Role Playing

This week I would like to “problematize” our reading on role playing. . . as I am on the lookout for prospects for technical papers . . . The challenge is how to get underneath the surface of things to reveal the dynamic hidden depths, the “round” character of issues which tend to be “flattened” when literature has a non-specialist audience.

When choosing a point for investigation, it is usually best to choose something small and pointed; one never knows what Pandora’s box will be lurking around. Harley, in last week’s reading, tells us that English has a suffix -er, which turns verbs into nouns. She writes that “ –er makes nouns referring to the Agent or Causer of the verb it attaches to”(209). She gives the following examples:

a) employer, climber, fighter, rider, writer, sleeper, singer

So an “employer” is someone who employs somebody, a “climber” is someone who climbs something, and so on. Harley’s generalization leads to the prediction that if we try to attach ‘-er’ to a verb that does not have an agent among its role players, we should get something ungrammatical. Consider the verb ‘rain’; as there is nobody or nothing that ‘rains’, we predict that such a verb will not support the agent –er ending:

b) *Adam rains.
c) *The weather rains.
d) *Today was a rainer.

Likewise, verbs that are ambiguous in that they optionally project an Agent role player will be disambiguated as a consequence of Harley’s generalization. The verb “melt,” for example, can take either an agent or theme role player:

e) Dorothy melted the wicked witch of the west

If I asked you who was the melter (as opposed to the meltee), you would respond, “Dorothy,” presumably. So far, so good, right? However, Ingo Plag (Syntactic category information and the semantics of derivational morphological rules) points out the that situation is not as simple as Harley implies. That is, Plag notes that –er may attach to other things as well as verbs, a fact that Plag emphasizes is often glossed over in the standard literature (a researchable conjecture, here!):

f) loner, foreigner (adjectives turned into nouns)
g) banker, Londoner, pin-striper, weekender (nouns that continue to be nouns)
h) four-wheeler, five-leafer, left-hander (phrases turned into nouns)

So all of a sudden, the position that –er creates agents out of verbs is completely shaken: a “loner” is not one who “lones” (compare “loaner”). The base form “lone” is not something associated with an agent role player; indeed, it is not a verb. Likewise, a “Londoner” is not one who “Londons,” a “left-hander” is not one who left-hands, and so on. Plag, citing Ryder (1999), suggests that “-er nominals are interpreted on the basis of the most plausible event schemas associated with the base”(13). Now that’s quite a mouthful, but note he makes no reference to the syntactic category of the base, nor to argument structure.

Ok, . . . but Plag himself recognizes that his technical sounding statement is itself not well-defined (at this point I’m asking: What is an ‘event schema’? What makes an ‘event schema,’ whatever it is, ‘plausible’? And finally, what exactly is the nature of how the ‘event schema’ is ‘associated’ with the base?) Plag admits in a footnote that “[s]uch ‘event schemas’ could be conceptualized and formalized as frames (e. g. Fillmore 1982, Fillmore et al. 2001) or scripts (as in Meyer 1993) . . . . [but that a]n implementation of these formalisms is beyond the limits of this [=his] paper”(39).

As is the nature with so much technical literature, the research solves some little things, but ultimately has the function of begetting much more research. To write a technical paper is to start a conversation, not to end one, or to say the last word. Here “event schemas” “plausibility” and “association” would need to be formalized in a way that would help us understand our understanding of this last sentence:

i) We want Eve to be the dropper Adam to be the breaker in this scene.

We interpret Eve to be the one doing the dropping, not the one being dropped . . . but Adam is the one being broken, not the one doing the breaking. And at this point, what you’ve got is a nice little research agenda for an end-of-semester technical paper.

How closely does your native language parallel English on these issues?

Harley, Heidi 2006. English Words: A linguistic introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Fillmore, Charles J. 1982. Frame Semantics. In Linguistic Society of Korea (ed.), Linguistics in the Morning Calm. Seoul: Hanshin, pp 111-138.

Fillmore, Charles J., Charles Wooters, & Collin F. Baker. 2001. “Building a large lexical databank which provides deep Semantics” In: Benjamin Tsou & Olivia Kwong (eds.), Proceedings of the 15th Pacific Asia Conference on Language, Information and Computation. Hong Kong: City University of Hong kong

Meyer, Ralf. 1993. Compound comprehension in isolation and in context. The contribution of conceptual and discourse knowledge to the comprehension of novel noun-noun compounds. Linguistische Arbeiten, Band 299. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Ryder, Mary Ellen. 1999. “Bankers and blue-chippers: an account of –er formations in Present-day English.” English Language and Linguistics 3, 269-297.