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Syntactic classification of main verbs

The syntactic classification of verbs is done in terms of the syntactic patterns of the clauses in which they occur. Verbs require a specific number and specific types of subjects, objects and other possible complements in order to be used in grammatically well-formed sentences. A very typical and well-known contrast pertaining to the classification of verbs is the contrast of transitive and intransitive clauses, as illustrated by example (1) and (2), where the use of a verb either with a superfluous object (example 1ai) or without a required object (example 2ai) is regarded as ungrammatical.

Example 1

a. Ons gaan nou werk.
we go now work
We are now going to work.
a.' Ons gaan nou die vleis werk.
we go now the meat work
We are now going to work the meat.
Example 2

a. Hy maak 'n ander plan.
he make an other plan
He makes another plan.
a.' *Hy maak op die papier.
he make on the paper
He makes on paper.

The number of arguments yields the traditional classification of intransitive, transitive and ditransitive, depending on whether there is one, two or three arguments used with the verb.

The syntactic classification of verbs is done with reference to the number of arguments that verbs take, the thematic roles of these arguments in respect of the situation represented by the clause, and the syntactic form of the various arguments. These dimensions of syntactic classification are set out below. The syntactic patterns are not limited to a single option for all cases, but a number of alternations are permitted, which are described.

[+]Thematic roles and syntactic classification

The thematic roles concern the contribution of each argument to the situation represented by the clause. Many verbs require an agent or else a force or instrument that instigates the event. The most typical second argument is the theme, which is the party affected by the event. Agents are typically human or by extension animate, and often act volitionally, while themes are typically non-human objects that do not have much say in the events, although human themes are found frequently enough. The most typical third argument is a beneficiary, or more concretely a recipient, who receives the theme from the agent. These typical thematic roles are illustrated by example (3) and (4), where Anna and hy he are agents, goed stuff and daai stoeltjie that chair are themes, and vir my for me expresses the beneficiary.

Example 3

En toe vat Anna haar goed.
And then Anna took her stuff.
Example 4

Toe maak hy vir my daai stoeltjie.
Then he made me that chair.

Different terms and different distinctions are drawn by authors writing about semantic roles. For Afrikaans, De Stadler (1992:132) provides a list that includes agent, actor, patient, instrument, experiencer and beneficiary. De Stadler's term actor corresponds to what is called theme in most lists of roles. An important area of disagreement is whether a theme and a patient should be differentiated. While semantic contrasts can be drawn, syntactic evidence for the difference is not compelling in the judgement of many writers on the topic. For the same of simplicity, and in agreement with the approach adopted in the description of the Syntax of Dutch, a separate role of patient is not used in the description of Afrikaans, only the role of theme.

The examples above also demonstrate the most typical syntactic encoding of the thematic roles in terms of syntactic functions. Agents are encoded as the subjects of active clauses, and themes as the direct objects. When recipients are present, they are most typically encoded as indirect objects in Afrikaans active clauses. The set of typical association patterns is described as unergative, in contrast to the unaccusative and undative patterns that do not have agentive subjects. Unergative patterns can be subdivided into intransitive, as in example (1), transitive, as in example (2) and (3), and ditransitive, as in example (4).

A number of deviations from the typical pattern are found. For a small number of verbs that are known as impersonal verbs, no arguments are present, only a (non-referential) dummy subject dit it, as illustrated by example (5). Impersonal verbs refer mostly to the weather or related meteorological conditions.

Example 5

Dit reën nou kol-kol.
It rains intermittently now.

There are verbs that do not typically associate the syntactic subject with the agent, but with another thematic role. One such set of verbs is called unaccusative, which have the theme as the syntactic subject, as illustrated by example (6). Another set, called undative, has the recipient as the syntactic subject, as illustrated by example (7).

Example 6

Die steen breek toe in die helfte deur.
The rock then broke in half.
Example 7

Jy kan maklik 'n nagskof kry in die bakkery.
You can easily get a night-shift in the bakery.

The classification of verbs in terms of number of arguments, their semantic roles and the relationship between the semantic roles and syntactic functions is elaborated in more detail as part of an overall classification of all the nominal arguments of verbs.

[+]Semantic constraints on arguments

Semantic constraints on arguments are of two kinds. At a more general level, the situation denoted by the verb imposes requirements on the kinds of participants that need to present a comprehensible state of affairs. An act of giving requires the presence of an agent who gives, a theme that denotes the object being given, and a recipient who takes possession of the object being given. A specific case is illustrated in example (4), where the theme, a chair, is made for the benefit of a recipient, the speaker.

Likewise, an act of communication requires a communicator, a message being communicated and, usually, an addressee who receives the communication. The typical theme argument, syntactically encoded as the direct object, needs to refer to the wording of the act of communication, either representing the words by means of direct or indirect speech, or summarising it with a noun phrase that denotes a verbal act. A range of these options are illustrated by example (8), including the improbable concrete noun huise houses that does not make sense because it does not fit the semantic profile of the theme argument of an act of communication.

Example 8

a. Die ou dogtertjie sê vir my: 'Ouma, watter soort scent gebruik Ouma dan wat so lekker ruik?'
The little girl tells me, 'Granny, what type of scent do you use that smells so lovely?'
PCSA, adjusted
b. Hulle sê dat die fabrieke op die oomblik volle kapasiteit lewer.
They say that the factories run on full capacity at the moment.
c. Het hulle baie stories vertel?
Have they told many stories?
d. ?Hulle vertel baie huise.
They tell many houses.

Similar semantic constraints can be identified for activity verbs, which typically require volitional human beings as their agents, as shown by the examples in (9), where improbable subjects lead to infelicitous sentences.

Example 9

a. Toe knip ek gou die voering en stik hom aanmekaar.
Next I quickly cut the lining and sew it together.
a.' ?Toe knip die volstruis gou die voering en stik hom aanmekaar.
Then the ostrich cuts the lining and sews it together.
b. Julle manne kom plant met 'n halfduim reën.
You guys come and plant after half an inch of rain.
b.' ?Daai skaaphonde kom plant met 'n halfduim reën.
Those sheepdogs come and plant after half an inch of rain.

Other clear constraints that relate to the theme argument concern the plausibility of participating in the action of the verb, such as verbs of consumption that require objects suitable for human eating or drinking, as illustrated by the examples in (10).

Example 10

a. Toe het hy daai hele afval opgeëet.
Then he ate that entire offal.
a.' ?Toe het hy daai hele veiligheidsmuur opgeëet.
Then he ate that entire security wall.
b. Daarna kan ek bietjie flou koffie drink.
Thereafter I can drink some weak coffee.
b.' ?Daarna kan ek bietjie flou watte drink.
Thereafter I can drink a little weak cotton wool.

Secondly, at a more specific level, certain verbs impose more precise specifications on the arguments, e.g. by requiring plural count or mass nouns, but excluding singular count nouns. There are verbs with a meaning that inherently requires an operation on multiple objects, such as versamel to collect, liaseer to file and opstapel to pile. Hence, as shown in example (11), their theme argument has to be plural for the sentence to have a sensible interpretation.

Example 11

a. Die rotsblokke is opgestapel.
The boulders were stacked.
a.' ?Die rotsblok is opgestapel.
The boulder was stacked.
[+]Category selection

Besides the semantic constraints on the selection of arguments, there are also syntactic constraints, especially on the non-subject arguments. Subject arguments tend to be expressed by noun phrases across the board as far as Afrikaans main verbs are concerned. Variation is attested with copular verbs, where subject clauses occur – declarative, interrogative or infinitive, but not generally with main verbs. This contrast is illustrated by the examples in (12).

Example 12

a. Die laggende kinders hardloop in die arms van hulle ma's in.
[(NP) Die laggende kinders] hardloop in die arms van hulle ma's in.
The laughing children run into the arms of their mothers.
b. Bafana Bafana het verras met hulle sege van 1-0 in die kwalifiserende wedstryd.
[(NP) Bafana Bafana] het verras met hulle sege van 1-0 in die kwalifiserende wedstryd.
Bafana Bafana surprised with their victory of 1-0 in the qualifying match.
c. Die oproep was 'n groot verrassing.
[(NP) Die oproep] was 'n groot verrassing.
The call was a big surprise.
d. Dat dit gedoen kon word in medewerking met die plaaslike bestuur en welsynsorganisasies was 'n groot voorreg en vreugde.
[(CC) Dat dit gedoen kon word in medewerking met die plaaslike bestuur en welsynsorganisasies] was 'n groot voorreg en vreugde.
That this could be done in collaboration with the local government and welfare organisations was a big privilege and joy.

The prototypical expression of the direct object is by means of a noun phrase as well, but more variability is encountered here. Some verbs allow a choice between noun phrases and object clauses, especially communication verbs and mental verbs, as illustrated by the examples in (13) and (14). In some cases, a preposition phrase is required to encode the theme argument, rather than a noun phrase, as illustrated by various contrasts in the examples in (13) and (14) as well. The regular association of particular verbs with particular syntactic types for the encoding of their arguments forms part of the properties of the verb that should be included in the grammatical description of those verbs. In different linguistic-theoretical traditions, this is done in slightly different ways, e.g. by means of subcategorisation frames that are regarded as part of the lexicon entry of the verb in the users' mental lexicons, or as part of a constructional description of the verb at the level of an argument micro-construction.

Example 13

Communication verbs with clausal and phrasal complements
a. Die groepie inwoners beweer dat sommige van hulle al 33 jaar in die kompleks woon.
The group of inhabitants claim that some of them have been living in the complex for 33 years.
Die groepie inwoners beweer [(CC) dat sommige van hulle al 33 jaar in die kompleks woon].
a.' *Die groepie inwoners beweer hulle eiendomsreg.
The group of inhabitants claim their property right.
Die groepie inwoners beweer [(NP) hulle eiendomsreg].
b. Ek vertel hom my storie.
I tell him my story.
Ek vertel hom [(NP) my storie].
b.' Sy vertel hom van die kennisgewing.
She tells him about the notice.
Sy vertel hom [(PP) van die kennisgewing].
b.'' Sy vertel hom dat sy insekte bestudeer.
She tells him that she studies insects.
Sy vertel hom [(CC) dat sy insekte bestudeer].
Example 14

Mental verbs with clausal and phrasal complements
a. 'n Mens wonder of daar 'n verband tussen die twee feite is.
One wonders if there is a connection between the two facts.
'n Mens wonder [(CC) of daar 'n verband tussen die twee feite is].
a.' Die kiesers wonder oor sy motiewe.
The voters wonder about his motives.
Die kiesers wonder [(PP) oor sy motiewe].
a.'' *'n Mens wonder die verband.
One wonders the connection.
*'n Mens wonder [(NP) die verband].
b. Sy bewonder die vrugtevlermuise se intelligensie en hul rats sintuie.
She admires the bats' intelligence and their agile senses.
Sy bewonder [(NP) die vrugtevlermuise se intelligensie en hul rats sintuie].
b.' ?Sy bewonder dat die vrugtevlermuise so intelligent en rats is.
She admires that the bats are so intelligent and agile.
Sy bewonder [(CC) dat die vrugtevlermuise so intelligent en rats is].
[+]Verb frame alternations

Certain verbs can combine with two or more arguments in syntactically different ways. Most transitive verbs allow a choice between active and passive formulations. In the prototypical active clause, the agent is expressed as subject and theme as object. In the passive, the theme is expressed as subject, as shown by the primed examples in (15), with the agent either omitted altogether, or else expressed through a preposition phrase that combines with the clause like an adjunct, rather than an argument, as shown by (15b).

Example 15

a. Ons reël hierdie ding onafhanklik van die WP.
We organise this thing independently of the WP.
a.' Hierdie ding word onafhanklik van die WP gereël.
This thing is organised independently of the WP.
b. Die N.G.-gemeente Helderberg reël die Schoongezicht-behuisingsprojek.
The Dutch Reformed congregation of Helderberg organises the Schoongezicht housing project.
b.' Die Schoongezicht-behuisingsprojek word gereël deur die N.G.-gemeente Helderberg.
The Schoongezicht housing project is organised by the Dutch Reformed congregation of Helderberg.

Ditransitive verbs that take both a theme and a recipient argument usually encode the theme by means of a noun phrase (as direct object), but the recipient is encoded alternatively by a noun phrase that precedes the theme argument, as in (16a), or by a preposition phrase with vir for that precedes or follows the theme argument, as in (16b), or by a preposition phrase with aan to that mostly follows the theme, as in (16c). This phenomenon is known as the dative alternation.

Example 16

a. Ek gee hom net die boek.
I only give him the book.
b. Hy het byvoorbeeld duisende rande aan die Universiteit van Stellenbosch geskenk.
He donated thousands of Rands to the University of Stellenbosch, for instance.
b. Ek gee vir haar die perd.
I give her the horse.
b.' Ek gee die perd vir haar.
I give the horse to her.

A construction that is unique to Afrikaans among the West Germanic languages is the use of the preposition vir for with the direct object, and not only with the indirect object. The use of vir is optional, although it is encountered quite regularly with theme arguments that are human, as illustrated by the contrast in (17).

Example 17

a. Dan vang hulle [(NP) daai mense].
Then they caught those people.
b. Ek vang [(PP) vir hom], as ek hom in die hande kry.
I will catch him, if I get hold of him.
  • De Stadler, L.G1992Semantiese rolle en die polisemiese waardes van werkwoorde.South African Journal of Linguistics = Suid-Afrikaanse Tydskrif vir Taalkunde10131-139,
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