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Monadic unaccusative verbs

Unaccusative verbs are verbs that do not have an external argument, such as an agent, to fill the role of subject. Their overt subject performs a role that is typical of the internal arguments, such as a theme role. A distinction can be drawn between monadic and dyadic unaccusative verbs, as illustrated by example (1) and (2), with one or two arguments respectively. A monadic unaccusative has a single argument, the theme, which performs the subject role, while a dyadic unaccusative has a theme and another argument, usually the experiencer, where the latter performs the role of indirect object.

Die inflasiekoers styg al weer.
[(SUB) die inflasiekoers] styg al weer.
The inflation rate rises again.
[Monadic unaccusative]
Die styging in inflasie het ekonome teleurgestel.
[(SUB) Die styging in inflasie] het [(IO) ekonome] teleurgestel.
The rise in inflation disappointed economists.
[Dyadic unaccusative]

On the surface, monodic unaccusatives appear to be like intransitive verbs, but there are a number of clear syntactic differences that relate to the semantic difference associated with the different thematic roles of the arguments. The subject of an intransitive verb is typically the agent who is responsible for the activity of the verb to be performed, such as running or breathing, whereas the subject of a monadic unaccusative verb is typically the theme that undergoes the process, such as falling or dying, rather than somebody who performs the action. Something happens to a theme, a theme does not make something happen, and thus semantically, the unaccusative verbs can denote non-agentive events and accomplishments quite readily. The contrast is illustrated by example (3) and (4).

a. Die kind draf deur die veld.
The child runs through the fields.
b. Die pasiënt het met moeite asemgehaal.
The patient breathed with difficulty.
[Intransitive verbs with agents]
a. Die kind val oor die klip.
The child falls over the rock.
b. Die pasiënt het gesterf.
The patient died.
[Unaccusative verbs with themes]

The subject of a monadic unaccusative verb need not be animate. This is in contrast to intransitives, where the subject has to be animate to execute the activity, or else be some kind of force that can act as the cause of an action. Things can happen to animate and inanimate subjects alike, and therefore a number of unaccusative verbs are equally compatible with animate and inanimate subjects, as illustrated by the verbs groei to grow and dryf to float in example (5) and (6).

a. Die tienerseun groei vir 'n vale.
The teenage boy grows like mad.
b. Die wêreldekonomie groei teen ongeveer 1% per jaar sedert 1800.
The world econony has been growing at a rate of approximate 1% since 1800.
a. 'n Paar branderplankryers dryf op die water.
A few surfers float on the water.
b. Die lyk / Die branderplank dryf op die water.
The body / The surfboard floats on the water.
[+]-er nominalisation

Unaccusative verbs, with an internal argument as subject, are not compatible with the formation of -er-nominalisations, which is one of the clear differences between monadic unaccusative verbs and intransitive verbs. Because the meaning of nouns formed from verbs with the suffix -er is typically "the one(s) performing the action of VERB", words like the following are not attested in Afrikaans:

  • *groei·er grower < Iets groei. Something grows.
  • *sterw·er dier < Hy sterf. He dies.
  • *vall·er faller < Sy val. She falls.
[+]Attributive use of present and past participle

The past participle derived from 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 theme of that verb, but not as its agent. In view of this, unaccusative verbs are compatible with the formation of past participles. Unaccusative verbs are also available for the formation of present participles, since the present participle is interpreted as pertaining to the surface subject of the implied clause, irrespective of the thematic role of that subject. These options are illustrated in example (7).

a. Die soldaat sterf.
The soldier dies.
a.' Die gestorwe soldaat.
The died soldier (=the soldier who has died).
a.'' Die sterwende soldaat.
The dying soldier (=the soldier who is in the process of dying).
b. Die glas breek.
The glass breaks.
b.' Die gebreekte glas.
The broken glass.
b.'' Die brekende glas.
The breaking glass.
[+]Passivisation of unaccusative verbs

Monadic unaccusative verbs in Afrikaans are not compatible with the regular passive construction, nor with the impersonal passive.

Using the regular passive with some unaccusative verbs change the reading of the verb from unaccusative to transitive, meaning that some agentive or causative force is implied (or even overtly stated) in the regular passive, as illustrated by example (8). The breaking of waves is not typically construed as an outcome of an agentive act, and therefore not available for passivisation as shown in (8a), whereas the ritual breaking of bread during holy communion – by a minister of the church – is clearly an agentive achievement, and therefore available for passivisation, but then in the transitive and not the unaccusative reading of the verb. The same limitation applies to the use of the unaccusative with the impersonal passive, as illustrated by the pair in (9).

a. *Die golwe word gebreek.
The waves are being broken/The waves are broken.
b. Die brood word gebreek (deur die predikant).
The bread is broken (by the minister).
a. *Daar word golwe gebreek.
There are waves being broken.
b. Daar word brood gebreek.
There is bread being broken./Bread is (being) broken.
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