Semantic role

Semantic role or thematic roles

Semantic role or thematic roles?

Semantic roles – also called thematic roles – are a concept of linguistics , with which the meaning properties are to be grasped, which belong to the additions of a predicate in that they are interpreted in connection with this predicate. It is a concept that combines semantics and grammar. The most considered case are the additions of verbs: If a verb denotes an event, then z. B. Subject and object of the verb Participants of this event, taking different “roles”.

For example, in the sentence The cat ate the mouse, the subject “the cat” can be characterized as a participant causing the event (a so-called agent ) and the object “the mouse” as the participant experiencing a change in the event ( Patiens or topic).

Significant is the concept of semantic roles through attempts to explain grammatical properties of clauses from such meaning properties. For example, the assignment of additions to the syntactic functions subject and object, or variation in the allocation of caseetc. Due to the use of meaning properties, it is expected that conditions can be formulated that represent universals, ie that they are independent of the grammar of a single language. Semantic roles play a central role in many functionalist, grammatically oriented grammatical theories, but have also been criticized for not being precisely definable and for not having a consistent system that can fully predict grammatical patterns.

History of the term 

The concept of semantic roles gained some attention since the late 1960s. The linguistic discussion was at that time strongly determined by the reception and the examination of the syntactic theory of Noam Chomsky . Chomsky had presented Aspects of the Theory of Syntax in 1965 with a version of the Generative Transformation Grammar which, while taking into account certain semantic aspects, still retained syntax ‘s central role in the language description. Many linguists endeavored in the post-1965 semantics to move more into the center of linguistic theory. In addition to the so-called generative semanticsGeorge Lakoff , James D. McCawley (1938-1999)) was particularly the approach of case grammar as an important attempt to integrate the semantics in a generative language description.

The most influential contribution in this initial phase is the 1968 essay authored by Charles J. Fillmore essay The Case for Case apply. He distinguished between grammatical “surface casus” ( nominative , accusative , genitive , dative and, on the other hand, semantically characterized ” deep casualty ” ( agent , instrumental , dative, factiv, locative and objective ). These deep casuums characterize the semantic relations of the various noun phrases , which are mainly dictated by a verb.

Semantic role types 

Individual roles are already suitable for distinguishing the arguments of a single verb. Chomsky’s mechanism of theta roles, which assigns a particular verb to its syntactic arguments, can also be seen as indexing an argument with an individual role.However, linguistically interesting is the question of which classes can be formed by individual roles, so that large groups of verbs and certain grammatical functions can generally be grasped. In the example above is z. For example, to see that the first argument of the verbs “persuade, convince, murder, kill“can generally be described as” causer “, even if there are differences in the implication of” deliberate causation. “Thus, it is possible to define a more general term” agent “that contains only the causative property. are more accurately described by Dowty as “role types”, but they are in line with what is commonly understood as “thematic roles”.

Agent It is who performs the action, usually voluntarily, so it will be an animated being:

The players ran throughout the game

Patient It is who suffers the action:

Firefighters knocked on the door .

Experimenter It is the participant who experiences or perceives a process, a situation or an emotional state:

My head hurts.

Addressee It is to whom the action is directed:

Mothers give a lot of love to their children.

Instrument Express the object with which the action is performed:

He opened the door with a pick .

Object It is what receives the action:

Lucas went to buy a book .


Express who the verbal agent does something with:

Marcos made purchases with Lucia .

Cause Involuntarily causes the action expressed by the verb:

The volcano destroyed the city.

Beneficiary It is who benefits from the action of the verb:

He gave me a hug.

Location (Place) It is the place where the action or the state that expresses the verb is located:

I am very well in the garden .

Process Role played by the verb, which usually expresses an action:

We went to the airport.

Weather It indicates the moment of the process and its appearance is optional:

They gave him a book yesterday .


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