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Intransitive verbs

Intransitive verbs in Afrikaans take a single nominal argument, the subject, which in the prototypical case performs the role of agent, as illustrated by example (1). This argument is an external argument to the verb, in contrast to unaccusative constructions, where a single argument also occurs, but as an internal argument who is not the agent or cause of the activity encoded by the verb. The agent is typically human, and can be animate by extension. The (inanimate) cause of the verb can also be used as subject, as illustrated by example (2). If a direct object is added to an intransitive construction, the result is ungrammatical, as the primed examples below illustrate.

a. Willem lag verleë.
William laughs embarrassed.
a.' *Willem lag sy grappie.
William laughs his joke.
b. Honde begin blaf.
Dogs start to bark.
b.' *Honde begin hulle blydskap blaf.
Dogs start to bark their joy.
a. Die bom ontplof.
The bomb explodes.
a.' *Die bom ontplof die gebou.
The bomb explodes the building.

The verb of an intransitive clause typically denotes an atelic activity, as illustrated in (3). By extension, intransitive verbs can also convey a punctual event, more likely a semelfactive as in (4) than an achievement, although an achievement is possible, as example (2) illustrates.

a. Piet swem op sy gemak.
Pete swims comfortably.
b. Oom Schalk Lourens sit op die stoep.
Uncle Schalk Lourens sits on the veranda.
a. Ou George klop aan die voordeur.
Old George knocks on the front door.
b. Dan hoes die lyk.
Then the body coughs.
[+]Cognate objects

While inherently intransitive verbs do not take an object, there is a category of exceptions where a cognate object can accompany an intransitive verb. Such a cognate object can add supplemental information to the action of the verb, and obligatorily requires a noun phrase with some form of adjectival modification or a noun that semantically incorporates more than what is conveyed by the verb already. Typical cognate objects are illustrated by example (5), where they are contrasted with regular objects that are semantically compatible but give rise to an ungrammatical sentence, unless particles are added, as in (5bii) and (5cii).

a. 'n Goeie roman praat die waarheid oor sy held.
A good novel talks the truth about its hero.
a.' *'n Goeie roman praat die storie van sy held.
A good novel talks the story of its hero.
b. Haar man slaap die slaap van 'n bewustelose.
Her husband sleeps the sleep of an unconscious man.
b.' *Haar man slaap die slaap.
Her husband sleeps the sleep.
b.'' Haar man slaap sy roes af.
Her husband sleeps off his hangover.
c. Sy hoes 'n hol hoesie.
She coughs a hollow little cough.
c.' *Sy hoes 'n stuk slym.
She coughs a piece of mucus.
c.'' Sy hoes 'n stuk slym uit.
She coughs up a piece of mucus.
[+]-er nominalisation

Intransitive verbs, with an external argument as subject, are productively used in -er-nominalisations, similar to transitive verbs, and different from impersonal and unaccusative verbs. The meaning of such derived nouns is typically "the one(s) performing the action of VERB". Typical examples of intransitive verbs that are compatible with -er-nominalisation are:

  • dans·er dancer < Hy dans. He dances.
  • lop·er walker < Sy loop She walks.
  • slap·er sleeper < Hy slaap. He sleeps.
  • werk·er worker < Sy werk. She works.
[+]Attributive use of present and past participle

The past participle form of a verb usually has a passive meaning, and implicitly takes the internal argument of the verb as its object. It can therefore be used attributively in a noun phrase to pre-modify a noun that is interpreted as the object of that verb, but not as its subject. In view of this, intransitive verbs generally do not permit the formation of past participles, in contrast to present participles, that can be formed freely from intransitive verbs, and can be used attributively, as the following examples show.

a. Die kind huil.
The child cries.
a.' Die *ge·huil·d·e kind
The cried child.
a.'' Die huil·end·e kind
The crying child
b. Die hond blaf.
The dog barks.
b.' Die *ge·blaf·d·e hond.
The barked dog.
b.'' Die blaff·end·e hond.
The barking dog.
c. Oupa en Ouma waai.
Grandpa and Grandma wave.
c.' Die *ge·waai·d·e Oupa en Ouma.
The waved Grandpa and Grandma.
c.'' Die waai·end·e Oupa en Ouma.
The waving Grandpa and Grandma.
[+]Passivisation of intransitive verbs

Intransitive verbs in Afrikaans are not compatible with the regular passive construction, but can be used with an impersonal passive using the existential daar there as an empty subject, or else by fronting an adverbial and optionally omitting the subject daar altogether. These options are illustrated in example (7), with the English translations staying as close as possible to the Afrikaans forms, without necessarily being fully idiomatic in English. The impersonal passive is usually restricted to activity verbs with clear agentivity and intentionality, and is not extended to other cases, as explained in the section on the impersonal passive.

a. Die kinders speel lekker in die agterplaas.
The children play happily in the back yard.
[Intransitive active]
b. Daar word lekker in die agterplaas gespeel.
There is playing happily in the back yard.
[Impersonal passive with daar]
c. In die agterplaas word (daar) lekker gespeel.
In the back yard, there is being played happily.
[Impersonal passive with fronted adverbial]
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