Noun: theory of deep cases

June 7th, 20121:36 pm


Noun: theory of deep cases

Since the late 1960s a number of theories have been put forward claim­ing that the semantic relationships borne by nominal parts of speech to verbs make up a small, universal set. Since obviously there is a great deal of vari­ation between languages as to how many cases they have, the semantic rela­tionships that are posited are not always reflected directly in the morpho-syntax. Theories positing a universal set of semantic relations include Charles J.Fillmore’s proposal for Case Grammar (1968), Joyce Anderson’s Localist Case Grammar (1971) and Simon Dik’s Functional Grammar (1978).

All these theories allow for some kind of semantic relations that are not always reflected directly in the morpho-syntax, but they differ in the extent to which they use syntactic rather than semantic evidence to isolate the se­mantic relations. There is also a lot of confusing variation in the terminol­ogy. Fillmore, for example, began by positing a universal set of relations with traditional case-like labels (agentive, instrumental, dative, factitive, locative, objective), but in his later works switched to agent, experiencer, instrument, object, source, goal, place and time, which, except for object, are more semantically transparent and less confusible with traditional case labels. He called these “syntactic-semantic relations” cases. It has become common over the last years to refer to Fillmorean-type cases as deep cases and traditional cases as surface cases. The most widespread terms for pure­ly semantic relations are semantic roles, case roles, thematic roles.

Fillmore’s ideas are worth delivering in more detail. The linguist is re­sponsible for bringing to the fore the notion that there is a universal set of atomic semantic roles. In his seminal paper The Case for Case, published in 1968, he proposed a set of six “cases”, which he later revised and extended to eight. These “cases” were deep-structure cases, described as being “un­derlying syntactic-semantic relationships”.

To establish a universal set of semantic roles is a formidable task. Al­though some roles are demarcated by case in some languages, on some instances they have to be isolated by semantic tests. There are no agreed criteria and there is certainly no consensus on the universal inventory. To a great extent establishing roles and ascribing particular arguments to roles involves an extra-linguistic classification of relationships between enti­ties in the world. There tends to be agreement on salient manifestations of roles like agent, patient, source and instrument, but problems arise with the classification of relationships that fall between salient ones. There are also problems with determining how fine the classification should be. Consider, for instance, an entity that is present as the material from which something is made, as in She made the bowl from clay. The notion is conceptually distinct, but there is not normally any marking specific to this notion. The following list of roles is offered as a checklist of roles that have been fre­quently distinguished in the literature.


1. Patient a) an entity viewed as existing in a slate or undergoing
The sky is blue
The hair grew grey
b) an entity viewed as located or moving:
The bear is in the den
The stone moved
He moved the stone
c) an entity viewed as affected or effected by an entity:
The bird ate the worm
The bird sand a song
The label “patient” is most widely used of the various
alternatives (e.g. object, objective, goal, theme), even if it is
not appropriate for all the examples to which it is applied.
A number of linguists in fact make a distinction between
theme and patient for (a) and (b) and patient for (a).
2. Agent The entity that performs an activity or brings about a
change of state
The audience rose to their feet
Heat melts ice
3. Instrument He got beaten up by a gang
The means by which an activity or change of state is
carried out
They broke the window with a stone
4. Experiencer The creature experiencing an emotion or perception
They love music
They see everything
Some writers distinguish the perceiver or cogniser of
verbs like see or hear from the experiencer of verbs like
love. The perceiver is almost always aligned syntactically
with the agent, whereas the experiencer is often treated
5. Location The position of an entity. The view taken here is that
location and the other local roles can refer to time as well
as place. Some linguists, however, including Fillmore and
Dik, distinguish temporal and spatial roles.
The vase is on/under the table
Her birthday fell on a Thursday
6. Source The point from which an entity moves or derives
They got news from home
7. Destination The point to or towards which an entity moves or is
He turned to the house and walked towards it
The terms direction and goal are alternatives, but the
meaning of the former is not transparent and the latter has
also been used for patient/theme and for recipient.
8. Recipient A sentient destination
She save her spare change to the collectors
9. Purpose The purpose of an activity
He went to the Peach Pit for some take-away
10. Beneficiary The animate entity on whose behalf an activity is carried out
She did the shopping for her mother
11. Manner The way in which an activity is done or the way in which a
change of state takes place
She spoke to us politely
12. Extent The distance, area or time over which an activity is carried
out or over which a state holds
The negotiations lasted two hours
He ran (for) three miles
The entity that possesses another entity
13. Possessor I saw John’s car


Fillmore’s case grammar and similar attempts by others to establish a small list of universal roles have fallen somewhat into disrepute largely be­cause no one has been able to produce a definitive list. However, a number of major theories such as Government and Binding and Lexical Functional Grammar embrace the notion of semantic roles, but they remain uncommit­ted about the universal inventory.

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