Akan Teleteaching Course

Unit 8.4: Notes on grammar 1

1. Serial verbs

"The term 'serial verbs' has been used for a number of superficially similar constructions in various languages, including West African languages of the Kwa group, Atlantic Creole languages (which derive some of their lexicon and, arguably, some of their syntax from Kwa), Tok Pisin (Melanesian Pidgin English), and Chinese. There is no agreed definition of serial verbs, but generally constructions which are so labeled are those which allow two or more verbs (other than auxiliaries) within a single non-complex sentence or clause, with no overt signs of coordination." (Sebba 1994: 3858 ff.)

'Serial verb constructions' do not show morphological markers of coordination or subordination within the sentence: 
1. -de pono no ba
3s-take table the come
"(S)he brings the table."

The two predicates de and ba are interpreted as referring to components of a single action or process. In the case of example (1), the composite meaning of the series can easily be inferred from the meaning of its component parts: 'take' + 'come' => 'bring'.

In other cases, however, the composite meaning of the serial verb construction cannot be made transparent by considering the meanings of the individual verbs of which it is made up:
2. Me-gye no d
1s-receive 3sOBJ eat
"I believe him."

In (2), the interpretation 'believe' is an idiomatic one, which cannot be derived in any obvious way by combining the meanings 'receive' and 'eat' which are usually assigned to the verbs when they occur by themselves. This suggests that at least some 'serial' combinations, e.g. (2), have been 'lexicalised': they function as semantic units in their own right and will appear in the dictionary as separate lexical entries.

Other instances of serial verb constructions (SVC) refer to component actions or processes which are understood to be part of a larger unit of action:
3. Y-sre-e ntm k- fe
1p-get_up-PAST quickly go-PAST home
"We got up quickly and went home."

As can be seen from examples (1-3), the subject of a SVC is only expressed once, namely at the beginning of the series. It is not repeated before the non-initial verbs belonging to the series. 

By contrast, each verb of a series may take its own complements:
-de sika no t- kwadu ma-a mmfra no di-i-e
she-take money DET buy-PAST banana give-PAST children the eat-PAST-SUF
"With the money, she bought bananas for the children to eat."

Here, the money is the object of de 'take'; bananas, explicitly introduced as complement of t 'buy', are implicitly understood to be the object of buying, giving and eating, whereas the children are the complement (or beneficiary) of giving.

There is also a typical change of subject in this series: the person who buys the bananas and those who eat them are not identical. As said above, the subject of a series is only expressed once, at the beginning of the series. On the other hand, within a series, the object of a preceding verb may become the subject of the following one:
Kaa b- abfra no hwe-e fam
car strike-PAST child DET fall-PAST to=soil
"The child was knocked down by a car."

Here abfra no 'the child' is both the object of the preceding verb b 'knock down' and the subject of the following verb hwe 'fall down'.

In some cases, more than one reading of participant roles is possible:
Amma fr- Kof ba-a-e
Amma call-PAST Kofi come-PAST-SUFF
a) "Amma called Kofi and he came."
b) "Amma called Kofi and came."

1.1. Function and purpose of serial verbs

I. Serial verbs as a method of lexico-grammatical composition
II. Semantic representation of arguments (e.g. objects) with multiple verbal binding in serial verb constructions

Serial constructions carry a heavy functional load, doing for example the work done by prepositions and case markers in other languages.

At the same time, verb serialisation participates in productive lexical processes, allowing for the expansion of the lexicon through idiomatic collocations (cf. example 2 above).

The following are just a few examples illustrating the multi-purpose use of serial verb constructions:

a) Instrumental constructions using de 'take'

Amma de sekan twa paanoo
Amma take knife cut bread
"Amma cuts bread with a knife." (lit. "Amma takes a knife cuts bread"

b) Dative and benefactive marker using ma 'give'

Amma de sika ma Kof
Amma take money give Kofi
"Amma gives Kofi money."

Or as a benefactive marker:
Amma y adwuma ma Kof
Amma do work give Kofi
"Amma works for Kofi."

c) Comparative constructions using sene/kyn 'surpass'

Amma y tenten sene/kyn Kof
Amma is tall surpass Kofi
"Amma is taller than Kofi."

2. Tense-Aspect-marking in serial verbs

The component verbs of a serial verb construction tend to agree in tense, aspect, mood and polarity (affirmative vs. negative). This agreement is obligatorily expressed by the occurrence of the corresponding tense-aspect or negation marker on each successive verb of the series. 

But note the following:

  • Habitual and Past forms are identical on each successive verb of a SVC. The end form of the Past (cf. Unit 3.6) occurs on a SVC-final verb which is not followed by a complement (e.g. baae and diie in the examples 4 and 6 above).
  • Perfect, progressive and future tense-aspect is marked in the usual way on the first verb of a series (except for the verb 'take', see below). All non-initial verbs of the series take the consecutive prefix -a (which often becomes -a! by tonal assimilation) which functions as a tense-aspect agreement marker, see examples 13ab/15ab/18ab/24 below).
  • In a negated sequence, each successive verb takes the negative marker -n, see examples 12ab / 14ab / 17ab / 19ab / 21ab / 23ab below.
  • In the optative, each successive verb takes the optative marker -n, see examples 22ab / 23ab below.
  • SVC-initial imperatives are Low-toned, non-initial ones carry inherent tone.
  • Quite frequently, a SVC starts with the verb de/fa 'take' which expresses, among other things, instrumentality ("do A with B" -> "take B do A"). The verb de is invariant in all tenses and aspects: it does not take any tense-aspect marker at all. If a SVC begins with de, its tense or aspect is initially marked on the second verb of the series. See examples 11b/13b/15b/16b/18b below.
  • Moreover, de 'take' is limited to the affirmative paradigm of tenses and aspects. In the negation, the imperative and the optative, de is replaced by the verb fa 'take', which functions like any other verb. See examples 12b/14b/17b/19b/20b/21b below.
2.1. Habitual (cf. tenses in Unit 3.6 in part 3)
Amma y adwuma ma Kof
Amma do work give Kofi
"Amma works for Kofi."
Amma de sekan twa paanoo
Amma take knife cut bread
"Amma cuts bread with a knife."

2.2. Habitual negative (cf. tenses and negation in Unit 3.6)

Amma n-y adwuma m-ma Kof
Amma not-do work not-give Kofi
"Amma doesn't work for Kofi."
Amma m-fa sekan n-twa paanoo
Amma NOT-take knife cut bread
"Amma doesn't cut (the) bread with a knife."

2.2. Progressive (cf. tenses in Unit 3.6)
Amma re-y adwuma a-ma Kof
Amma PROG-do work CONS-give Kofi
"Amma is working for Kofi."
Amma de sekan re-twa paanoo
Amma take knife PROG-cut bread
"Amma is cutting bread with a knife."

2.3. Progressive negative
Amma re-n-y adwuma m-ma Kof
Amma PROG-NEG-do work NEG-give Kofi
"Amma isn't working for Kofi."
Amma re-m-fa sekan n-twa paanoo
Amma PROG-NEG-take knife NEG-cut bread
"Amma is cutting bread with a knife."

2.4. Future (cf. tenses in Unit 3.6)
Amma b-y adwuma a-ma Kof
Amma FUT-do work CONS-give Kofi
"Amma will work for Kofi."
Amma de sekan b-twa paanoo
Amma take knife FUT-cut bread
"Amma will cut bread with a knife."

2.5. Future negative (= Habitual negative)

2.6. Past (cf. tenses in Unit 3.6)
Amma y- adwuma ma-a Kof
Amma do-PAST work give-PAST Kofi
"Amma worked for Kofi."
Amma de sekan twa-a paanoo
Amma take knife cut-PAST bread
"Amma cut bread with a knife."

2.7. Past negative (cf. tenses in Unit 3.6)
Amma an-y adwuma am-ma Kof
Amma PAST.NEG-do work PAST.NEG-give Kofi
"Amma didn't work for Kofi."
Amma am-fa sekan an-twa paanoo
Amma PAST.NEG-take knife PAST.NEG-cut bread
"Amma didn't cut bread with a knife."

2.8. Perfect (cf. tenses in Unit 3.6)
Amma a-y adwuma a-ma Kof
Amma PAST/NEG-do work CONS-give Kofi
"Amma has worked for Kofi."
Amma de sekan a-twa paanoo
Amma take knife PERF-cut bread
"Amma has cut bread with a knife."

2.9. Perfect negative (cf. tenses in Unit 3.6)
Amma n-y- adwuma m-ma-a Kof
Amma NEG-do-PERF work NEG-give-PERF Kofi
"Amma hasn't worked for Kofi."
Amma m-fa-a sekan n-twa-a paanoo
Amma NEG-take-PERF knife NEG-cut-PERF bread
"Amma hasn't cut (the) bread with a knife."

2.10. Imperative (cf. Unit 6.5)
Amma, y adwuma ma Kof!
Amma IMP-do work IMP-give Kofi
"Amma, work for Kofi!"
Amma, fa sekan twa paanoo
Amma IMP-take knife IMP-cut bread
"Amma, cut (the) bread with a knife!"

2.11. Prohibitive (= Imperative negative, cf. Unit 6.5)
Amma, n-y adwuma m-ma Kof!
Amma PROH-do work PROH-give Kofi
"Amma, don't work for Kofi!"
Amma, m-fa sekan n-twa paanoo
Amma PROH-take knife PROH-cut bread
"Amma, don't cut (the) bread with a knife!"

2.12. Optative (cf. Unit 6.5)
Amma n-y adwuma m-ma Kof
Amma OPT-do work OPT-give Kofi
"Amma should work for Kofi."
Amma m-fa sekan n-twa paanoo
Amma OPT-take knife OPT-cut bread
"Amma should cut bread with a knife."

2.13. Optative negative (cf. Unit 6.5)
Amma n-n-y adwuma m-m-ma Kof
Amma OPT-NEG-do work OPT-NEG-give Kofi
"Amma shouldn't work for Kofi."
A!mma m-m-fa sekan n-n-twa paanoo
Amma OPT-NEG-take knife OPT-NEG-cut bread
"Amma shouldn't cut bread with a knife"

Non-past and non-habitual tense-aspects may be combined in the same SVC, e.g.:
Kwas a-'ba re-ddi
Kwasi PERF-come PROG-eat
"Kwasi has come and is eating."
(Example taken from an unpublished paper by L.A. Boadi 'Mood in Serial Verb Constructions', Oct. 1996)

-> Selected bibliography for verb serialisation
-> Bibliographic references for verb serialisation

-> Serial verbs (Notes on grammar 2)
-> More on serial verbs (Unit 11)
-> Go to exercise 1

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