More on serial verb constructionsSerial 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  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 deà 'hold' and maá 'give' will serve to give a first idea of the range of lexical and grammatical uses of serial verbs.
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:
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:
In contrast with (1), the verb maá '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. 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:
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 maá can be restored to its original referential meaning simply by re-ordering the verb phrases in (1):
In (5), maá '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 maá fulfills a double function in present-day Akan:
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 maá 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, maá expresses cause:
Causative maá occurring as a link between propositions functions as a complementiser (cf. Osam 1998) and will often be translated as 'that':
5. To sum up, the verb maáoccurring 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
For instance choosing deà/faá as a LINK will lead to various uses, showing for instance that deà 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:
And one can discover with a bit of research of this kind that deà is also used for abstract meanings, e.g.:
-> Research notes (Notes
on grammar 3)
-> More on serial verbs (Unit 11)