Charles J. Fillmore

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Charles J. (Chuck) Fillmore died last week. Lily Wong Fillmore asked me to prepare some brief remarks for the press. Here they are.

Chuck Fillmore was one of the world’s foremost linguists. His career spanned more than half a century, during which he contributed a constant stream of original and influential ideas. One can only hit the high points.

In 1963 he published a paper that introduced the notion of cylic application of grammatical rules: apply all rules to the smallest applicable unit, then apply them to the smallest unit containing that one, and so on. This principle is still active in grammatical theory.

In 1968 he published the classic paper “The case for case,” which (along with the contemporaneous work of Jeffrey Gruber) introduced into linguistics the issue of the extent to which syntactic structure can be predicted from semantic role classes (called by Fillmore “deep cases”), such as agent, patient, experiencer, goal, location, and a small number of others. Case grammar became a cottage industry and the seminal idea of a hierarchy of what are now called thematic roles acting to determine grammatical relations (subject, direct object, etc.) is still endorsed and debated among students of grammatical theory.

Fillmore’s influential Santa Cruz Lectures on Deixis, delivered in 1971 (and published in 1975) were a major stimulant to the then nascent field of linguistic pragmatics (concerned with the interaction between linguistic form and the context of utterance), which now flourishes.

In a series of papers spanning ten years, starting in 1975 with “An alternative to checklist theories of meaning” and concluding in 1985 with “Frames and the semantics of understanding,” Fillmore developed the theory that linguistic meaning is better considered from the point of view of the concepts present in the mind of the speaker and aroused in the mind of the addressee than from the dominant logical viewpoint of truth and falsity. Fillmore’s frame semantics remains one of the principal foundations of the field of Cognitive Linguistics.

In 1988, with colleagues and students at Berkeley, Fillmore introduced another highly influential idea into the study of language. This was to resurrect the notion of grammatical construction from traditional (pre-generative) grammar in an explicit theory, using modern, constraint-based formalisms originally developed in computer science and natural language processing. Construction Grammar is now a set of diverse schools, and the need to deal with the kinds of detailed and hard-to-summarize linguistic facts that Fillmore’s constructionist approach pointed to has had influence on syntacticians and semanticists beyond those who term their work "Construction Grammar".

In his last two decades, Fillmore devoted most of his efforts to the development of an ambitious project of computational lexicography, called FrameNet. This project attempts to build an online lexicon by starting from the conceptual frames that bind together groups of words. Fillmore’s original example was the Commercial Event frame, in which a buyer buys goods from a seller, who sells them, charging some money, constituting the price, which is paid, and which is also what the goods cost and therefore what the buyer must spend. The point is that the italicized words must be understood as a group; they inter-define each other within the frame (or scenario) of the Commercial Event. FrameNet builds online dictionaries arranged by frames. There are currently significant FrameNet projects going on in Chinese, English, German, Japanese, and Spanish, and there are subprojects of the English FrameNet group in still other languages. [UPDATE 2/23/14 FrameNet Project Manager Collin Baker tells me that Brazilian Portuguese and French should be added to the list of active FrameNet projects.]

The magnitude of Fillmore’s contributions to linguistics can hardly be exaggerated. I count the opportunity to have been one of his friends and collaborators among the great privileges and honors of my life.

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