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Profile: Charles Fillmore

Monday, May 7, 2012

Charles Fillmore, Director of ICSI's FrameNet ProjectCharles Fillmore is one of the founding fathers of linguistics as it is practiced today. A professor emeritus of UC Berkeley, Chuck is also the director of ICSI’s FrameNet Project, which is building a lexical database, usable by both machines and humans, that describes the relationships between words in order to extract meaning from texts. The work requires the intellectual flexibility and passion for language that have marked his sixty-year career.

Chuck received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota and then entered the U.S. Army. For three years, he was stationed in Japan intercepting coded Russian conversations on short-wave radio. While off duty, he walked through the streets with a notebook, teaching himself Japanese. After he was discharged – the first U.S. soldier to be discharged locally in Japan – he taught English at a Buddhist girls’ school while taking classes at Kyoto University. He returned to the U.S. and, after receiving his PhD in linguistics from the University of Michigan in 1961, taught at Ohio State University in Columbus for ten years. He then spent one year basking in what he describes as “senseless luxury” as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. In 1971, he joined UC Berkeley’s Department of Linguistics.

Chuck has contributed some of the fundamental concepts in contemporary linguistics. In the 1960s and 1970s, he developed the theories of case grammar and frame semantics, and in the 1980s and 1990s he contributed to George Lakoff’s work in construction grammar.

“I’ve always been interested in meaning as much as form, and the relationship between form and meaning,” he says.

Collin Baker, the program manager of FrameNet, says, “Chuck has been a quiet voice of reason in the linguistics wars over the decades, because he’s always been true to the data.” While many linguists attempt to describe all aspects of a language – working from the top down, as it were – Chuck begins with a loose conceptual framework, uses data to refine it, and allows for exceptions to his theories. This flexibility forms the base of his brand of linguistics.

During the early 1990s, he taught summer school classes in computational lexicography at the University of Pisa. There, he met Sue Atkins, a lexicographer with whom he continues to collaborate. At the time, Atkins was involved in a project funded by the European Union to study perception verbs in English, French, Danish, Italian, and Dutch using frame semantics, and he joined the group as an external consultant. “I gradually convinced myself that we had to do something like that in Berkeley,” he said.

In 1995, Chuck retired from UC Berkeley; shortly afterwards, then-ICSI Director Jerome Feldman invited him to join the Institute and submit a proposal for federal funds to pursue lexical semantic research. In 1997, the group received its first grant and began to build the FrameNet database, which illustrates English words in each of their senses and lays out the ways in which they combine with other words to build complete phrases.

“The happiest time of my career has been here at ICSI,” says Chuck, “where FrameNet has made it possible for me to work with a team of bright young people on a continuing basis doing work that I’ll never lose interest in.”

The FrameNet Project aims to cover as much as possible of what is involved in understanding text. The database groups words according to the semantic frames – schematic representations of situation types (like eating, removing, etc.) – that they participate in and describes the patterns in which they combine with other words and phrases according to how frame elements are expressed. Loosely defined, frame elements are the things that are worth talking about within the frame activated by a word. For example, verbs of buying and selling involve a buyer, a seller, some goods, and some money, either explicitly in a sentence or implicitly in a situation; verbs of revenge involve an avenger, an offender, an injured party, and a punishment.

Chuck said, “We’re building information about English for both people and computers – for people who want to design programs and for people who want information about English and the way the mind works.”

More than a decade after its inception, the FrameNet Project continues to add to its database. The project has manually annotated more than 150,000 sentences, and has defined more than 12,000 lexical units (a pairing of a word with a meaning), 8,000 of which have been annotated. A searchable database provided on the FrameNet Web site includes lists of frames, frame elements, and example sentences for all meanings of each word. The database also describes the formal and semantic properties of special grammatical constructions that mean something different from the sum of their parts.

“By finding representative examples of the uses of each word and classifying the meanings of the phrases that go with them,” Chuck said, “we are able to include in our database information about the words in our language that standard dictionaries simply don’t have room for.”

The FrameNet resource has been used in the development of various natural language processing applications such as question answering and machine translation and in the creation of lexicons for other languages. Other researchers have begun developing FrameNets for several languages besides English, including Chinese, Japanese, German, Spanish, and Hebrew. As they build these FrameNets, they are finding that different languages have many of the same frames and use words in semantically similar ways as English. The hope is that frame semantics will one day guide automatic machine translation.

The FrameNet database is in use by hundreds of researchers around the world, and Chuck’s work is continually recognized by his colleagues. In 1991, he served as president of the Linguistic Society of America. In 2000, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Chicago; in August 2009, a three-day conference was held at UC Berkeley in celebration of his 80th birthday, with papers on frame semantics and construction grammar by dozens of his former students and colleagues.

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