Workshop on Verbs, Arguments, and Polysemy

Konstanz, July 23-25, 2001

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Workshop Abstract (from the original call for papers)


The aim of this workshop is to discuss issues in the semantic representation of verbs that arise in connection with the phenomenon of polysemy. In approaching this topic, we would like to stress the ways in which it is linked to the theory of events and of thematic roles.

One aspect of the semantics of verbs that clearly makes them special with respect to the issues of polysemy and lexical repesentation lies in the fact that meaning variation of verbs is reflected in their selection of arguments. While the mapping between events and arguments has played a prominent role in works on aspectual structure, we feel that the topic of its interplay with sense variation in verbs does not have received the amount of attention that it deserves. The following leading questions emerge:

o How does the selection of arguments interact with the formation of different lexical senses of a verb?
o Which different levels of lexical variation can be identified with regard to verb meanings, and how can semantic representations be constructed that represent the relevant semantic factors in a sufficiently fine-grained way?

While purely syntactic mechanisms that bring about variation in argument linking are not in the focus of this workshop, there is still the question of different levels of semantic representation that might give rise to different kinds of polysemy. On the one hand, variation in argument selection may just be an indicator of a changed lexical sense of the verb. Ideally, our representation of verb meanings should show how the different semantic gradients of sense extension are rooted in the features of the verb meaning and their interplay with the information contributed by argument roles and argument types. This then requires a semantic representation that has to be far more fine-grained than the usual lexical decomposition. The shape that such a model of verb meanings should take is still very much under debate, however.

On the other hand, there are various cases in which different variants seem to be drawn from the same overall situation, or maybe "frame":
 a. load the cart with hay / load hay onto the cart
 b. leave the scene / leave a gap
 c. open the jar/ open the lid
Certainly, many alternations of this superficial type cannot be analysed as different choices from a set of arguments that co-occur in one argument structure, and indeed it is unclear whether any such examples can be regarded as "pure" argument alternations, instead of polysemy. Variation of such a type could be amenable to a treatment that posits another more shallow level of lexical variation that rests on a common background shared by the variants. This would lead to incorporating a foreground-background distinction into lexical meanings, as e.g. in Fillmore's "Frame" semantics. Again, a number of questions arise from such an approach: How is this foreground-background distinction in lexical information to be spelled out, or, how does the notion of a "frame" for verbs relate to the notion of "event"?