Information that can be organized in some manner is most easily retrieved (Nippold, 1998).  The organization of words into categories provides effective neural “hooks” for retrieval and an effective “filing cabinet” for storage.  Many words fall neatly into categories that help this storage and retrieval, while many other words require more linguistic manipulation to find category relatives.  The philosopher Immanuel Kant’s claim that categories are essential in understanding the world has both influenced and withstood generations of philosophical debate.  The notion that things exist independently of human categories which are then imposed upon those things in order to better understand them has deeply influenced metaphysics, language, psychology, and education.

Examples are the opposite of categories.  For example, spring and summer are examples of the category of seasons.  The term “superordinate” is frequently used in linguistic circles to refer to categories.  “Subordinates” is used to refer to category members.  For example, trumpets and flutes are subordinate members of the superordinate class of instruments.

The use of categories is especially relevant to memory  (McCormick and Schiefelbusch, 1990).  Short term memory relies on techniques such as chunking, while association is key to long term memory.  Chunking and association both use categories.  The use of categories also aids us in describing related words, allowing us to more effectively communicate our knowledge of these words.  One of the most widely seen features of semantic language impairment is the deficient use and understanding of categories.

As with any word, or word group, some categories tend to be learned before others.  Below is an abbreviated list that I’ve used in my language teaching.