy to remember, acquiered first by small children, etc.), while the latter play an important role for the given linguistic community and include cultural-specific features. Dirk Geeraerts mentions that prototype and stereotype can easily coincide when the most salient features from cognitive point of view are also most important for a linguistic community.
    However, it seems that there are still some more differences. First, stereotypes include not only descriptive, but also evaluative features. For instance, the stereotype of a rat in Russian linguistic society includes a property of being ugly and unpleasant, while the prototype is more neutral and concentrates on its appearance, behaviour, etc.
    Next, some categories have more than one stereotype: we have an idea of ideal and of ordinary exemplar (for instance, ideal husband that often brings flowers, spends a lot of time with kids, etc, vs. ordinary husband who spends all evening watching football and doesn’t like shopping), and prototype as the best exemplar of the category will most likely coincide with ideal image.
    An interesting discussion about the differences between stereotypes and prototypes favouring the stereotype theory can be also found in [Allan 2001: Chapter 10]
    Allan, Keith. 2001. Natural language semantics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

  3. Michael Silverstein says:

    This post seems to follow Wikipedia in some of its material. A “stereotype” was a particular duplicated photographic image in the late 19th c., an artifact viewed through a special viewer.
    Putnam’s prototype is an individual entitiy, an extendable, while his stereotype is a intensional entity, a “concept” as it were of a completely different order. Rosch and other of the Berkeleyites do not seem to understand the distinction between the two, which is, of course, essential to the “causal theory of reference” and the way that intensionalizing an extension, for example in a baptismal moment, is central to the growing of a sense for a lexical item a token of which has been used to extend an individual object. Where such intensionalizations come from is, of course, the central issue of concept-formation.

  4. elenavil says:

    Thanks for your valuable comment specifying the information about typographical use of the term and the intensionalization issue.
    The understanding of prototype as a (real) object and stereotype as a concept certainly makes the distinction between the two very clear (this approach is also described in Hurford, Heasley 1983 and Schwarze 1985). The fact is that E. Rosch’s and G. Lakoff’s “conceptual” interpretation of the term prototype became more widespread (or even stereotyped) in language studies, and now it cannot ignored in the discussion of prototype-stereotype relations.
    Hurford J. R., Heasley B. 1983. Semantics: a coursebook. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
    Schwarze Сh. 1985. Lexique et compréhension textuelle. Constance, Sonderfoshungbereich, 99.

  5. Emma says:

    Thanks for your article. It is useful for me. At the first time, I knew the stereotype in linguistics by my professor. I was excited to it. I come from Vietnam. I have studied linguistics especially Vietnamese for 9 years. I am interesting about scocialinguistics. My thesis’s Ph.D is about negotiation in comunication between buyer and seller in Vientam traditional market. I realised that they alway use a lot of stereotypes. I am studying for that.
    If can, I would like to know your email because surely I have many questions which want to ask you. Once again, thank you so much 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Upcoming events

28-30 June 2023
Faro, Portugal
International Inter-association (History of Language Teaching) Conference
Language teachers, methodologies and teacher training in historical perspective

4-6 September 2023
Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro, Portugal
2023 Annual Colloquium of the Henry Sweet Society
What counts as scientific in the History of Linguistics?

6-9 September 2023
Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro, Portugal
XXXII. International Colloquium of the “Studienkreis ‘Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft'” (SGdS)
Controversies in the history of linguistics

%d bloggers like this: