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Thematic Proto-Roles and Argument Selection

David Dowty
Language
Vol. 67, No. 3 (Sep., 1991), pp. 547-619
DOI: 10.2307/415037
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/415037
Page Count: 73
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Since scans are not currently available to screen readers, please contact JSTOR User Support for access. We'll provide a PDF copy for your screen reader.
Thematic Proto-Roles and Argument Selection
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Abstract

As a novel attack on the perennially vexing questions of the theoretical status of thematic roles and the inventory of possible roles, this paper defends a strategy of basing accounts of roles on more unified domains of linguistic data than have been used in the past to motivate roles, addressing in particular the problem of ARGUMENT SELECTION (principles determining which roles are associated with which grammatical relations). It is concluded that the best theory for describing this domain is not a traditional system of discrete roles (Agent, Patient, Source, etc.) but a theory in which the only roles are two cluster-concepts called Proto-Agent and Proto-Patient, each characterized by a set of verbal entailments: an argument of a verb may bear either of the two proto-roles (or both) to varying degrees, according to the number of entailments of each kind the verb gives it. Both fine-grained and coarse-grained classes of verbal arguments (corresponding to traditional thematic roles and other classes as well) follow automatically, as do desired 'role hierarchies'. By examining occurrences of the 'same' verb with different argument configurations-e.g. two forms of psych predicates and object-oblique alternations as in the familiar spray/load class-it can also be argued that proto-roles act as defaults in the learning of lexical meanings. Are proto-role categories manifested else-where in language or as cognitive categories? If so, they might be a means of making grammar acquisition easier for the child, they might explain certain other typological and acquisitional observations, and they may lead to an account of contrasts between unaccusative and unergative intransitive verbs that does not rely on deriving unaccusatives from underlying direct objects.

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