Semantic roles in the English language. Why the English language needs the semantic roles approach to describe its sentence inherent relationships

Term Paper, 2016
11 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents


1 Research report

2 The case systems
2.1 The German case system
2.2 The English case system

3 Why semantic roles are necessary in English




The issue of semantic roles is a very significant one with regard to the English language. It has been established in the sixties of the nineteenth century as a counter approach to the predominant subject of syntax. As the case system in English has decreased over time, semantic roles are able to express relations within the sentence, which grammar cannot grasp. The aim of this seminar-paper on semantic roles is supposed to reveal that the English language needs another approach to describe the relations between entities, which are the predicate and the specific argument, in sentences. This is necessary, because at some level, grammar leaves off.

This term-paper is opened by an introduction, which is followed by a research report. In this report, a concise overview about the history of semantic roles and the development of this field of research is illustrated. Starting in the sixties of the last century, the most significant names, like Fillmore and Gruber, and their contributions are mentioned to depict the survey, the issue has passed so far. This is important for the understanding of recent concerns. Furthermore, this seminar-paper is composed of a twofold perspective on case systems. One considering the German case system with some of its characteristics, relevant for this topic. The other one is supposed to delineate as well features and properties of the English cases, which can be transferred to this issue on semantic roles. This approach allows a more detailed and structured view and therefore supports the understanding of how the English language is in need of a different description for its sentence inherent structures and relations.

For this purpose, this work is mainly based on research literature from Fillmore's Case Grammar. Additionally, excerpts from The structure of language by Jerrold J. Katz and Jerry A. Fodor are vital for some reflections in this work.

To complete this seminar-paper, it ends with a conclusion, consisting of a reflection of the most important statements on how the English case system, which has decreased over time and nowadays is almost not existing, makes a different approach, with the aim to grasp relationships between verbs and their arguments, necessary.

1 Research report

In this chapter of this term-paper about semantic roles and their function for the English language, a short history of this field of study is depicted. This topic, since the detection of semantic roles in the nineteen-sixties, has been a highly contested and discussed one. Linguists did and at present do not agree in terms of how many semantic roles there are, how to differentiate them from one another and what features each role exhibits.

Speaking of semantic roles, also called theta roles or thematic roles (cf. Löbner 2013: 112), one automatically comes back to Fillmore's theory of Case Grammar. He developed this notion as an alternative to Noam Chomsky's Generative Grammar from 1965. This transformational grammar is an approach, based on mostly syntactic structures. It provides a “description, in structure mode, of what a human being knows […] that enables him to speak a natural language” (Jackendoff 1999:7). The main interest of Chomsky was to describe this knowledge with the help of grammar. Therefore, he established a rather descriptive than prescriptive theory, in which syntax builds the core and is vital for his assumptions, whereas semantics is in most instances neglected.

This displeased some linguists, so that alternatives were developed. The most meaningful and important contribution, in terms of overcoming this lack of semantic considerations, was made by Charles J. Fillmore in 1968. He detected that elements in a sentence cannot only be identified formally, but also with regard to semantics, namely through deep cases. Fillmore coined the notion of deep cases, which are, according to him, opposed to the surface structure, containing subject and object. In 1968 he provided a first set of these cases, which included the agentive, instrumental, dative, factitive, locative and objective (cf. Fillmore 1987: 24). After this theory has been contested, Fillmore revised his classification and developed a new set of deep cases: agent, counter-agent, object, result, instrument, source, goal and experiencer (cf. Fillmore 1987:49).

Furthermore, Charles J. Fillmore is considered as the inventor of the case-frame. This theory indicates that each verb requires a distinct set of semantic roles or deep cases. A prerequisite for this phenomenon is the valence of a verb, which determines the number of arguments it can take in a specific context.

Moreover, the works of Jerry Fodor and Jerrold Katz, as well contesting Chomsky's transformational grammar with the same purpose Fillmore had, are significant for the development of the theory of semantic roles. According to them, it is essential to disclose the link between surface structure and meaning. Defining meaning, Katz and Fodor phrase it: “meanings are expressed by a formal level of linguistic description […] called semantic representation (Jackendoff 1999: 8). In addition to that, they were aware of the fact that proposing a semantic theory and characterizing it abstractly bares several problems. In their essay The structure of a semantic theory, Katz and Fodor illustrate the problems, which automatically arise, attempting to establish such a semantic theory for a natural language like English. Difficulties like the projection problem and the vagueness of “how the components of a semantic theory relate to one another and to the grammar” (Katz 1965:492) are addressed. In this way, Jerry Fodor and Jerold Katz got involved in this controversial issue of semantic roles and their field of study.

The strong degree of interest in this topic moved as well Ray Jackendoff to contribute new cognition with his paper Toward an explanatory semantic representation (1976), in which he illustrates the conceptual semantics. Another work, namely Semantics and cognition is also concerned with this issue and is integrated in this seminar-paper as well. Moreover, the history of the study of semantic roles has also been coined by Jeffrey S. Gruber with his book Lexical structures in syntax and semantics (1976). Gruber's work is amongst other things concerned with prelexical structures and prepositions. But a very significant contribution is the invention of the semantic role theme, which is mentioned by Gruber for the first time (Gruber 1976:50). Concluding, it is to say that all these important works and detections have been made, serving the purpose of contesting Noam Chomsky's transformational grammar and to broaden the linguistic studies by adding the semantic aspect to it. All these important forerunners like Fillmore and Gruber contributed many important facts to the issue of semantic roles and built the foundation for present-day studies and considerations.

2 The case systems

In this section of this seminar-paper, the two case systems are contrasted. First, the German one is represented and with help of a paradigm, some characteristics of it are revealed to emphasize that the German language has specific morphological endings for each of its cases. In opposition to that, the English language and its case marking is described. This is as well accompanied by a paradigm to illustrate differences and similarities to German.

2.1 The German case system

The grammatical case is a category, which refers to the inflection of nouns and pronouns. But also adjectives and articles can be adapted with respect to a specific case in the German language. All these parts of speech require a distinct morphological ending or marking, depending on the case, in which they are used. It is difficult to find the one valid definition of the notion case, because many linguists will not “extend the label 'case' to the same range of phenomena” (Butt 2006: 3). Fillmore attempted to describe and define case as

“[...] the variety of semantic relationships which can hold between nouns and other portions of sentences” (Fillmore 1968:2).

Furthermore, from language to language the set and number of cases differs. The German language has four: the nominative, the genitive, the accusative and the dative. The paradigm in Table 1 illustrates an overview of the German cases, each with their respective definite an indefinite article. Moreover, it is separated into the three grammatical genders, as there are masculine, feminine and neuter nouns. Constituents like these articles are marked for each case in the German language. But sometimes, specific case markers and articles are equal, though they are used in different cases. This conformity is referred to as syncretism. It is to be pointed out that the nominative singular die Katze and its accusative look the same. In this case it is difficult to extract the function of this argument without any context. But morphems like the genitive singular -es indicate only this particular case. This holds as well true for the dative marker -e. It is hardly ever seen anymore in the German language, nevertheless it helps distinguishing the dative from other cases.


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Semantic roles in the English language. Why the English language needs the semantic roles approach to describe its sentence inherent relationships
Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel
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semantic, english
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Anonymous, 2016, Semantic roles in the English language. Why the English language needs the semantic roles approach to describe its sentence inherent relationships, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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