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Reported speech in Afrikaans: construction forms

Speech reporting in Afrikaans can be done either as direct speech or as indirect speech, with the term reported speech reserved as superordinate category for both options. In direct speech, there are three main syntactic elements. The first two are the speaker, who is the subject of the reporting clause, and the communication verb that represents an aspect of the way in which the original speaker spoke, which together constitute the reporting clause. The third element is a quotation that purports to be the direct words of the original speaker, and which constitutes the reported clause. Direct speech is illustrated by (1) and (2). (Note: The English translations are quite literal throughout, and also retain the tense choices of the Afrikaans originals, even where these would not be fully idiomatic in English.)

Hy bly lank stil voordat hy byvoeg: "Ek wou 'n einde aan alles maak."
He remains quiet for long before he adds, "I wanted to make an end to everything."
TK, adapted
"Maar ek dink ek het hom dalk ook gekwes, " beken Fritzie.
"But I think I perhaps hurt him too," admits Fritzie.

In written Afrikaans, the reported clause of direct speech is presented in double inverted commas, before and after the quotation, with a colon or comma separating the reporting and reported clause, depending on the linear order of the reported and reporting clauses, as shown by the two examples above. In spoken Afrikaans, it is harder to distinguish direct and indirect speech, since inverted commas are not present (except in written transcriptions), but in general, as shown in the discussion of the syntactic distribution of reported speech, direct speech is quite infrequent in spoken Afrikaans. A speaker can use intonation or a change in voice to signal that he or she is directly reporting the words of somebody else. Otherwise, the deictic orientation of the reported clause can signal that it is not the current speaker’s orientation, but that of the original utterance that is represented in the reported clause. Example (3) shows direct speech in spoken Afrikaans, with pronouns in the reported clause oriented towards the original situation, while example (4) shows indirect speech with the pronouns in the reported clause adjusted to the orientation of the reporting clause.

En hy't eendag met 'n skoolsluiting op Joubertina gesê: "Nou daai dametjie sukkel met my as ek hulle laat leer."
And he said one day during a school closing function in Joubertina, "Now that little lady hassles me when I make them learn."
[Direct speech]
En hy't my gesê dit was plus minus 18 myl wat hy moes hardloop die middag...
And he told me it was plus minus 18 miles that he had to run that afternoon...
[Indirect speech]

The order of the reporting and reported clause in direct speech is highly variable. This is explored in more detail in the description of the syntactic distribution of reported speech. For now, it is important to bear in mind that three possible ordering relations are possible: reporting clause before reported clause, as in example (5), reported clause before reporting clause, as in example (6), and reporting clause as parenthetical insert inside the reported clause, as in example (7).

Op een stadium het iemand ingestap en gesê: "Het julle nog iets nodig?"
At one stage somebody entered and said: "Do you need something else?"
[Reporting clause in initial position]
"Die groep van Bunny Chow was amazing," sê Firth.
The group from Bunny Chow was amazing," says Firth.
[Reporting clause in final position]
"Ek dink," sê hy asof hy met homself praat, "sy moet opgeneem word."
"I think," he says as if he is talking to himself, "she must be admitted."
[Reporting clause in parenthetical position]

Indirect speech contains similar elements: a reporting clause encompassing a speaker as subject and a communication verb, together with a reported clause. The reported clause is typically a complement clause that is syntactically embedded as direct object in the reporting clause. In indirect speech, the reported clause is not presented as the direct words of the original speaker, but is potentially rephrased or even a summary of the “original” utterance being reported. This is illustrated by (8) and (9).

The Times voeg by dat dít die weg kan baan vir Zuma om die land se eerste Zoeloe-president te word.
The Times adds that this can pave the way for Zuma to become the country's first Zulu president.
TK, adapted
Hy het beken hy het onwettig 'n masjien na Suid-Afrika laat invoer en toe weer laat uitvoer.
He admitted he had a machine imported illegally to South Africa and had it exported again.

The various types of complement clauses – finite declarative, finite interrogative and infinitive – can all be used as reported clauses in indirect speech. In general, as (Ponelis 1979:446-447) points out, direct statements are usually reported by declarative complement clauses, as illustrated by (8) and (9) above, while direct questions are reported by interrogative complement clauses, shown by (10) and (11), and direct commands are often, but not exclusively, reported by infinitive complement clauses, as shown by (12).

Sy is gevra of sy nóg 'n kind sal aanneem.
She was asked whether she will adopt another child.
TK, adapted
Sy vra mos vir my hoekom het ek die koek se kors afgesny.
She indeed asked me why I cut off the crust of the cake.
Ek is aangesê om twaalfuur personeelkamer toe kom.
I was told to come to the staff room at twelve o'clock.
TK, adapted

Where appropriate, indirect speech makes use of a reorientation of the deictic centre of the reported clause, most specifically as it pertains to pronouns, as shown in (4) above, where the pronoun hy he refers to the speaker, and would have been ek I in the presumed original utterance. It may also extend to other deictic elements, such as temporal and spatial deixis, although Afrikaans is less rigid in this respect than English (see Huddleston and Pullum 2002). In particular, Afrikaans does not display the phenomenon of tense backshifting which is the topic of much debate in (especially normative and second language teaching) literature on English. Thus the pair of English examples in (13) would not be matched by a corresponding tense shift in Afrikaans, as shown in by the pair in (14).

a. I have too many commitments.
(Huddleston 2002:151)
[Original direct speech]
b. Jill said she had too many commitments.
(Huddleston 2002:151)
[Indirect speech reporting]
a. Ek het te veel verpligtinge.
I have.PRS too many commitments
I have too many commitments.
[Original direct speech]
b. Jonette het ge·sê sy het te veel verpligtinge.
Jonette have.AUX PST·say she have.PRS too many commitments
Jonette said she has too many commitments.
[Indirect speech reporting]

Literature on Dutch distinguishes a third option, semi-direct reported speech, which comes down to a distinction between the structures in (3) and (4) above. However, as pointed out in the topic on finite declarative complement clauses, in Afrikaans the complement clause option without the complementiser dat that is widespread, and its use is of a different and more general kind than the restricted and specialised use in Dutch. Therefore, a similar distinction does not add value to the description of Afrikaans reported speech constructions.

[+]Direct speech

The reported clause in direct speech is syntactically unconstrained. Anything that a speaker/writer might choose as wording can be reported directly, without the requirement of being integrated into a higher clause. The relationship between the reporting and reported clause is therefore quite loose, and does not approach the closer integration of complement clause and matrix clause that is characteristic of indirect speech. Reported clauses can take the form of non-clausal fragments, as in (15); imperatives, as in (16); interrogatives as in (17) and (18); or declaratives, as in (19).

"Teen hoër pryse as ooit voorheen," mompel Mila terwyl sy 'n stuk brood in haar sop dompel.
"At higher prices than ever before," mutters Mila while she dunks a chunk of bread in her soup.
[Reported: fragment]
"Gaan speel buite," beveel Dawid hom.
"Go play outside," Dawid ordered him.
[Reported: imperative]
...ek vra erg bedees: "Sal tant Lettie omgee as ek in daardie rok trou?"
... I ask very timidly, "Will aunt Lettie mind if I get married in that dress?"
TK, adapted
[Reported: general interrogative]
"Hoe oud is jy?" vra Jannie hom.
"How old are you?" Jannie asks him.
[Reported: specific interrogative]
Die akteur Don Lamprecht het dié sentiment beaam: "Ek is bly hy is in die tuig dood. Die verhoog was sy lewe."
The actor Don Lamprecht confirmed this sentiment, "I am glad he died on the job. The stage was his life.
[Reported: declarative]

The reporting clause shows two main syntactic forms. If the reporting clause precedes the reported clause, it usually takes declarative independent clause word order, with the verb in second position. In the prototypical case a subject precedes the verb, as in (20), but it is also possible to start the independent clause with an adverbial, which is then followed by the verb, and then the subject, as in (21).

Hy waarsku nogtans: "Omdat ons met feilbare mense werk, is elke plan ook feilbaar."
he warn.PRS nevertheless because we with fallible people work.PRS be.PRS every plan also fallible
He warns nevertheless: "Because we work with fallible people, every plan is also fallible."
[Verb second]
Dan bieg hy: "My naam is Stefan, en ek kyk Teletubbies."
then confess.PRS he my name be.PRS Stefan and I watch.PRS Teletubbies
Then he confesses: "My name is Stefan, and I watch Teletubbies."
TK, adapted
[Verb second]

The second syntactic form of the reporting clause is verb first, followed by the subject, and thereafter optional adverbials. This form is selected when the reporting clause follows the reported clause, as shown in (22), without any adverbials, and (23), where adverbials are present, but always after the initial verb and subject, never at the beginning of the reporting clause. Unlike English, the verb-first order is fixed, irrespective of whether the subject is a pronoun or a full noun phrase with a common or proper noun as head.

a. "Dis waar," erken hy.
it=be.PRS true admit.PRS he
"It's true," he admits.
[Verb first]
b. "Jy weet van wie ek praat," voeg Pol by.
you know.PRS of who I talk.PRS add.PRS Pol to.PREP.PTCL
"You know who I'm talking about," adds Pol.
TK, adapted
[Verb first]
a. "En waarheen mik jy nóú?" vra sy stram.
and whereto aim.PRS you now ask.PRS she stiffly
"And where are you aiming now?" she asks curtly.
[Verb first]
b. "En daar loop hulle hul dan in my hinderlaag vas," het Koch sarkasties ge·sê.
and there walk.PRS they them then in my ambush tight have.AUX Koch sarcastically PST·say
"And there they then run into my ambush," Koch said sarcastically.
[Verb first]

A variant that is much less frequent but still widely attested in Afrikaans, is where the reporting clause is inserted as a fragment somewhere in the middle of the reported clause. In these cases, as shown by (24) and (25), the order is also verb first, followed by the subject.

"O, my liefling," prewel Armand, "ek kan nie meer by my belofte bly om jou nie aan te raak nie."
oh my love murmur.PRS Armand I can.AUX.MOD not more at my promise stay.INF for.COMP you not on.PREP.PTCL PTCL.INF touch.INF PTCL.NEG
"Oh, my darling," Armand murmurs, "I cannot stay true to my promise of not touching you."
[Verb first]
"Ek het die boek ge·lees, ja,” beaam Elke, "en dit was regtig nie 'n straf nie."
I have.AUX the book PST·read yes confirm.PRS Elke and it be.PRT really not a punishment PTCL.NEG
"I have read the book, yes," Elke confirms, "and it really wasn't a punishment."
[Verb first]
Punctuation in direct speech

In standard written Afrikaans, the punctuation for direct speech is relatively fixed. The reported clause is enclosed by double inverted commas, with the opening and closing marks both placed at the top of the line, like English, and unlike Dutch and German, which alternate between opening quotation marks at the bottom of the line and closing quotation marks at the top of the line. Prior to the final quarter of the twentieth century, Afrikaans did follow the convention of Dutch and German, and therefore the reader of older texts will still encounter the alternating pattern of an opening quotation mark at the bottom and a closing quotation mark at the top of a line, as is illustrated in example (26), from the introduction to an anthology of poems by the poet Totius (JD du Toit), in which the author writes about the poet’s sorrow, before quoting his direct words:

Sy smart lê so diep dat hy sug: „Kon ek die ding maar afdoen met 'n traan?”
His sorrow lies so deep that he sighs: „Could I but finish the thing with a tear?”
Van den Heever, Keur uit die gedigte van Totius, 5th edition (1957)

The reporting clause at the beginning of a sentence is usually separated from the reported clause by a colon (Müller and Pistor 2011: 454), as shown by (20) and (21).

When the reporting clause occurs either after the reported clause, or inserted in the reported clause, the reported clause is separated by a comma from the reporting clause. The comma is attached to the final word of the clause it separates from the following one, i.e. before the quotation marks if the reporting clause precedes the (fragment of the) reported clause, as in (24), but inside the quotation marks if the reporting clause precedes the reported clause, as in (22) and (23).

[+]Selection of complement clauses for indirect speech

Indirect speech in Afrikaans largely makes use of object complement clauses, with an appropriate verb to convey speech reporting in the matrix clause. Indirect speech can therefore be regarded as a subset of the object complement clause. There is a typical combination of complement clauses with different kinds of direct speech types: statements with declarative complement clauses, questions with interrogative complement clauses, and commands with infinitive complement clauses, as set out in Quick Info. The use of complement clauses extends beyond speech reporting, but in this exposition, the focus falls only on the subset of uses pertaining to indirect speech.

A number of variants exist for indirect speech reporting of command sentences (Ponelis 1979:447). The infinitive complement clause, with a suitable matrix clause verb, is very often used in this role, as exemplified by (27) and (28). In this usage, it is very typical to spell out the addressee, the person(s) at whom the command is directed, with the object form of a pronoun or a noun phrase, before the complement clause itself. The addressee is the indirect object of the matrix clause in the construction, as it is in other cases of indirect speech as well, but it serves a double function in the case of command sentences, as addressee of the matrix clause and as agent of the activity in the complement clause.

Partykeer beveel hy my om dinge te doen wat ek nie normaalweg sou doen nie.
Sometimes he orders me to do things that I would not normally do.
[Infinitive complement clause]
Hulle het die verdagtes beveel om af te trek.
They ordered the suspects to pull off.
TK, adapted
[Infinitive complement clause]

The same set of matrix verbs can often also take a declarative complement clause with much the same meaning, as in (29). With declarative complement clauses, the addressee is not always visible. This is particularly the case when orders of a court of law are reported, as in (30).

Ons beveel sulke mense op gesag van die Here Jesus Christus dat hulle hulle aandag by hulle werk moet bepaal.
We command such people on the autority of the Lord Jesus Christ that they must direct their attention to their work.
TK, adapted
[Declarative complement clause]
Regter Daniel Dlodlo het beveel dat die egpaar se bates in kuratorskap geplaas word.
Judge Daniel Dlodlo ordered that the couple's assets be placed under curatorship.
TK, adapted
[Declarative complement clause]

The declarative complement clause with the overt complementiserdat that is more typical when commands are presented in indirect speech, and omission is rare.

Another common strategy for indirect commands is to use a declarative complement clause with the modal auxiliarymoet must, where the deontic force of the modal captures the force of the direct command, and where omission of the complementiser is more widespread, as in (31).

Soms sê sy ek moet my agterstewe in die gym kry.
Sometime she says I must get my butt in the gym.
TK, adapted

Direct questions are often used to formulate polite requests. From the perspective of speech acts, these remain directives, but the syntactic form of a question serves to weaken the imposition on the addressee. Likewise, in indirect speech, a directive speech act is often reported by means of an interrogative complement clause. It is usually not possible to draw a clear distinction between interrogative complement clauses that represent an original command or an original question. However, users of a language do not usually aim to decode the original direct words of a speaker when presented with indirect speech, except, as (Van Schoor 1983:343) points out, in the case of classroom exercises in school. The use of an interrogative complement clause to report a potential direct command is illustrated by (32).

Ons vra [of sy die lig sal aanskakel].
We ask [if she will switch on the light].
[Directive with interrogative complement clause]

Directive speech acts are also sometimes reported with verbs that are typical interrogative reporting verbs, but nevertheless take a declarative rather than interrogative complement clause. Such usage serves to strengthen the sense that it really is not about a question but rather a directive, as shown in (33).

Hy vra verder [dat die geldigheid van die tender ook ondersoek moet word].
He also asks [that the validity of the tender should be investigated as well].
[Directive with declarative complement clause]

The mapping between direct statements and declarative complement clauses, and between direct questions and interrogative complement clauses, is relatively more straightforward.

[+]Deixis and "backshifting" in indirect speech

When reporting speech indirectly, the deictic centre is adjusted to correspond with the deictic centre of the reporting clause. However, Van Schoor (1983: 344-345) points out that such reorientation is mainly restricted to pronouns in Afrikaans, and no fixed rules exist for other elements, such as tense shifting. It is not a topic that receives extensive treatment in the research or normative writing on Afrikaans, although school textbooks, for first and second language users of Afrikaans, present more detail. The following examples are taken from Gouws et al. (1997), a first-language textbook for Grade 10, the third of five years of secondary school in the South African system. The textbook explains that first and second person pronouns are converted to the third person, as shown by (34) and (35).

a. Juffrou Du Preez: "Klas, haal julle boeke uit."
Teacher Du Preez: "Class, take your books out."
Gouws et al. (1997)
[Direct speech]
b. Juffrou Du Preez beveel die klas om hulle boeke uit te haal.
Teacher Du Preez orders the class to take their books out.
Gouws et al. (1997)
[Indirect speech]
a. Ismail het gesê: "Vandag is dit my verjaardag."
Ismail said: "Today it is my birthday."
Gouws et al. (1997)
[Direct speech]
b. Ismail het gesê dat dit daardie dag sy verjaardag was.
Ismail said that it was his birthday that day
Gouws et al. (1997)
[Indirect speech]

Gouws et al. (1997) and various textbooks also make lists of adverbial expressions that are reoriented, such as nou now that becomes toe then and hier here that becomes daar there. One step further, school textbooks sometimes list temporal expressions such as vandag today that change to daardie dag that day, or gister yesterday that changes to die vorige dag the previous day, as exemplified in (35b). This is an infrequent phenomenon in Afrikaans, though, and the Taalkommissiekorpus contains only a very small number of examples that can really be interpreted as instances of deictic reorientation beyond first and second person pronouns.

Reorientation of the tense system, as exemplified by (35b), is not fixed in Afrikaans. The following passage, split into the three separate sentences, is a newspaper extract from Die Burger in 2007, included in from the Taalkommissiekorpus. It illustrates typical Afrikaans usage, where passages of reported speech are marked off by square brackets. The English translations of the sentences do not attempt to adjust the text to idiomatic English, but offer a direct translation of the Afrikaans tense choices.

a. Dr. Monde Mayekisoo, hoof van die departement omgewingsake se tak mariene en kusbestuur, het gesê [so 'n stap word nog nie in Suid-Afrika oorweeg nie].
Dr. Monde Mayekisoo, head of the division marine and coastal management of the department of environmental affairs, said [such a step is not yet considered in South Africa].
b. Hy het egter bygevoeg dat [sou die behoefte aan 'n geslote seisoen ontstaan, sal 'n stap nie buite rekening gelaat word nie].
He added, however, that [should the need for a closed season arise, such a step will not be beyond consideration].
c. Volgens hom [kan 'n geslote seisoen baie ontwrigtend wees vir 'n bedryf wat 12 maande per jaar sake doen].
According to him [a closed season can be very disruptive for an industry that operates for 12 months in a year].

In this newspaper report, the words of a government official are reported by the newspaper, and in all likelihood, the original media statement was delivered in English. Four reported clauses are present in the extract, a passive in the present tense (word ... oorweeg is considered), followed by three clauses with modal verbs. Of these modal verbs, two (sal will and kan can) are in the unmarked (and by implication present tense) form and one (sou should) in the preterite. A backshifting analysis would have to ask whether the "original" direct speech contained sal or sou.  Even if we pretend the original were delivered in Afrikaans, sou would have been a likely choice, but if English was used, this is probably a translation of should in the original direct speech, and does not necessarily provide clear evidence of backshifting.

It is striking, as noticed earlier, that direct and indirect speech is not a topic that has received much attention in normative sources of Afrikaans. The few sources, often from the first half of the twentieth century, that pronounce on the topic all concede to variability in tense shift, but venture guidelines to different degrees. Malherbe (1920:69) proposes that inflected forms should backshift but lexical main verbs not, and he is almost copied verbatim by De Villiers (1983:218-219). Two books directed at English learners of Afrikaans, Le Roux and Nienaber (1947:107,236) and Van Schalkwyk (1993:169-170) emphasise modal backshifting, but in their examples show variability in tense backshifting. Botha and Burger (1924:16) offer an example of modal shift but not of tense shift. Skryf Afrikaans van A tot Z in both the 2003 (Müller 2003) and 2011 (Müller and Pistor 2011) editions, match Afrikaans and English backshifting in a systematic way: English simple past should match Afrikaans present, and English past perfect should match Afrikaans past tense, a generalisation that also appears in De Villiers (1983:216). Van Schoor (1983:343-345) differs from the other sources, by highlighting the stylistic rather than grammatical base of indirect speech. He argues that the competent user of the language has intuitive knowledge of when to use the past tense forms and when to use the present tense forms, and that it is not possible to give fixed rules for Afrikaans.

Frequency of "backshifting"

To get a sense of Afrikaans usage, an analysis was undertaken of a sample of potential cases of reported speech in a corpus of written and spoken Afrikaans, where the reporting verb is in the past tense. These results are reported in the table below.

Table of raw counts for modals, WEES and lexical main verbs shifted or not shifted in written and spoken corpora
Table 1: Table of raw counts for modals, WEES and lexical main verbs shifted or not shifted in written and spoken corpora
Modal Present Modal Preterite WEES (is) WEES (was) Lexical main verb: Present Lexical main verb: Past Total
Written 315 57 262 53 319 202 1208
Spoken 98 2 54 13 53 36 256

The results from the corpus make it clear that in Afrikaans, the use of past tense or preterite forms is a minority choice in reported speech when the reporting verb is already in the past tense. Lexical main verbs are more likely to receive a past tense form, but the inflected preterite forms of the verb wees be and the modal auxiliaries occur with much lower frequency. There does not seem to be a very extensive difference between the written and spoken registers.

Indirect speech in Afrikaans reorients pronouns in the reported clause to the deictic centre of the reporting clause, but it allows the user a range of stylistic options to maintain the adverbial and other elements of the original direct report, or to adjust them in a process that resembles only partially the more comprehensive system of backshifting characteristic of a language like English.

  • Huddleston, Rodney & Pullum, Geoffrey (eds.)2002The Cambridge grammar of the English languageCambridgeCambridge University Press
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