Charles J. Fillmore (1929-2014)

The Department of Linguistics mourns the loss of Charles Fillmore, who died on February 13 after a struggle with cancer. He was a gifted teacher, a beloved mentor, a treasured colleague and friend, and one of the great linguists of the last half-century. Our hearts go out to Lily Wong Fillmore and to all Chuck and Lily's family.

Campus memorial: Sunday, May 25, 2014, 12 noon – 5 pm, in Alumni House | program and directions

Biography | Appreciations | Gallery | 2010 ICSI Gazette profile | 2012 ACL Lifetime Achievement Award video | San Francisco Chronicle obituary | Appreciations by Paul Kay and George Lakoff | Introduction by Eve Sweetser to BLS 20, honoring Fillmore's work

Chuck Fillmore and Lily Wong Fillmore


Fillmore is widely known for developing case grammar and frame semantics in the 1960s and 1970s; construction grammar in the 1980s and 1990s (with Paul Kay and other colleagues); and framenets in the 1990s and 2000s. He is especially influential on analyses of the relation between word meaning and syntactic patterns. Linguists in various subfields know his classic articles "The case for case" (in Universals of linguistic theory, 1968) and "Frame semantics" (in Linguistics in the morning calm, 1982); the more recent "Regularity and idiomaticity in grammatical constructions" (with Paul Kay and Cathy O'Connor, 1988) and "Grammatical constructions and linguistic generalizations" (with Paul Kay, 1999), both in Language; and the seminal Lectures on deixis (1975), which helped jump-start the field of linguistic pragmatics. Within his own research areas, Fillmore's influential papers also include "The position of embedding transformations in a grammar"" (Word 1963), "An alternative to checklist theories of meaning" (BLS 1974), "Frames and the semantics of understanding" (Quaderni di Semantica 1985), and "Starting where the dictionaries stop" (with Sue Atkins, in Computational approaches to the lexicon, 1994), among numerous others.

As an outgrowth of his research in frame semantics, in the 1980s Fillmore became increasingly interested in synergies between lexical semantic theory and lexicography; he and Sue Atkins began writing about the "dictionary of the future", in which every word would be linked to corpus examples. This culminated in 1997 in his founding of the FrameNet project at the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, which he continued to direct until his death. Under his guidance, FrameNet has built a freely-available on-line dictionary of more than 12,000 English words in more than 1,100 semantic frames, with almost 200,000 examples labeled for semantic roles. FrameNet data is widely used in computational linguistics, natural language processing, and artificial intelligence, and there are now parallel projects to create FrameNets for many other languages, including Spanish, German, Japanese, Portuguese, Italian, and Chinese.

Fillmore was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, then served in the U.S. Army and taught English in Japan. Returning to the U.S. for graduate school, after attending the 1951 Linguistic Institute at UC Berkeley he received his Ph.D. in 1961 from the University of Michigan and taught at The Ohio State University before joining the Berkeley faculty in 1971. Among other honors, he held the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) Professorship at the 1979 Linguistic Institute in Salzburg, served as LSA President in 1991, was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Chicago in 2000, was a co-recipient (with Collin Baker) of the 2012 Antonio Zampolli Prize, and received the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award of the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL). In 1994 the annual meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society (published as BLS 20) was dedicated to his work, in 1995 he was presented with a Festschrift edited by his former students Masayoshi Shibatani and Sandra Thompson, in 2009 a conference on "Frames and Constructions" was held in his honor, and the 2014 ACL meeting will feature a workshop "Frame Semantics in Natural Language Processing" in his honor. Over four decades at Berkeley, Fillmore advised about 40 doctoral dissertations — more than any other Berkeley Linguistics faculty member, ever — and remains a beloved figure to all his students, colleagues, and friends. 


József Andor | Hans C. Boas | Anthonia A. Dickson | Ken Feinstein | Kerstin Fischer | Mirjam Fried | Susanne Gahl | Adele Goldberg | Yoko Hasegawa | Susan Hunston | Christopher Johnson | Knud Lambrecht | Laura Michaelis | William S.-Y. Wang | Tess Wood

József Andor (University of Pecs, Hungary)

I have just received the sad news about my good old friend, Chuck Fillmore's death. I am deeply shocked.

I have known Chuck for several decades — we have been in touch since the publication of his "Case for Case". Chuck, to me, was sort of a father-in-linguistics. His greatness in knowledge of the field, his kind and benevolent character, his good humor will be remembered by all who knew him personally. He was one of the greatest figures of modern linguistics, active in researching (first) syntax and semantics, and then also lexicology and lexical semantics, computational linguistics, one of the founding fathers of frame semantics. And I would like to add lexical pragmatics to the list. He was one of the best advocates of the critical role of empiricism in linguistic research.

I will never forget Chuck's friendly and uniquely characteristic smile and would now like to pray for him, sending him my best wishes from Earth to Heaven, which is now his well deserved eternal home. God bless him!

Hans C. Boas (University of Texas at Austin)

Chuck has inspired so many people in so many ways, and his impact on linguistics has been profound. I am so incredibly thankful for having known Chuck since I was seven years old, ever since my father stayed at UC Berkeley as a visiting scholar for a year to work with Chuck. I will miss him so much. Chuck's very deep linguistic insights, his sense of humor, and love for different languages and cultures are well-known by everyone who ever met him. The following took place at the 4th International Conference on Construction Grammar in Tokyo in 2006, where Chuck navigated some critical intercultural misunderstandings in a very graceful way — behind the scenes.

At the Construction Grammar Conference, Chuck, Bill Croft, Adele Goldberg (and I believe Mirjam Fried), and I were all staying at the guest house on the campus of the University of Tokyo. Each night, before going to bed, we had to fill out a form for breakfast (choice of meat, choice of eggs, beverage, etc.). The first morning we were sitting at the breakfast table of the guest house, and the waiter served our food. We politely asked for salt and pepper (for the eggs). The waiter, after several times of us asking, said that they do not have salt and pepper for breakfast (these were only "reserved for lunch and dinner"). We asked politely, several times (in English), but the waiter refused. Even Chuck's excellent knowledge of Japanese did not help. So we ate our breakfast without salt and pepper.

The next morning, the same scenario. The waiter served our breakfast. Then he left the room and came back with salt and pepper. He then bowed about 5 or 6 times and profusely apologized for having caused us so much grief. He then would not stop apologizing, at which point Chuck uttered a few words in Japanese, which to this day, I have no idea what they meant. The waiter then bowed again (it felt like this was the most miserable day of his life), and left the room. Everyone around the breakfast table was very surprised.

We were all intrigued and asked Chuck what he said. Chuck said something about how guests should be treated in a house in Japan and how he explained to the waiter that not treating foreign visitors in a good manner would be bad for the university, the city, and the country. Chuck also told us that the night before he had met with the manager of the university guest house to explain him his concern about the service. The conversation took place in Japanese. There was obviously some specific cultural frame that Chuck evoked very successfully in order to get us salt and pepper for breakfast.

Anthonia A. Dickson (Department of Foreign Languages, University of Uyo, Nigeria)

As a linguistics graduate student at the universities of Calabar and Port Harcourt in Nigeria, where my academic adventure commenced, I was introduced to the works of Fillmore, Nilsen, Tesnière and Chafe by Professors David Eka and Kay Williamson. These works inspired me into linguistic analysis and led me to discover that the "word" is a world on its own.

Fillmore's deep linguistic insights, his ability to place significance on every word and its usage pattern, his passion for the application of these patterns on other languages, led me into writing and successfully defending a Ph.D. thesis titled: "Une Étude contrastive des Systè Verbaux Ibibio et Français: Approche de Grammaire des Cas".

I am proud to be one of the proponents of his ideas. As I mourn this huge loss to the world of linguistics, I feel consoled that his legacy lives on through the continued works of his academic children and friends whose lives and careers he touched directly and those of us whom he also touched by extension. We shall continue from where he stopped till we meet "up there".

May God bless him and console his biological and academic families.

Ken Feinstein (BA, Linguistics, 1993)

I arrived at Berkeley in 1989 as an over-enthusiastic freshman fascinated by dictionaries. I saw that someone was teaching a graduate seminar in lexicography so I contacted the professor and asked if I could audit the course. Even though the seminar was largely attended by fellow professors and graduate students, Professor Fillmore welcomed me and encouraged me to participate. He even seemed to take my teenage ideas seriously.

At the time, I didn't realize his renown and importance in the scholarly community. His warm manner set me at ease, and it just seemed natural to go to him over the years whenever I needed academic help or guidance. He also arranged a summer internship for me which was one of the highlights of my college career.

Though I didn't stay in contact with Professor Fillmore after graduating, I will always be grateful for his generosity and kindness to me.

Kerstin Fischer (University of Southern Denmark)

I would like to share with you my first two encounters with Chuck since I believe they illustrate quite nicely what a kind, warm and attentive person he was.

I first met him in 1994 at my very first international conference ever. It just happened that we were sharing the same breakfast table. We chatted a little, and the next morning, he came down to breakfast with an invitation letter for me to come to Berkeley as a visiting scholar, typed on lined paper with holes punched into it, yet impressive enough for the German Academic Exchange Service to provide me with the grant to come. So a year later I was walking across Sproul Plaza, jet-lagged, intimidated and absorbed with finding a place to stay, when from the other end of the square Chuck spotted me, came up to me and called: "ah, there you are!". This was my second encounter with him.

When I think of Chuck now, I am full of gratitude and joy and fond memories (several involving me fighting some nastily dripping food items ...). What I keep being amazed about is how this man, who constantly reminded us of the importance of attending to meticulous detail, has provided us with some of the most innovative, inspiring and influential general concepts and principles of current linguistic theorizing. He was a wonderful person, teacher and linguist.

Mirjam Fried (Charles University, Prague)

Long before I landed in America as a fresh immigrant, I had felt it'd be great to one day work with Chuck. I mean, with "this guy Fillmore, whose way of thinking about language seemed to make so much sense". Of course, at that time, it was just an abstract dream, one for which there was no hope of ever becoming true. The iron curtain was firmly down and all I had of him was what I got at our half-clandestine seminars. He was well known in certain circles in Prague, in fact kept quite active contact with my then-teachers. When I finally met him, about five years later, I was in awe and at the same time incredulous that this famous linguist was actually a very nice guy, who seemed to go way out of his way to make little me feel welcome. When I officially became his student several months later, I simply couldn’t believe my luck. And the way this deal was sealed has also remained seared in my memory as "typical Chuck". I came to ask him to become my adviser, of course addressing him as Professor Fillmore, practically on my knees, showing appropriate reverence, as any well-brought up Central European student would in such a situation. He let me deliver my speech complete with all my apologies and complicated explanations of why I dared bother him, etc., and when I was finished, he let it sit for a moment, looking at me with that bemused smile of his, and then simply announced: "Everyone calls me Chuck." That was all he said, the rest — I guess — was to be understood. Needless to say it took me solid two months before I could work up the nerve to actually address him that way too. And then he became not just a patient and interested adviser, an inspiring teacher, and a trusted mentor to me, but also a beloved friend of my family. I think of him and Lily as sort of surrogate god-parents to my daughter (in fact, Chuck was one of the very first people to call me in the hospital when she was born), and I've been touched over and over again by Chuck’s genuine interest in her well-being, even after we moved to the other side of the world. And one of our last memories? Sitting in Chuck and Lily's living room last summer and listening to Chuck’s definite plans for his next life. Apparently, he'll be a geologist. Chuck, you’ll be with the three of us forever, just like the rocks you'll now be studying! Thanks so much for everything!

Susanne Gahl (UC Berkeley)

Like so many others, I am deeply grateful to Chuck. Time and again, Chuck would show us words and patterns as microcosms of language and the mind. His scholarly patience and his ability to see the significance of every word and usage pattern taught me to stay close to the data. Chuck was also generous in every conceivable manner, although, being Chuck, he never talked about that. Who can ever forget Chuck's love of the absurd, his understated sense of humor, or his devotion to Lily? Thank you, Chuck.

Adele Goldberg (Princeton University)

Chuck, everyone called him Chuck. Even though, tall and striking, he looked every bit the legend he was. He'd kind of shrink his frame as if anyone in the room could forget he was an absolute genius, and he'd lob key examples and counterexamples that would immediately lead to silence, then an intake of breath as we all began to appreciate their significance, and then, more often than not, laughter because they were often very funny. As a mentor, Chuck inspired, he did not tutor or preach. His insights often had to be unraveled from his examples, leaving us to imagine we had discovered something on our own.

Chuck was dedicated to corpus data well before it became de rigueur. He was proud to be a lexicographer and a grammarian, and led many generations to respect and appreciate those titles as well. He was the master of all of the fine points, the idiosyncrasies, as well as the generalizations. Chuck did more than anyone else to promote the idea that patterns had functions as well as forms. He also did more than anyone else to make clear that each word was a world unto itself. He shone a light on language in a way that few have ever been able to do.

I remember being a student and then TA in his large undergraduate course in syntax that was both riveting and raucous. I'm sure no one who walked by would ever have guessed that the classroom so full of laughter was focused on grammar. He won the hearts and minds of generations of students. We are forever grateful to him.

Yoko Hasegawa (University of California, Berkeley)

I was deeply grieved by the death of my long-time mentor, Fillmore-sensei. He began his Japanese Linguistics Seminar in 1987, when I was a graduate student, and continued offering it until the summer of 2012, when his health had deteriorated. I was extremely fortunate to have such a great scholar-teacher for such a long period of time.

Fillmore-sensei acquired his fluency in the Japanese language while stationed in Kyoto after the Korean War. Following discharge from the military, he studied Japanese at Kyoto University. During that period, he also enjoyed teaching English as a Foreign Language at a local junior high school for girls. He used to tell us that he fell in love with 80% of those pupils. I recall his proudly reciting excerpts from classical Japanese literature, especially from Taketori Monogatari (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter).

And I fondly remember our many discussions of linguistic and cultural topics and his keen analyses in his low-keyed, warm voice. 合掌.

Susan Hunston (University of Birmingham, UK)

I am very saddened to hear of the death of Professor Fillmore. He was a remarkable intellectual and a very fine man. After long admiring his work, in 2009 I travelled to Milan to hear him speak in person at a Framenet workshop. Although he had recently had surgery he spoke for several hours, and every word was a gem. He explained Framenet in a way that was enlightening for everyone, whatever their level of familiarity with the project. He stayed to listen to the other papers and was kind and generous in his comments. He is a sad loss to the world of Linguistics.

Christopher Johnson (The Name Inspector)

Being a linguistics grad student at Berkeley in the 1990s was, for me, the intellectual adventure of a lifetime. In college I had read works by Fillmore, Kay, and Lakoff, and they were what led me to get a PhD in linguistics. Then there I was in the presence of those important influences, having conversations with them. It felt like being in the center of something (which it was), and in the center of that center was the towering yet modest figure of Chuck Fillmore.

In the introductory syntax and semantics course Chuck taught with Paul Kay, I was blown away by the depth, subtlety, and just plain rightness of his linguistic insights, and the wit and humanity with which he presented them. Honestly, the class seemed like so much more than an introduction. It seemed like Chuck helping us take apart the English lexicon and grammar like clockwork, showing us how it all worked, and putting it back together, making funny observations the whole time.

After that class my ideal job became any one that allowed me to talk to Chuck regularly, and I enjoyed the privilege of such positions several times — twice as a TA for syntax and semantics, a couple times as an RA, and then as a dissertation advisee and part of Chuck's founding team for FrameNet. Each time I was amazed and delighted that part of my job description was to sit and talk to Chuck about lexical semantics and grammatical constructions, trying to keep up. He taught me so much, and made me laugh while he did it.

I can't believe I'll never have another conversation like that. But then again, just about every conversation I have in my head about language is with Chuck. I don't think that will ever change.

Knud Lambrecht (University of Texas at Austin)

To get the point of the following story, one has to know my first name and how Americans unfortunately tend to butcher its pronunciation. One also has to know that I was a TA (not for Chuck) at the time and that students would sometimes call their TAs on the phone to get information about sessions they missed.

One day in the early eighties I ran into Chuck outside his office, in Dwinelle Hall. He stopped me and said "I have a story to tell you that you might find interesting." I looked at him and waited.

Chuck: I just got a phone call from a student who seemed very nervous. You're his TA. I pick up the phone and say "Hello?". Then I hear an excited loud voice.
Voice: Are you nude?
Chuck (after a short hesitation): Why do you want to know?
Voice (very excited): I've just got to know! It's important! Are you nude!?

I don't know the end of the conversation. Chuck didn't tell me. The biographical point of the story is that Chuck of course immediately understood what was going on, but played the game for the pleasure of the pun.

For those of you who are perhaps mystified by the story, I should explain that many many speakers, even educated ones, spontaneously call me "Nude", or sometimes "Nud" (rhyming with "bud"). In fact my best friend at UC Berkeley, a linguist turned MD, who shall remain unnamed, at first kept calling me "Nude" also. When I told him to please pronounce the [k], he said: "OK, but if from now on I say 'I don't [kno]' and 'Pass me the [knaif]' it'll be your fault!"

— Knud [yeah, I no]

Laura Michaelis (University of Colorado)

I was the fly on the wall, not in the ointment. For close to a decade, I met regularly with Chuck and Paul Kay in an attempt to bring their ingenious Construction Grammar text to publication. Initially, I was joined by Andreas Kathol; we called ourselves the "script doctors". The goal shifted with the departure of Andreas. Ivan Sag joined our group, and we decided to create a more ambitious general purpose work about formalized Construction Grammar. The theory came to be known as Sign-based Construction Grammar. That particular work never came to fruition, although each of us published a statement about SBCG in a co-edited volume of the same name published in 2012. This outcome wasn't as disappointing to me as it was to a lot of people in the Construction Grammar community, because, selfishly, I'd long ago realized that whatever the outcome I’d been given a huge break: the opportunity to watch the "gents" work their trade—whether they were sorting out English "one" anaphora or creating a taxonomy of null complements (all within the rigorous constraints of a declarative theory of syntax). In the UCB Linguistics seminar room, in every meeting room at ICSI, at CSLI in Palo Alto, and, lastly, a Fresh Choice in San Bruno (Ivan dubbed it the half way point between Berkeley and Palo Alto), I listened. I worried at first that watching Chuck engaged in the "sausage making" of theory creation would dull his magic for me. I’d always thought he had preternatural abilities. Would I come to think otherwise? In fact, I came to think of Chuck as the Sibyl of Cumae. His pronouncements, all preceded by a polite clearing of the throat, were often inscrutable, but each suggested an eery degree of access to the stuff past the mouth of the cave — the real workings of the language. We will never see his like again because Chuck could never teach anyone to be Chuck. His insights were otherworldly. But as I mourn Chuck I give thanks for the life of his dear friend and collaborator Paul Kay. Paul was the one who kept pace with Chuck’s mind and could "dumb down" Chuck's insights for the rest of us. For me, Paul and Chuck were, and will always be, united like the two poles of a sign. Chuck was lucky to have Paul and even luckier to have Lily, his beautiful, kind, brilliant and practical wife. She made many of our meetings possible and enhanced Chuck’s well being in every way, including abetting his delight in the absurd. Even as medical issues began to bedevil him in his later years, he kept his boyish grin and his sometimes merry, sometimes mordant wit. At one of our meetings he asked me if I'd heard the funniest joke in the world. He claimed some cognitive psychologists in England had discovered it. It involved Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and a tent, but he never actually got to the punchline. He was laughing so hard there were tears in his eyes. Thank you, Paul. And thank you, Lily. Chuck was an angel in our midst and you sustained him, enabling many of us to have moments like that.

I have a draft of a chapter that Paul, Ivan, Chuck and I worked on back in 2002. Chuck was the last one to revise it. At the top he'd tagged the draft with this attribute: Chuck touched. Gratefully, I can say: so were all of our lives!

William S.-Y. Wang (UC Berkeley and Chinese University of Hong Kong)

Chuck and I were very close. We grew up together academically in Peterson's lab at Ann Arbor, had our first appointments together in Columbus, and both settled in Berkeley. In his memory, I stitched a few phrases together from Tang dynasty poetry, and did a rough translation of it.


you flew away
on a red crested crane
time vainly passes
only white clouds remain

Chuck would have known that the red crested crane dwelt among the gods. I only wish I could have shown him the poem.

Tess Wood (University of Maryland)

I had read several of Chuck’s papers as an undergraduate and was in awe of him when I started working at FrameNet as a graduate student. Looking back, it is remarkable to me that I was never afraid to talk to him or to offer an opinion. He was always willing to listen to ideas, and he valued other people’s input just as he valued the patterns in the data.

I never took a class with Chuck, but have learned a great deal from him — about language and linguistics, about how to approach research, and how to be a mentor and a friend. He officiated at my wedding, and my memories of that day are beautifully tinged with his kindness, understated brilliance, and radiant humor. I have a picture of him blowing bubbles at the reception.

I wish I had told Chuck how much I appreciate the things I am still learning from him.


Photos courtesy of Hans C. Boas, Joanne Englund, Paula Floro, Mirjam Fried, Andrew Garrett, Michael Israel, Alex Madonik, Laura Michaelis, Kyoko Ohara, and Miriam Petruck. Right-click for larger photos.

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