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Hierarchical order of verbs in verb clusters

The verb cluster contained in a clause is organised into a single verb complex which consists first of all of a lexical verb, the main verb, which selects the non-verbal arguments of the clause, such as subject and object(s). In Afrikaans the main verb is often complemented by other lexical verbs which qualify the main verb in regard to functions such as aspect, causativity and perception (cf. (1a)), but may in some cases select non-verbal arguments independently from the main verb. Though non-main verbs such as sit in (1b) may also contribute to the meaning of the clause, they essentially have an auxiliary function in regard to the main verb and therefore partake in a selection hierarchy which will be expressed here as non-main verb (2), main verb (1).

a. Ek sien(2) hom op sy rekenaar werk(1).
I see.LINK him on his computer work.INF
I see him working on his computer.
b. Party mense sit(2) en slaap(1) by die werk.
some people sit.LINK and sleep.INF at the work
Some people are sleeping while at work.

Modal verbs, again, form a hierarchy in relation to the lexical verb(s). In Afrikaans, a number of modals may form a chain, where kan/kon as a dynamic modal would be closest to the lexical cluster since it refers to the capabilities of the agent, while modals with an epistemic or tense function (which may include kan/kon) are the furthest from the lexical cluster as they are relevant to the meaning of the clause as a whole, e.g.:

Môre moet(3) die span al in Australië kan(2) speel(1).
tomorrow must.AUX.MOD the team already in Australia can.AUX.MOD play.INF
Tomorrow the team should already be able to play in Australia.

The auxiliary verbs proper, which contribute functions such as tense, aspect and a realis/irrealis interpretation to the rest of the verb cluster or indirectly to the clause as a whole, may also form a small hierarchy, with het always furthest from the lexical cluster, e.g.:

Die onkruid moes vroeër al uitgeroei(1) geword(2) het(3).
the weeds must.AUX.MOD.PRT earlier already out.root.PST.PTCP become.PST.PTCP have.AUX
The weeds should have been rooted out earlier.

While modals, auxiliaries and non-main lexical verbs all form hierarchies vis-à-vis the main verb, they are also hierarchically ordered among themselves. As non-main lexical verbs may also contribute to the meaning of the clause as a whole, they are positioned immediately above the main verb in the hierarchy. Moreover, modals and auxiliaries may qualify non-main lexical verbs, but not vice-versa. This leaves us with the question how modals and auxiliaries are positioned relative to each other in the general hierarchy. In the following construction, with the auxiliary het in verb-second position, the hierarchy is arguably AUXILIARY(3) – MODAL(2) – MAIN VERB(1), which is the standard hierarchy in modern Dutch. In spite of the presence of a modal, the construction has a realis value – probably because the presence of the non-modal auxiliary het in V2 contributes the general default value of declaratives to the clause.

Hulle het(3) die werk gister moes(2) klaarmaak(1).
they have.AUX the job yesterday must.AUX.MOD.PRT complete.INF
They were able to complete the job yesterday.

This is, however, in many ways a semantically and syntactically restricted construction in Afrikaans; the general clause-final order of verbs in extended clusters, is MODAL(S) – LEXICAL VERB(S) – AUXILIARY VERB(S), as in ( 5a), with modals always first, and always first to be moved to V2, as in (5b). If we assume that a past participle is hierarchically closest to the verb governing it, then the dominant hierarchy for Afrikaans would be MODAL(S)(3) – LEXICAL VERB(S)(1) – AUXILIARY VERB(S)(2). Note that in the construction exemplified in (4), the auxiliary het does not select a past participle.

a. Dat hulle die werk gister moes(3) klaargemaak(1) het(2), is waar.
that.COMP they the work yesterday must.AUX.MOD.PRT finish.PST.PTCP have.AUX is true
That they should/must have finished the work by yesterday, is true.
b. Hulle moes(3) die werk gister klaargemaak(1) het(2).
they must.AUX.MOD.PRT the work yesterday finished.PST.PTCP have.AUX
They should/must have finished the work by yesterday.

If the relationship between auxiliary and governed participle is considered to be a criterion of hierarchical closeness, only the main verb, and not the linking verb bly, is governed by word in (6). The hierarchy, in this case, is therefore MODAL VERB(S) (4) – LINKING VERBS(3) – AUXILIARY(2) – MAIN VERB(1).

dat die ou lied nog [gesing](1) [sal](4) [bly](3) [word](2)
that.COMP the old song still sing.PST.PTCP will.AUX.MOD keep.on.LINK be.AUX.PASS.PRS
that the old song will still be sung constantly

When only the main verb, such as geëet eaten in (7), but not the linking verb, such as probeer to try, is governed by an auxiliary, the lexical part of the verb cluster may be split in the overall hierarchy, cf.

Mopaniewurms kan(4) geëet(1) probeer(3) word(2).
Mopani.worms can.AUX.MOD eat.PST.PTCP try.LINK be.AUX.PASS.PRS
One could try to eat Mopani worms.

Finally, the hierarchical difference between modal and linking verb constructions is demonstrated with reference to the two main senses of the verb gaan.

See the following sections:

[+]Hierarchical order

Given that a clause contains a main verb with a pivotal semantic function and selects arguments compatible with it, and may contain other verbs which characterise the main verb from a number of perspectives, one may assume that a verb complex forms a hierarchy in which features such as modality, aspect and tense are captured. However, as running discourse is, according to Ferdinand de Saussure's principe linéaire, restricted to a linear succession of constituents, a semantic hierarchy may not necessarily be in a one-to-one relationship with a verbal sequence. While English verb strings are characterised by a high degree of correlation, this is not the case in other West Germanic languages such as German, Dutch and Afrikaans. One reason for this is that some functions are expressed synthetically, i.e. by a single word and its inflections, and others analytically, e.g. by means of phrases, or through a combination of these. Thus, in Afrikaans deontic and dynamic modality can be expressed synthetically by modal verbs (four of which have preterite forms) and aspect analytically through the combination of lexical items, and a verb complex can receive an irrealis specification through a modal verb combined with a periphrastic perfect. Another ordering principle to be taken into account, is the order in which information is presented in the discursive flow of speech.

[+]A restricted construction

Describing the hierarchies in Afrikaans verb complexes is considerably simplified if a distinction is made between a basic construction consisting of MODAL VERB(S) + MAIN VERB + AUXILIARY VERB(S), as in (8a), and a semantically and syntactically restricted construction consisting of AUXILIARY(het) + MODAL PRETERITE + MAIN VERB, as in (8b):

a. Dat sy laat moes gewerk het, is baie duidelik.
that.COMP she late must.AUX.MOD.PRT work.PST.PTCP have.AUX is very clear.ADJ
That she has had to work late is quite clear.
b. Sy het laat moes werk en kon nie kom nie.
she have.AUX late must.AUX.MOD.PRT work.INF and can.AUX.MOD.PRT not come.INF PTCL.NEG
She had to work late and couldn't come.

While the construction in (8a) has a number of possible interpretations depending on contextual factors, such as an epistemic (high probability) or irrealis interpretation, and the past tense of these, (8b) is syntactically restricted to het in V2, a deontic or dynamic modal (mostly a preterite) and a lexical verb as components, and is restricted semantically to expressing the realis. If we assume that a past participle is immediately below the auxiliary governing it in the hierarchy, the general verb complex of Afrikaans would have [MOD(3) [AUX(2) [MAIN(1)]]] as hierarchy, appearing in the order 3-1-2. In the second construction, the lexical verb – not being a past participle – is not directly governed by the auxiliary het. With het in verb-second position and before the modal, the clause starts off as a declarative sentence in the past tense, with realis as its default value. For pragmatic reasons het therefore governs the modal moes rather than the lexical verb, and the hierarchy – which here corresponds to the actual order – is [AUX(3) [MOD(2) [MAIN(1)]]]. This would also explain why het in this construction seldom if ever appears in V1: if in the form of a question, a realis interpretation becomes irrelevant.The construction exemplified in (8b) is notably the basic order ascribed by Broekhuis et al. (2015, ex. 44) to Dutch.

The following reasons may be adduced for considering the second construction syntactically and semantically restricted, apart from the fact that it probably does not form part of most speakers' linguistic competence: The SVX order of (9a) is marked in a dependent clause, such as (9b). The structure in (9c ) is also marked, as most speakers would require the main verb, werk, to be a past participle, as in (8d). However, the structure in (9d) is equivalent to the basic construction suggested earlier for Afrikaans, and is not restricted to a realis interpretation, but is in fact, despite its multiple ambiguity, the only way to form an explicit irrealis in Afrikaans.

a. Sy het laat moes werk.
she have.AUX late must.AUX.MOD.PRT work.INF
She had to work late.
b. *dat sy het laat moes werk
that.COMP she have.AUX late must.AUX.MOD.PRT work.INF
To mean: She had to work late.
c. *dat sy laat moes werk het
that.COMP she late must.AUX.MOD.PRT work.INF have.AUX
To mean: She had to work late.
d. dat sy laat moes gewerk het
that.COMP she late must.AUX.MOD.PRT work.PST.PTCP have.AUX
that she should have worked late.

The construction in (8b) and (9a) above is further restricted by the fact that only het can be used as auxiliary, as mutative verbs also take het and had has become obsolete, that only dynamic or deontic modals are used in this construction, and that the construction does not have a passive variant, e.g.

a. Sy het die aria vinniger moes sing.
she have.AUX the aria faster must.AUX.MOD.PRT sing.INF
She had to sing the aria faster.
b. *Die aria het vinniger moes (ge)sing word.
the aria have.AUX faster must.AUX.MOD.PRT sing.PST.PTCP be.AUX.PASS.INF
To mean: The aria had to be sung faster.

All of the three verbal subtypes in the complex cluster, viz. the modals, the lexical verbs and the auxiliaries, as in (11), instantiate their own sub-hierarchies.

dat die werk nou al [sou moes] [begin doen] [gewees het].
that.COMP the work now already shall.AUX.MOD.PRT must.AUX.MOD.PRT begin.LINK do.INF be.PST.PTCP have.AUX
that the work should have been begun to be done by now.
[+]Modal sub-hierarchy

In their surface ordering, modal verbs form chains in Afrikaans, and the closer a modal is to the beginning of the clause, the higher its position in the hierarchy. Modal chains. Certain modals – or modal functions – have fixed positions. Thus sal/sou, if present, will always be first in the order and therefore highest in the hierarchy, and kan/kon, in its dynamic sense, tends to be last in various languages, as in (12a) and (12b). Epistemic modals – which specify the truth value of the entire proposition – are usually highest in the hierarchy, as in (12c), where kan can only have an epistemic interpretation.

a. dat sy die werk [sal(4) [moet(3) [kan(2) [doen(1)]]]]
that.COMP she the work will.AUX.MOD must.AUX.MOD can.AUX.MOD do.INF
that she will have to be able to do the work.
b. dat sy die werk [wil(3) [kan(2) [doen(1)]]]
that.COMP she the work want.to.AUX.MOD can.AUX.MOD do.INF
that she wants to be able to do the work.
c. dat sy die werk [kan(3) [wil(2) [doen(1)]]]
that.COMP she the work can.AUX.MOD want.to.AUX.MOD do.INF
that it is possible that she wants to do the work.
[+]Linking verb sub-hierarchy

Indirect and direct linking verbs Indirect linking verbs and Direct linking verbs are likewise higher in the hierarchy than the main verb, though it is not clear what their relationship vis-à-vis each other is. (13a), with the direct linking verb first, is more acceptable than (13b) as bly expresses aspect relevant to the entire proposition, viz. durative aspect, while staan en, though also aspectual, mainly refers to the bodily posture of the agent, and also contributes to lexical meaning.

a. dat sy die werk [bly [staan en [doen]]]
that.COMP she the work keep.on.LINK stand.LINK and do.INF
that she keeps doing the work while standing
b. ?dat sy die werk [staan en [bly [doen]]]
that.COMP she the work stand.LINK and keep.on.LINK do.INF
To mean: that she insists on continuing with the work

Among the direct linking verbs, skyn (te) is highest in the hierarchy, cf. (14), with probeer as linking verb:

a. dat sy die boek [skyn te [probeer [skryf]]]
that.COMP she the book seem.LINK PTCL.INF try.LINK write.INF
that she seems to be trying to write the book
b. *dat sy die boek [probeer [skyn te [skryf]]]
that.COMP she the book try.LINK seem.LINK PTCL.INF write.INF
To mean: that she tries to seem to be writing the book.

In many cases the hierarchy is a function of the intended meaning of the clause, e.g.

a. Sy het [probeer [ophou [sigare rook]]].
she have.AUX try.LINK stop.LINK cigars smoke.INF
She tried to stop smoking cigars.
b. Sy het [ophou [probeer [opera sing]]].
she have.AUX stop.LINK try.LINK opera sing.INF
She stopped trying to sing opera.

It seems likely that modal verbs are higher in the hierarchy of specification than linking verbs. On the one hand linking verbs do not qualify modals, cf. (16a), and on the other hand modals are able to qualify linking verbs, as is clear from (16b), where the obligation expressed by the modal moet not only applies to the main verb, sing, but also to the effort implied by probeer. Modals are, moreover, able to evaluate the truth value of the entire clause through epistemic usage or indicate the tense of the entire clause, both of which are accomplished by sal in (16c).

a. *Sy probeer wil opera sing.
she try.LINK want.to.AUX.MOD opera sing.INF
To mean: She is trying to want to sing opera.
b. Sy moet probeer sing.
she must.AUX.MOD try.LINK sing.INF
She should try to sing.
c. Sy sal moet begin probeer ophou sigare rook.
she will.AUX.MOD must.AUX.MOD begin.LINK try.LINK stop.LINK cigars smoke.INF
She might have to begin trying to stop smoking cigars.
[+]Auxiliary sub-hierarchy

Auxiliaries are also hierarchically organised. Of the active and passive auxiliaries, as they occur at the end of a clause-final verb cluster, word to become and wees to be are both higher in the hierarchy than the main verb, but are mutually exclusive. Het to have, if it combines with another auxiliary, is always higher in the hierarchy. The following sequences are possible:

a. Dit is moontlik dat hulle die werk [[gedoen] het].
it is possible that.COMP they the work do.PST.PTCP have.AUX
It is possible that they did the work.
b. Dit is moontlik dat die werk [[gedoen] word/is].
it is possible that.COMP the work do.PST.PTCP be.AUX.PASS.PRS/PST
It is possible that the work is being/was done.
c. Dit is moontlik dat die werk [[[gedoen] geword] het]].
it is possible that.COMP the work do.PST.PTCP become.PST.PTCP have.AUX
It is possible that the work was being done.
d. Dit is moontlik dat die werk [[[gedoen] gewees] het]]].
it is possible that.COMP the work do.PST.PTCP be.PST.PTCP have.AUX
It is possible that the work was done.
[+]Lexical split

It was assumed above that the lexical verbs, consisting of linking verb(s) and main verb, are grouped together in the overall hierarchy. In instances such as the following, however, only the main verb is a past participle – whether preposed, as bereik in (18a) and goedgepraat as in (18b), or collocated with the auxiliary, as afgekrap in (18c).Therefore, if the relationship between an auxiliary and the past participle it governs is indicative of a direct hierarchical relationship, this would imply that MODAL VERB(S)(4) – LINKING VERB(S)(3) – AUXILIARY(2) – MAIN VERB(1) may be a variant overall hierarchy in Afrikaans.

a. Presies wat met hierdie betekenis gedoen word of bereik(1) probeer(3) word(2).
exactly what with this meaning do.PST.PTCP be.AUX.PASS.PRS or achieve.PST.PTCP try.LINK be.AUX.PASS.PRS
Exactly what one is doing with this meaning or trying to achieve (with it).
b. Dit was 'n flater … wat nou goedgepraat(1) probeer(3) word(2)
it was a blunder which.REL now good.talk.PST.PTCP try.LINK be.AUX.PASS.PRS
It was a blunder which they are trying to gloss over now.
c. Dis soos 'n wond waarvan die rowe bly(3) afgekrap(1)  word(2).
it.is like a wound REL.of the scabs keep.on.LINK off.scratch.PST.PTCP be.AUX.PASS.PRS
Its like a wound of which the scabs are being scratched off continually.
[+]Modal vs linking verb

The distinction between two principal senses of the verb gaan in Afrikaans is corroborated by a difference in syntactic structure. In (19a) and (19b) gaan and delf form a semantic unit as they adhere to a pattern of increasing stress resembling that of a past participle. Gaan means 'to go' in both cases and is therefore a linking verb. In (19c) only the main verb is governed by the auxiliary word, and gaan – like other modals – does not form a unit of any kind with the main verb.

a. Dit klink asof hulle diamante gaan(2) delf(1) het(3).
it sound.PRS as.if.CNJ they diamonds go.LINK mine.INF have.AUX
It sounds as if they went to mine diamonds.
b. Dit klink asof diamante gaan(2) delf(1) is(3).
it sound.PRS as.if.CNJ diamonds go.LINK mine.INF be.AUX.PASS.PST
It sounds as if diamonds were being mined.
c. Dit klink asof diamante <gedelf(1)> gaan(3) <gedelf(1)> word(2).
it sound.PRS as.if.CNJ diamonds <mine.PST.PTCP> go.AUX.MOD <mine.PST.PTCP> be.AUX. PASS.PRS
It sounds as if diamonds will be mined.
  • Broekhuis, Hans, Corver, Norbert & Vos, Riet2015Syntax of Dutch. Verbs and verb phrasesComprehensive grammar resourcesAmsterdam University Press
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