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Semantic characterisation

The distinction between main verbs and non-main verbs is central to the semantic characterisation of verbs in Afrikaans. Main verbs denote the state of affairs represented in a particular clause. Prototypically, lexical main verbs represent an activity, where something happens and the effects are observable, either a material activity (loop to walk, maak to make, werk to work, doen to do) that is visible in some way or another, or a communicative process that is perceptible aurally in the case of oral communication ( to say, vra to ask), or visually in the case of written communication (skryf to write, tik to type). By extension, mental activities are also represented by main verbs, but such states of affairs are often found in a grey area between activity and state (sien to see, kyk to look, dink to think, weet to know).

Stative main verbs denote states of affairs where a particular situation is presented as being in existence without a change taking place, typically to attribute a characteristic to the subject of the sentence, or to identify that subject through some relationship. Afrikaans conventionally requires the overt presence of copular verbs (wees to be, skyn to seem, blyk to appear, lyk to look) to denote states, not allowing omission thereof. Some states can be expressed by lexical main verbs other than copula verbs, e.g. mental states (ken to know, verstaan to understand) or states denoting location ( to lie, staan to stand).

The non-main verbs typically convey grammatical, rather than lexical, meanings. The following auxiliaries are used to expresses a very specific grammatical function in syntactic constructions:

  • het have.AUX.PST: past tense (active form)
  • word be.AUX.PASS.PRS: passive (present tense)
  • is be.AUX.PASS.PST (or sometimes the pluperfect was be.AUX.PASS.PLUPRF): passive (past tense)

Afrikaans has a set of modal verbs that convey meanings similar to those encoded by their cognate forms in other Germanic languages. Most modals are polysemous and can convey root and non-root meanings, which cannot always be separated unambiguously:

  • Root meanings, including dynamic meanings, such as capability (kan can) and intention (wil want to), and deontic meanings, such as permission (mag may) and obligation (moet must).
  • Non-root or epistemic meanings, such as prediction (sal shall/will) or possibility (kan can).

In addition to these auxiliary verbs, Afrikaans has a group of verbs that form a transitional group between prototypical auxiliaries and lexical main verbs. These verbs are used in combination with main verbs, and should therefore can be regarded as auxiliary verbs on syntactic grounds. Semantically speaking, they are related to main verbs in polysemous relations, but show clear signs of auxiliarisation through the bleaching of their meanings. The most typical representatives of this class of auxiliary verb, which is known as linking verb in the traditional Afrikaans descriptions, are postural verbs such as staan to stand, sit to sit, and to lie, alongside the verbs kom to come and gaan to go, which are movement verbs when used as main verbs. The form gaan to go has also developed another auxiliary use as future tense expression, which retains even less of its movement sense. Their main verb lexical semantics are sometimes still quite apparent in their auxiliary use, as in example (1), but there are also cases where the postural semantics are bleached out and the aspectual semantics are more prominent, as shown in example (2).

a. Moenie alewig oor jou lot loop en kla nie.
don't always about your fate walk and complain PTCL.NEG
Don't always go around and complain about your fate.
Ponelis (1979:241)
b. Piet staan 'n glas water en drink.
Piet stand a glass water and drink
Piet stands and drinks a glass of water.
Ponelis (1979:241)
a. Wie het dit loop en vertel?
who have.AUX.PST it walk and tell
Who went on telling this?
Ponelis (1979:241)
['loop' implying 'to carry on']
b. Soos gewoonlik het hulle alles vir soetkoek staan en opeet.
as usual have.AUX.PST they everything for sweet+cake stand and up.eat
As usual, they went and took everything at face value.
Ponelis (1979:242)
['staan' implying negative affect]
[+]Semantics of lexical main verbs

The main verb denotes situation in which one or more participants are involved. The prototypical semantics of main verbs is to denote a dynamic event, such as material activities, acts of communication, or mental events. These main verbs, the vast majority of all the main verbs, are called lexical main verbs, in contrast to the copular verbs that are described below. In these events, there is usually a primary participant, who is the agent performing the action, the one who communicates, or who experiences the mental process, illustrated by example (3) to (5). In many linguistic traditions, the term argument is used for such participants, and these arguments are analysed in terms of their semantic roles in the state of affairs.

Transitive verbs also have a secondary participant or argument, which acts as the goal or theme of the dynamic event. For activity verbs, such a secondary participant is either the affected theme (goal of the action), or the effected theme (that comes into being through the action), as illustrated by example (3b) and (3c) respectively. For communication verbs, the secondary participant is often the resultant communicative content, which can be expressed by means of a noun phrase or a complement clause, exemplified in (4b) and (4c) respectively, which offer a range of more summarised or more detailed options for representing the content of the act of communication. The secondary participant of a mental process is sometimes to material phenomenon that occasions the perceptual or emotive process of the primary participant, as illustrated by (5b) and (5c), or else it can be the thought that forms in the mind of the person in the case of more cognitive mental processes, as illustrated by (5d).

Some verbs, especially activity verbs with the meaning of giving (gee to give, vat to take, bring to bring), and communication verbs where an overt addressee is present (aansê to tell, vertel to relate, beduie to indicate), take a third participant, a dative (recipient). This is illustrated by example (3d) and (4d).

Examples (3) to (11) are all from a storybook for children, a compendium of Liewe Heksie stories, written by Verna Vels. The stories have not been translated, as far as I can tell. Thus for the English translation, character names were translated with the help of several consultants, who I want to acknowledge: Anneke Butler, Karien van den Bergh and Lande Botha. A fair degree of literalness was retained in the translations, but some adjustments were made for idiomatic purposes.

a. Liewe Heksie en Blommie Kabouter sit op Heksie se stoep.
Levinia Goodwitch and Buddy Gnome sit on Levinia's veranda.
[activity with one argument]
b. Ek het gisteraand 'n brood gekoop.
I bought a bread last evening.
[activity with two arguments, secondary argument affected theme]
c. Vanaand sal ek 'n broodjie bak.
Tonight I will bake a bread.
[activity with two arguments, secondary argument effected theme]
d. Hy bring seker vir jou 'n brief.
He is probably bringing you a letter.
[activity with three arguments]
a. Levinia Heks, jok jy al weer?
Levinia Goodwitch, are you lying again?
[communication process with one argument]
b. Liewe Heksie sing 'n liedjie.
Levinia Goodwitch sings a song.
[communication process with two arguments]
c. Die dokter [ek moet by koning Rosekrans gaan bly].
The doctor says [I must go and stay with king Rosywreath].
[communication process with clausal secondary argument]
d. Toe maar, Heksie, ek moes gisteraand vir jou gesê het [dat ek die feëkoningin is].
All good, Goodwitch, I should have told you yesterday evening [that I am the fairy queen].
[communication process with three arguments]
a. Die dokter dink so 'n bietjie.
The doctor thinks for a while.
[cognitive mental process with one argument]
b. So 'n brood het hulle nog nooit gesien nie.
Such a bread they have never ever seen.
[perceptual mental process with two arguments]
c. Die kabouters is baie lief vir blomme.
The gnomes really love flowers.
[emotive mental process with two arguments]
d. Ek weet nie [wat ons kan doen nie].
I don't know [what we can do].
[cognitive mental process with clausal secondary argument]

The exception to the verb-argument combinations is a small class of impersonal verbs that only take a dummy ditit as subject, illustrated by example (6). These verbs all refer to aspects of the weather, especially forms of precipitation.

Dit reën / dit sous / dit ryp / dit sneeu.
It rains / it pours / there is frost / it snows.
Ponelis (1979:197)
[+]Semantics of copular verbs

Some main verbs denote states rather than dynamic events. Among these, as exemplified by (7), the most typical are the copular verbs, which affirm the existence of a state (wees), or express further aspectual (word to become, bly to stay) or modal (lyk to look, blyk to appear) modifications about the state of being. By extension, some verbs of sensory perception (skyn to seem, klink to sound, ruik to smell, voel to feel) or cognition (ken to know, verstaan to understand) can also be used to denote states, rather than acts of perception or cognition, as illustrated by example (8).

a. Matewis is nog 'n babakatjie.
Mateo is still a baby kitten.
b. Koning Rosekrans, hoe het u so gou gesond geword?
King Rosywreath, how did you get better so soon?
c. Nou lyk jy nes 'n Gifappeltjie, Blommie.
Now you look just like a Badberry Gnome, Buddy.
a. Haai, sy stem klink soos Blommie Kabouter.
Hey, his voice sounds like Buddy Gnome.
b. Liewe Heksie voel nou weer stukke beter.
Levinia Goodwitch feels a lot better now.
c. Ek is die slimste heksie wat ek ken.
I'm the cleverest witch that I know.

The kinds of states that are expressed range from descriptions, typically encoded by predicative adjective phrases, to locations, typically through preposition phrases, to identifying expressions that are usually encoded by noun phrases, as illustrated by examples (9) to (11). Ponelis (1979:220-227) offers a detailed account of the range of copula predicates in Afrikaans.

O Karel, jy is slim.
Oh Charlie, you are clever.
Koning Rosekrans is weer veilig in sy paleis.
King Rosywreath is safely in his palace again.
Die Gifappeltjies is slegte kabouters wat naby Blommeland woon.
The Badberry Gnomes are bad gnomes that live close to Flowerland.

As to the semantic contribution of the copular verbs themselves in conveying states, opinions differ. In the Syntax of Dutch(Broekhuis et al. 2015:20-21), the view is developed that copular verbs convey very little, and to the extent that there are semantic differences, these relate to tense, aspect and modality, and thus overlap semantically with auxiliary verbs more than with main verbs. Botha (1975) argues that a number of semantic primitives suffice to account for the semantic representation of the copular verbs of Afrikaans. He does not include wees to be itself in his account, but the notion of existence (wees to be) is a primitive that is part of the semantic representation of all other copular verbs. Most copular verbs (e.g. lyk to look, skyn to seem, smaak to taste, klink to sound) contain a semantic component of suspicion, thus a measure of epistemic doubt, but exceptions are blyk to appear, bly to stay, raak to get, word to become and kom to come, where there is no inherent uncertainty in the copular verb. The semantics of uncertainty is illustrated by the examples in (12).

a. Dit klink nou baie besitlik, maar ek dink jy verstaan.
It may sound rather possessive, but I think you understand.
b. Dit skyn asof hulle netnou gaan baklei.
It seems as if they are going to fight soon.

The notion of perception is also detected in many of the copular verbs, e.g. skyn to seem, voorkom to occur, and blyk to appear, alongside other sensory modalities, such as taste (smaak), hearing (klink), smell (ruik) and tactile (voel). The perceptual senses of copular verbs are illustrated by the examples in (13).

a. As dit goed klink in konsertvorm is dit des te beter.
If it sounds good in concert format it is all the better.
b. Die riete van die dak ruik na veld.
The thatch of the roof smells like the field.

The temporal expansion of the state, something akin to the aspectual, can be observed in bly to stay (in the sense of continuation), while raak to get, word to become or kom to come often signal a change of state. These semantic possibilities are illustrated by the examples in (14).

a. Na badtyd bly jy en die baba in die kamer tot slaaptyd.
After the bath, you and the baby stay in the room till bedtime.
HCSA, adjusted
b. Die beesboer raak opgewonde wanneer hy hieroor gesels.
The cattle farmer gets excited when he talks about this.
HCSA, adjusted

In a sense, it seems like a matter of emphasis whether one wants to regard copular verbs as containing auxiliary-like meanings, or whether one wants to see a separate system of meanings that go beyond the aspectual. The basic sense of being is a constant in all aspectual verbs, while a range of aspectual modifications are clear, alongside sensory meanings, which may be linked to evidentiality, which is modal in nature. What is clear, though, is that copular verbs are semantically quite different from the dynamic main verbs, which convey detail about the nature of the unfolding event, detail that probably does not apply to states.

[+]Semantics of non-main verbs

The basic semantic characterisation of the auxiliaries that convey time and modality are treated in sufficient detail elsewhere, and need not be treated here. The category of linking verbs merits a closer look. While there are correspondences to the way cognate verbs are used in Dutch, Afrikaans makes more extensive use of these verbs, and displays a wider range of grammatical options with them. Syntax of Dutch distinguishes two syntactic types – which correspond to the distinction between direct and indirect linking verbs postulated for Afrikaans (Ponelis 1979:241-244), namely aspectual and semi-aspectual verbs.

The situation in Afrikaans is regarded as one of ongoing grammaticalisation, where lexical verbs are in various stages of auxiliation, with a large number of intermediate cases (Breed 2017, Carstens 1998, Kirsten 2018, Ponelis 1979). Semantically, the source domains of the linking verbs are lexical main verbs that denote posture (sit to sit, staan to stand, to lie), movement (loop walk, gaan to go, kom to come), location (bly to stay) and activities (begin to begin, aanhou to carry on, ophou to stop) (Carstens 1998:76). The meanings that are most clearly grammaticalised in the target domain are aspectual ones, including inchoative (begin to begin, gaan to go, kom to come), imperfective, durative or progressive (aanhou to carry on, sit to sit, staan to stand, to lie, loop to walk, bly to stay), and terminative (ophou to stop, stop to stop) aspect (Breed 2012). These aspectual options are illustrated by the examples in (15).

a. Hopelik het ons groter klarigheid daaroor wanneer jy kom kuier.
Hopefully we will have greater clarity about this when you come and visit.
b. Jannie het 'n oudkollega raakgeloop en hulle staan en werkstories praat.
Jannie bumped into a former colleague and they are standing and talking about their work.
c. Jy moet ophou aan my karring.
You must stop bothering me.

Other meanings associated with the syntactic class of linking verbs shade into modal (basta don't, beter had better, gaan to go, probeer to try, loop to walk) (also see Breed 2017) or causative (laat to let, probeer to try), as illustrated by the examples in (16) and (17).

a. Basta praat met jou mond vol kos, Jasiem!
Don't talk with food in your mouth, Jasiem!
[modal, negative command]
b. Ek kan my die toestand van die kerk probeer indink.
I can only try to imagine the state of the church
HCSA, adjusted
a. Hierdie inligting het French laat besluit om tot by Modderfontein terug te trek.
This information had French decide to retreat to Modderfontein.
HCSA, adjusted
b. Hy probeer ten alle koste warm bly.
He tries to stay warm at all costs.

The non-main verb uses of gaan to go display variability and show more signs of ongoing grammaticalisation than most other non-main verbs. While gaan continues to function as linking verb (as in (18a)), it also reaches a stage where it becomes a future auxiliary with epistemic meaning (as in 18b)) (Kirsten 2018), which incorporate more certainty than the modal sal shall/will(Ponelis 1979:244).

a. Ek dink ook dit is reg dat jy hulle gaan haal.
I also think it is right that you go and fetch them.
[linking verb]
b. Dit gaan egter nie maklik wees nie.
It is not going to be easy.
[future auxiliary]

Various syntactic criteria can be applied to determine the degree of grammaticalisation and the extent to which all possible semantic classes can be regarded as having become non-main verbs, but for present purposes, it suffices to note that the semantics of aspect is best established among the class traditionally labelled linking verbs in Afrikaans, while the modal and causative meanings are less widely attested, and often contain aspectual entailments in any case. At the same time, it would be a forced conclusion, given the range of verbs that display the syntactic behaviour of linking verbs, to reduce the semantic range to aspectual only.

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  • Breed, A2012Die grammatikalisering van aspek in Afrikaans: 'n semantiese studie van perifrastiese progressiewe konstruksies.Thesis
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  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
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