Thematic Relation (definition)

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Thematic relations classify the semantic relationships between a verb and the nouns in its clause.

For instance, the notion of kissing requires an agent and a theme to make a complete semantic event. These thematic relations are expressed through noun phrases, so we may say that in (1) Smith takes the agent thematic relation, and Jones takes the theme thematic relation.

1) Smith kissed Jones.

Smith takes the agent role because he or she is the one who does the kissing. Jones takes the theme role because he or she is the one being kissed.

Linguists disagree on what an exhaustive inventory of thematic relations would consist of. However, the following are widely accepted (adapted from Carnie 2006):

Agents do or precipitate the action
Experiencers feel or perceive an event
Themes are moved, experienced or perceived (often also called "patients"
Goals are entities toward which movement occurs
Sources are entities from which movement occurs
Locations are the places in which events occur
Instruments are used to perform an action
Beneficiaries are those for whom an event takes place

Note that many of these thematic relations correlate with traditional case distinctions. Thematic relations are considered purely semantic classes, and one syntactic argument may bear more than one thematic relation. But clearly thematic relations do have an effect on syntax; in some generative grammars this interface with syntactic structure is handled through theta roles.

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  • Carnie, Andrew. 2006. Syntax: A Generative introduction. 2nd Edition. Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 1405133848