You Are What you Do. An Empirical Characterization of the Semantic Content of the Thematic Roles for a Group of Italian Verbs

Volume 16
Issue 4
Gianluca E. Lebani, Alessandro Bondiell, & Alessandro Lenci
The nature of thematic roles is a central, yet controversial, issue both for models of linguistic competence as well as for models of sentence processing. McRae et al (1997b) proposed to treat thematic roles as verb-specific prototypes that can be empirically described by resorting to a modified version of the traditional feature norm paradigm. In this paper, we present the results of two norming experiments in which we extended this approach to incorporate the distinction between filler-inherent and verb-entailed features, the latter being further characterized on the basis of their association with one or more phases of the time course of the event. In the first experiment, we asked to a group of speakers to list the prototypical characteristics of the fillers of two semantic roles, agent and patient, for a set of 20 Italian transitive verbs. We then manually annotated the collected features according to our classification of feature types. In the second experiment, we encouraged participants to list as many properties as possible to describe the verb roles with respect to three different time slots: before, during and after the event described by the verb takes place. The collected data supports the claim in McRae et al (1997b) that thematic roles can be also treated as verb-specific concepts. The first experiment reveals differences between the agent and the patient roles, which instead disappears in the second experiment. The methodological novelty introduced in the latter is also able to highlight the interaction between the speakers’ knowledge of verb roles and the temporal phases of the events.

Key words: thematic roles, verbs, semantic memory, feature norms