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Tea and prototypes

I once surprised a friend by ordering tea in a pizza parlor. She did not expect anyone to drink hot tea with pizza. Someone ordering that in Germany where she grew up, or Philadelphia where she lived, would be surprising. But it would be just as surprising in my hometown of New York. I asked for “tea” as an experiment.

As I predicted, the waitress was not surprised by my order, and brought a large glass of iced tea. I then conducted the second part of my experiment by tasting the tea. It was unsweetened. This was because we were not in New York or Philadelphia, but in Oxford, Mississippi.

When I ordered “tea” in Greenville, North Carolina, where I lived at the time, I always got “sweet tea”: tea that was supersaturated with sugar and then chilled and served over ice, but I had heard that in some parts of the South you got unsweetened iced tea. Here in Queens if you order “tea” at a restaurant that caters to the Indian or Nepalese populations, it will probably come with milk.

This is a difference in the sense of the word “tea,” but unlike previous semantic differences I’ve discussed, it is not a difference in the extent of the word. If you served me or any other Northerner a glass of iced tea or sweet tea and asked, “Is this tea?” most of us would say yes. If you served a Southerner a cup of hot tea, they would agree that it’s tea.

Of course, as Lynne Murphy has observed (PDF), some people argue about edge cases like rooibos or peppermint tea, but I think most of them would agree that iced tea, sweet tea and hot tea (with or without milk) are all definitely tea. The difference is not at the edges of the category, but in the center.

This is what George Lakoff refers to as a prototype effect. Iced tea is consumed much more frequently than hot tea in the South, so it has become the default “tea.” Sweet tea is consumed more frequently in North Carolina, so it’s the default there.

I’ll get into the differences between defaults, prototypes, stereotypes, radial categories, gradient effects and salient exemplars in future posts, but the main points I wanted to make here are that not all subcategories within a category are perceived equally, and that different people can have different expectations for a category. And to talk about this cool variation in the use of the word “tea.”

One thought on “Tea and prototypes

  1. Thanks for mentioning my book! I’ve also done some posts on prototypes and ingestibles–if you search my blog for soup and sandwiches, you’ll find them. It’s a rich area to mine. I’ve got a few others percolating in my brain that would be interesting to investigate…

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