Thematic theory

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Theory about the thematic interpretation of natural language sentences. According to Jackendoff (1990), the thematic interpretation of a sentence is the association of its syntactic structure with thematic representations (its thematic structure, also referred to as its lexical conceptual structure). Thematic representations are taken to consist of distinct levels: thematic tiers and aspectual (action) tiers. The thematic tiers represent the structure of the event which the sentence is about, in terms of predicates such as THING, EVENT, PATH, GO, BE, CAUSE, TO, AT, etc. (constituting a localistic framework), whereas the aspectual tiers represent the aspectual properties of events in terms of predicates such as AFFECT, ACTOR and PATIENT. Linking rules determine what part of thematic structure is syntactically relevant by mapping (part of the) conceptual structure onto syntactic structure. The usual assumption is that the argument structure of a predicate (verb, adjective, etc.) is the interface between thematic structure and syntactic structure, such that some of the arguments in thematic structure correspond to arguments in syntactic structure. Thematic interpretation is only part of the semantic interpretation of natural language sentences, which also encompasses quantificational, temporal and modal aspects.



  • Fillmore, C.J. 1968. The Case for Case, in: E. Bach & R.T. Harms (eds.) Universals In Linguistic Theory, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York.
  • Gruber, J. 1965. Studies in lexical relations, doctoral dissertation, MIT
  • Jackendoff, R. 1990. Semantic Structures, Cambridge, MIT-Press.
  • Jackendoff, R. 1983. Semantics and cognition, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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