Akan Teleteaching Course

Unit 8.4: Notes on grammar 2

More on serial verb constructions

Serial verb constructions (SVC) are an outstanding characteristiof many West African languages, particularly languages of the Kwa, Gur and Benue-Congo families. SVC are also found for instance in East Asian languages, particularly of the isolating type (languages with little or no morphology) such as Chinese. (See Bole-Richard [1978] for an overview and many examples from both Asian and African languages. See also Sebba 1987; Lord 1973, 1993).

At the outset, it is important to note that the label SVC covers a wide diversity of constructions whose characteristics of form and function vary greatly between language families and individual languages. Thus for instance, in spite of a similar design, Akan SVC differ from Yoruba SVC in many respects.

This second part of the introduction will focus on the use of Akan SVC. In the research notes you find directions on how to approach this fascinating domain from a wider typological angle.

In the following, the verbs de 'hold' and ma 'give' will serve to give a first idea of the range of lexical and grammatical uses of serial verbs.

A!mma de safoa no buee dan no maa me "Amma opened the door for me with the key."
Instrument Main action Beneficiary Main action Beneficiary Instrument
take do for do for with

1. We may first look at serial verbs from the conceptual angle. Doing something for someone with something appears to the non-Akan speaker as a single process involving three entities, a person performing the action, the object on which the action is performed, and the instrument which is used for carrying out the action. Akan, taking example (1) as a model, describes the same event as if it was a sequence of three separate, but interrelated processes succeeding each other in time: Someone first takes an object (the instrument), then performs an action (with it) and thirdly transfers the result (i.e. give) to someone. Contrast English (and, typically, European languages) with Akan in this respect:
  • The roles typically expressed by prepositions in English (with, for) are signalled by verbs in Akan (de 'hold'; ma 'give').
  • The order of the elements in English reflects the degree to which the participant roles are inherent in the action itself; in other words it reflects the semantic structure of the verb: ACTION - BENEFICIARY - INSTRUMENT.
  • The order of the elements in Akan reflects the temporal order in which each of them enters into or contributes to the action.1
1)(This interpretation of English vs. Akan sequencing may be debatable. I leave it for for your consideration and further discussion.)

2. A distinction is often made between two types of serial constructions, variously called modifying and linking types (Bamgbose 1982), or correlated with the distinction between representation of a single event versus multiple connected events (Givon 1991). [While this distinction may be debatable from an analytical viewpoint (Awobuluyi 1973), it is undoubtedly useful for practical purposes.]

Example (1) above illustrates the modifying or single-event type. (At least from an etic, Anglocentriviewpoint. See below.)

Example (2) contains only verbs representing actions; it illustrates the linking or multiple-event type:
(2) - maa no ska t paanoo. "S/he gave him/her money to buy bread."

In contrast with (1), the verb ma 'give' carries its 'original', concrete meaning and, as both the color and the translation indicate, it refers to a separate event, rather than servinng simply to mark the role of a participant as in (1).

The number of events which can be combined in this way does not seem to be theoretically limited. But the sequence
(3) - t kwadu maa mmfra no d. "S/he bought bananas and gave them to the children to eat."
(4) A!fe de, apn abtena fe y kua "Now, s/he has retired, stays at home and does some farming."
(Note in this last example, the change of aspect!) 

3. In the modifying SVC, as we have tentatively called it, following Bamgbose (1982), is where we find a vast number of what we might consider to be grammaticalised, or 'functionalised' verbs. By this we mean that these verbs do not denote, prima facie, some action or event, but are used to express a grammatical relationship or some qualitative, quantitative or temporal property of the main action. Their function could be described as being to extend the valency of the verb. Some of these modifying verbs typically occur before the main verb; these will be classified as pre-modifying serial verbs. Similarly, those verbs which typically occur after the main verb will be called post-modifying serial verbs.

This distinction can again be illustrated from our first example:

safoa no
dan no

Most modifying verbs may also occur as main action verbs. In the latter function they retain their full event-referring meaning. For instance, the verb ma can be restored to its original referential meaning simply by re-ordering the verb phrases in (1):
(5) ##A!mma de safoa no maa mebuee dan no. "Amma gave me the key and I opened the door with it."##2)
(2)This corresponds to the attested model: Mede sekan twaa paanoo maa no de. "I cut the bread with a knife and gave it to him and he ate it."- but nevertheless needs to be checked.)

In (5), ma 'give' carries its 'original', concrete meaning and, as both the color and the translation indicate, describes an action, not simply a role of a participant in an action.

From the comparison of (1') and (5) it may be concluded that the verb ma fulfills a double function in present-day Akan:
  • It may be used in a serial construction with its full lexical meaning as in (2) , i.e. the meaning which it also has when it functions as the predicate of a simple sentence.
  • It may be used to express a semantirole as in (1').

The meaning of the modifying verb tends to be generalised to encompass the functional properties of the participant role with which it occurs. At the same time its use gets dissociated from the original lexical meaning. In example (1) above, the idea of giving - in the sense of a physical transaction between two entities usually associated with the verb ma - is obviously not part of the meaning of the sentence. To the contrary, a literal rendering of ma in the sense of "giving something to somebody" would be quite misleading in the context of (1), since it could only mean that Amma handed the key over to me, something which is totally different from her opening the door to me.

4. In the following examples, ma expresses cause:
(6) Papa maa yfaa kwadu tu guu
"Daddy made us throw the bananas away."

Causative ma occurring as a link between propositions functions as a complementiser (cf. Osam 1998) and will often be translated as 'that':
(7) Ytwn ma nsuo t. "We wait for rain."
(8) Ybtwn ama nsuo at nn. "We shall wait for rain today."
(9) Ytwnee maa nsuo te. "We waited until it rained."3)
(3)The tone and aspectual behaviour of this ma needs to be checked. It could be that it represents a further stage of grammaticalisation [Osam 1998].)

5. To sum up, the verb maoccurring as a serial verb may fulfill three different functions:

Many grammatical and semantic relations between events and participants, between events and events as well as quantifications and other modifications of states-of-affairs which are mostly expressed in English and other European languages by prepositions, conjunctions and adverbial expressions, are expressed in Akan as modifying serial verbal constructions (SVC). It is therefore most important for the learner to understand the way in which verbs are used in Akan to express such relationships many of which are very elementary and common.

6. Synopsis of multi-functional serial verbs in Akan
The ultimate purpose of this section is to offer a frame for an as comprehensive and detailed overview of the lexical and grammatical uses of verbs in their various functions in serial verbal constructions. There is a limited number of most frequently occurring multi-functional verbs most of which are probably listed below. But new verbs may be added by the users, and for each verb new examples showing the variety of usage will be added. Where necessary grammatical and lexical properties will be described. Each verb in the following list will have a LINK to examples and explanations occurring in other parts of the course.

For instance choosing de/fa as a LINK will lead to various uses, showing for instance that de as a pre-modifying verb is not always used for attributing an instrumental role to its object, but can also used for focussing the object:
(10) de ska maa me. "It is money he gave me."
(11) maa me ska. "He gave me money."

And one can discover with a bit of research of this kind that de is also used for abstract meanings, e.g.:
(12) bmmfo no de awerho san k fe. "The hunter sadly returned home." (lit. "He took sadness returned went home.")
and showing when to use de and when to use fa, etc.
Akan verb
Main action
Pre-modifying sense
Post-modifying sense
f(r) be from, leave from .
k go (to) . to(wards)
ba come . to(wards)
t fall (into) . into
gu put into . into
twa (Osam 1994: 31) cut . across
. . .
ks go stop . until
de/fa take with ..
nya get, receive already .
nam . habitually .
taa . habitually? .
ma give . for
w be-at . at, in
we finish . xxx
kyer show . xxx

-> Bibliographic references for verbal serialisation

-> Research notes (Notes on grammar 3)
-> More on serial verbs (Unit 11)

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