The term frame semantics refers to a wide variety of approaches to the systematic description of natural language meanings. The one common feature of all these approaches – which, however, does not sufficiently distinguish frame semantics from other frameworks of semantic description – is the following slogan due to Charles Fillmore (1977a):
Meanings are relativized to scenes.
According to this slogan meanings have internal structure which is determined relative to a background frame or a scene. The easiest way to understand this thesis is by way of example. The following one is from Fillmore (1977c): Suppose that two identical twins Mark and Mike are both in a hospital sitting on the edge of their beds in exactly the same position. When a nurse walks by Mark’s room, she says: I see that Mark is able to sit up now, and when she walks by Mike’s room she remarks: I see that Mike is able to sit down now. Drawing on what we know about hospitals – our hospital background scenes or frames – we will interpret the two remarks of the nurse rather differently, thereby relativizing the meanings of her remarks to the relevant scenes. Another often cited example of Fillmore (1977c) clearly demonstrating the above thesis is the difference in meaning between the following two sentences:
(1) I spent three hours on land this afternoon.
(2) I spent three hours on the ground this afternoon.
The background scene for the first sentence is a sea voyage while the second sentence refers to an interruption of an air travel. This illustrates Fillmore’s use of the term frame as an idealization of a coherent individuatable perception, memory, experience, action, or object Fillmore (1977c).
In order to understand frame semantics, it is helpful to begin with a brief history. From here we will turn to an overview of the most important theoretical concepts. After this the relationship of frame semantics to one specific version of Construction Grammar will be introduced and some examples will be analysed. The paper will end with a short summary of applications of frame semantics and a note on formalisation. Usually frame semantics is taken to be a very informal approach to meaning, but nevertheless some approaches relating frame semantics to Formal Semantics exist.
There are at least two historical roots of frame semantics; the first is linguistic Syntax and Semantics, especially Fillmore’s case grammar, the second is Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the notion of frame introduced by M. Minsky (1975) in this field of study.
A case frame in case grammar was taken to characterize a small abstract scene which identifies (at least) the participants of the scene and thus the arguments of predicates and sentences describing the scene. In order to understand a sentence the language user is supposed to have mental access to such schematized scenes. The other historical root of frame semantics is more difficult to describe. It relates to the notion of frame-based systems of knowledge representations in AI. This is a highly structured approach to knowledge representation which collects together information about particular objects and events and arranges them into a taxonomic hierarchy familiar from biological taxonomies. However, the specific formalism suggested in the above mentioned paper by Minsky was not considered successful in AI .
Some Basic Theoretical Principles
The central theoretical concepts characterizing frame semantics are due to C. Fillmore and did not change much since his first writings on this approach. In order to explain the most important notions of frame semantics let us briefly consider a typical example of a frame, the commercial transaction frame which demonstrates the origin of frame semantics from Fillmore’s case frames as well. In this case the concept frame is applied to verbs like buy with the intention to represent the relationsips between syntax and semantics.
Bibliography: drawn up by Jean Mark Gawron.
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