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Reported speech in Afrikaans: syntactic distribution

The word order of the reporting clause and reported clause is the major parameter of syntactic variation for speech reporting, in parallel ways for both direct and indirect speech. The reporting clause can precede the reported clause, as in (1a) for direct speech and (1b) for indirect speech, or the reported clause can precede the reporting clause, as in (2a) for direct speech and (2b) for indirect speech.

a. Maar my pa het ge·sê, nee my liewe kind jy gaan oorsee gaan ...
but my dad have.AUX PST·say no my dear child you go.LINK overseas go.INF
But my dad said, no my dear child you are going to go overseas ...
[Initial variant, direct speech]
b. Troost argumenteer dat populêre definisies oor waaroor etiek gaan te wyd is.
Troost argue that.COMP popular definitions about where.about ethics go.PRS too wide be.PRS
Troost argues that popular definitions of what ethics is about are too wide.
[Initial variant, indirect speech]
a. “Ek moet protégés hê om my goeie werk voort te sit,” skerts hy.
I must.AUX.MOD protégés have.INF for.COMP my good work ahead PTCL.INF put.INF joke.PRS he
“I must have protégés to continue my good work,” he jokes.
[Final variant, direct speech]
b. Die naaste wat sy aan tradisionele kos kom, is bobotie, spesiaal vir die buitelandse toeriste, sê Carol.
the closest that.REL she to traditional food come.PRS be.PRS bobotie specially for the foreign tourists say.PRS Carol
The closest she gets to traditional food, is bobotie, especially for the foreign tourists, says Carol.
[Final variant, indirect speech]

The order Reporting Clause – Reported Clause makes use of a complement clause structure, and is referred to as the Initial variant. The reporting clause is typically conveyed by the matrix clause, and the reported clause expressed as a complement clause. The main alternative to the Initial variant is the Final variant, where the order is Reported Clause – Reporting Clause. In this case, the reported clause appears to remain a single constituent of the matrix clause, but positioned at the beginning of the sentence, followed by inversion of the verb and subject of the matrix clause, as shown by the fact that the reporting verb precedes its subject in both (2a) and (2b). Hence, the verb-second ordering of the Afrikaans independent clause is retained, which can be taken as evidence in favour of viewing direct speech and indirect speech as syntactically similar. The issue has not been explored in previous research in Afrikaans. The situation is similar in Dutch, but based on properties other than verb-second, Broekhuis et al. (2015:690-693) argue that the reported clause does not behave like a direct object clause in all respects and the integration is looser than is the case with indirect speech.

A less frequent variant that is observed in both direct and indirect speech is where the Reporting Clause is used as a parenthetic insert within the Reported Clause, as illustrated by (3a) and (3b). This variant is referred to as the Insert variant.

a. “Kind,” sê ma, “jy lyk nie so lekker nie. Wat makeer?” “Ja,” sê pa, “jy lyk soos 'n middeljarige pastoriemoeder.”
child say.PRS mom you look.PRS not so well PTCL.NEG what lack.PRS yes say.PRS dad you look.PRS like a middle.aged parsonage.mother
“Child,” mom says, “you don’t look well. What is wrong?” “Yes,” dad says, “you look like a middle-aged parsonage mother.”
[Insert variant, direct speech]
b. Die werfbobbejaan, het hy hulle meegedeel, is nie 'n gewone bobbejaan nie.
the yard baboon have.AUX he them tell.PST be.PRS not a regular baboon PTCL.NEG
The yard baboon, he told them, is not a regular baboon.
[Insert variant, indirect speech]

A syntactic analysis of the Insert variant shows a blended construction. The first part of the reporting construction still resembles the inverted word order that corresponds to (2a) and (2b), i.e. (partial) Reported Clause, followed by Reporting Clause with subject-verb inversion. It is only the resumption of the Reported Clause after the Reporting Clause that indicates that the initial reported part is an incomplete syntactic unit, which is completed after the Reporting Clause.

The three word order options available for both direct and indirect speech in Afrikaans are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Positional variants of the reporting and reported clause

Figure 1
[click image to enlarge]

The Initial variant is the default variant for indirect speech, and the use of the Insert or Final variants is very restricted. The Final variant is used very widely in direct speech, while the Insert variant is also more common than in indirect speech. Furthermore, the three syntactic options are not distributed evenly in different registers. The register distribution is quite informative about the potential function of the syntactic variation observed in Afrikaans.

Spoken language makes very extensive use of the Initial variant, while the other two variants are exceptional. Much more diversity is observed in written language, which suggests that the two non-initial variants are innovations that have their origin in the written medium, because of the enabling effect of punctuation in marking a reported clause as a direct quotation, and hence rendering it identifiable as such. Furthermore, in reportage (in both newspapers and magazines), the Final variant is considerably more frequent than the Initial variant in direct speech, and is attested widely in indirect speech as well. In reportage, clearly, the words being reported are usually more significant than the sources, which are simply required to serve as guarantee that the journalist reports on actual events and does not make up the story. The same syntactic preference for the Final variant is also attested in fiction. The choice appears to be motivated by the dramatic effect of putting the words being spoken in dialogue first and just guiding the reader through the turn-taking to interpret the words. In fiction, furthermore, many instances are observed where the direct speech of different characters is reported with no reporting clause indicating who the speaker is. Thus, thematic prominence is an important driving force in the choice between variants.


The syntactic options for speech reporting are distributed very differently in the various registers, and these provide the key to an understanding of the function of the syntactic variants. The basic frequency information indicates that reported speech mainly occurs in speech, journalism and fiction, and to a limited degree in other written registers of Afrikaans. Therefore, the distributional patterns are explored in greater depth for speech and the two written registers with notable frequency, before briefly considering the extension of these possibilities to other registers.

[+]Overall frequencies

Overall frequencies and proportional frequencies were calculated based on data with extensive and complex sampling, and manual classification of more than 60,000 examples. Proportions can be calculated with confidence, but absolute frequencies are harder to project with precise accuracy. Hence, a general ballpark estimation from the data has to suffice. The total frequency of direct and indirect speech reporting in Afrikaans together is approximately 5000-6000 instances per million words for fiction, journalism (both news and magazines) and speech, and 1500-2000 per million words for academic and popular writing. In fiction, direct speech is three times as frequent as indirect speech, and in magazines, the two options – direct and indirect – are roughly equal. In speech and the other written registers except academic writing, indirect speech is 2-3 times more frequent than direct speech, but in academic writing, indirect speech is about 10 times more frequent than direct speech.

The overall proportional frequency of the syntactic options in direct speech are summarised in Figure 2. In spoken language, direct speech is attested frequently, but almost uniformly in the Initial word order of Reporting Clause before Reported Clause. This order is also the dominant order in Academic and Popular Writing, where direct speech is quite infrequent. The other three written registers allow much more flexibility, and have the Inverted order of Reporting Clause after Reported Clause as the dominant choice, with some use of the parenthetic insert for the Reporting Clause in Magazines and Fiction.

Figure 2: Relative frequency of positional variants in direct speech across registers

Figure 2
[click image to enlarge]

The distribution of choices for indirect speech is represented in Figure 3. Unlike direct speech, the overwhelming preference across all written registers and speech is for the conventional complement clause structure, with the Reporting Clause preceding the Reported Clause. The exceptions where the inverted order occurs with any meaningful frequency are limited to those written registers that prefer the inverted order as default choice for direct speech: fiction, magazines and newspapers at around 10% of the time. Fiction and newspapers also make use of the parenthetic insertion of the Reporting Clause, but even there only around 5% of the time, while this choice is attested in less than 2% of cases in other registers.

Figure 3: Relative frequency of positional variants in indirect speech across registers
[click image to enlarge]

[+]The Initial variant in spoken Afrikaans

Spoken Afrikaans makes extensive use of indirect speech, but also of direct speech. In both cases, the Initial variant is almost invariably selected. This is illustrated by the examples in (4a) for direct speech, and (4b) for indirect speech. As shown in the presentation of the lexical and semantic associations of speech reporting constructions, the verb to say is a very dominant choice for direct speech. While remains the most frequent single choice for indirect speech, a wider range of other verbs are used as well.

a. Dis nou my skoondogter, en sy kom terug, sy kom voor my staan, sy sê: “Mamma, ek het baie slegte nuus vir Mamma.”
it=be.PRS now my daughter.in.law and she come.PRS back she come.LINK before me stand.INF she say.PRS Mother I have.PRS very bad news for Mother
That’s now my daughter-in-law, and she comes back, she comes and stands in front of me, she says, “Mother, I have very bad news for you.”
[Direct speech]
b. Toe doen hulle toetse, toe sê die dokter daar is 'n kiem in my rug, 'n virus...
then do.PRS they tests then say.PRS the doctor there be.PRS a germ in my back a virus
Then they do tests, then the doctor says there is a germ in my back, a virus…
[Indirect speech]

The motivation for the selection of the Initial variant in spoken Afrikaans is identifiability. If a speaker were to present the words of somebody else first, and only thereafter clarify for the listener(s) that these were the words of somebody else, there is a risk of ambiguity: the listener(s) may initially attribute these words to the speaker him-/herself. This is illustrated in example (5) for direct speech, where the speaker tells a story about how a temporary position as assistant to a doctor became a permanent position. The speaker first relates his own two questions, before reporting the words of the doctor. If the reporting clause Toe sê hy Then he said did not precede the direct quotation of the doctor’s words, it would have been ambiguous whether the words were those of the storyteller or those of the doctor.

Toe vra ek vir hom, “Dokter nou maar wat is die posisie? Wanneer gaan ek terug?” Toe sê hy, “Ek dink jy bly maar by my.”
then ask.PRS I for him doctor now but what be.PRS the position when go.PRS I back then say.PRS he I think.PRS you stay.PRS but with me
Then I asked him, “Now doctor, what is the position? When do I go back?” Then he said, “I think you can just as well stay with me.”
Tense use in Afrikaans speech reporting

In translating the Afrikaans examples into English, we usually employ the past tense in the English translations, although the Afrikaans forms are almost invariantly in the present tense. This is done to render the translations more idiomatic in English. The historic present tense is very widely used in Afrikaans, much more extensively than in English or Dutch.  In spoken Afrikaans, the present tense of speech reporting verbs are used 3-4 times more often than the past tense forms. For direct speech in particular, the past tense is quite rare, while it is more widely used in introducing indirect speech. Even in Afrikaans fiction, as shown in the longer extract in (11), the present tense is widely used as narrating tense.

Wybenga (1983) offers a detailed study of tense and temporal expression in Afrikaans fiction, and concludes that formal contrasts within the verbal paradigm play a very small role in the expression of temporal contrasts. The unmarked form usually suffices, and the marked “past tense” form is used to convey a range of aspectual or other contrasts. The marked past tense form is not exploited to situate events in a (fictional) past; this role is performed by other ways (adverbial in particular) to establish different deictic centres, while context and cohesive devices within particular contexts also play an important role.

Thus, throughout the discussion here, the English translation does not systematically reflect the formal tense choice of Afrikaans. Where appropriate, glosses are provided that match the Afrikaans formal choices more directly.


Magazines and newspapers make extensive use of direct and indirect speech. Unlike spoken Afrikaans, these two journalistic registers have a dominant preference for the Final variant with direct speech, while the Insert variant also occurs widely, especially in magazines. Given the availability of punctuation marks, especially the double inverted commas, to signal a direct quotation, the concern with ambiguity that motivates the selection of the Initial variant in spoke language does not arise in written language.

The Initial variant is the dominant variant with indirect speech, although magazines also make more extensive use of the Final and Insert variants than any other register, while the non-initial variants are also attested with some frequency in journalism. However, the risk of ambiguity in determining whose voice is being heard, remains an issue with indirect speech in written language, since the reported clause is not marked off by punctuation marks. A reader may therefore initially assume that a new sentence represents the words of the journalist, rather than the individual whose words are being reported, which may render the story more difficult to read.

A typical strategy in newspaper writing is the use of the Initial variant at the first introduction of a spokesperson, and a subsequent shift to the Final variant for as long as the words of the same speaker are being reported, a pattern that Ikeo (2001:286) also identifies for English newswriting. This is the case especially if the reporting happens in direct speech, although by extension, this might be sufficient context for indirect speech to use non-initial word orders too. This is illustrated in example (6), an extract from a newspaper report in the Taalkommissiekorpus.

Agt kiste biere is te veel vir een man, sy vrou en drie kinders.
Eight cases of beer are too many for one man, his wife and three children.
Dit is glo waarom die plaaslike polisie Mark Goedeman op 23 Desember met sowat R300 beboet het. Maar Goedeman sê hy kan nie vat kry aan die storie nie. [...]
This is apparently why the local police fined Mark Goedeman about R300 on 23 December. But Goedeman says he doesn’t buy the story.
Goedeman sê by die polisiestasie gekom, is daar aan hom gesê hy moet ’ n boete van R300 betaal omdat hy te veel bier in sy besit het. [...]
Goedeman says when they arrived at the police station, he was told that he had to pay a fine of R300 because he had too much beer in his possession.
“Wat ek nie kan verstaan nie, is dat my tjommie wat ses kiste biere by hom gehad het, nie ook ’ n boete gekry het nie,” sê Goedeman.
“What I cannot understand, is that my pal who had six cases of beer with him, did not also get a fine,” says Goedeman.

Another function of the final position, even where there are various different speakers whose words are reported, is dramatic effect. In this sense, a newspaper can draw on similar resources as fiction. Example (7), from the end of a celebrity news report in a newspaper, quotes the comments of a number of social media users on a photo that was posted on Instagram, using the final position consistently.

Honderde aanhangers en vriende het die oënskynlike paartjie op Instagram gelukgewens.
Hundreds of fans and friends congratulated the apparent couple on Instagram.
“Wow nie dit sien kom nie maar dis wonderlike nuus!,” het @barbarabeylefeld onder die foto kommentaar gelewer.
“Wow didn’t see this coming but it’s wonderful news!,” commented @barbarabeylefeld below the photograph.
“My gunsteling twee op daai program,” het @soniaadriaens geskryf. “Jinne julle pas so goed en mooi.”
“My favourite two on that programme,” wrote @soniaadriaens. “Gee, you are such a nice fit.”
“#julleisgemaakvirmekaar,” het @desireoosthuizen geskryf.
“#youaremadeforeachother,” wrote @desireoosthuizen.
“Whowwwww kyk hoe werk die Here,” het @michelepepler geskryf. “Sy weë is ver bo ons weë... so so so bly vir julle. Mag julle oorvloedig geseënd wees.”
“Whowwwww see how the Lord works,” wrote @michelepepler. “His ways are far above our ways... so so so happy for you. May you be abundantly blessed.”

The field of speech (and thought) representation is a vast area of interest in narratology, literary stylistics, and other approaches to literature. Typically, a scale is postulated from most diegetic to most mimetic – from telling the reader what happens to showing the reader what happens (Rimon-Kenan 1983:109-110). Diegetic representation is regarded as closest to the voice of the author/narrator, and mimetic closest to representing the perspective of the character directly. Literary stylistics distinguishes a number of intermediate options too, which we will not consider here. The interested reader is referred to Leech and Short (1981) and Semino and Short (2004). Crucially, as far as direct speech is concerned, it is a stylistic option that allows the storyteller to show the reader how characters engage in dialogue, and is therefore a more dramatic option in comparison to the more narrative alternative of indirect speech (Semino and Short 2004). The data from the Taalkommissiekorpus demonstrate that fiction is the only Afrikaans register in which direct speech is used more often than indirect speech.

If an author opts for direct speech in a particular setting, then it increases the extent to which showing rather than telling takes place, hence the actual words of dialogue (Reported Clauses) are thematically more important than the information about who speaks (Reporting Clauses), as is also shown for English by Ikeo (2001:286). Thus, in passage (11) in Extra, from which example (8) to (10) are drawn, three options for direct speech reporting are observed. The most frequent option, corresponding to the overall average for Afrikaans fiction, is the inverted order of Reported Clause – Reporting Clause, as illustrated by the examples in (8).

a. “Ons kan maar uitskei. In dié weer rys die suurdeeg nie,” sê sy swartgallig.
“We might as well not bother. In this weather, yeast doesn’t rise,” she said glumly.
b. “Pas net op dat jy jou pasiënt nie dood doseer nie,” skerts Alida, wat die gedoente gadeslaan.
“Just be careful that you don’t dose your patient to death,” joked Alida, observing the whole scene.
c. “'n Kaal pot varkkos, dis wat dit is,” pruttel sy toe sy mismoedig na die pot suurdeeg kyk.
“A bare bowl of pig food, that’s what it is,” she grumbled, looking dejectedly at the bowl of yeast.

The narrator steps to the background and lets the characters speak for themselves, while the reporting clause not only serves to tell the reader who speaks, but also adds further information about the character, either by representing the manner of speaking in (8a), or adding further information about the actions of the character that occur simultaneously with the speech act, as in (8b) or (8c).

A second option that is almost as frequent is the use of direct speech, presented in inverted commas, without any reporting clause. Semino and Short (2004:10), following Leech and Short (1981), term this Free Direct Speech. The dialogue is presented without an explicit reporting clause, inviting the reader to view the exchange of words between characters as directly as possible, with the narrator becoming completely invisible. (Newspapers also use this option from time to time, when the same spokesperson continues to be quoted.) Some examples are presented in (9).

a. “Bog met jou, die kombuis is dan so lekker warm. Wat wil 'n suurdeeg dan meer hê?”
“Oh nonsense. The kitchen is so nice and toasty. What more could a bit of yeast want?”
b. “Haai, nee wag, uit my kombuis uit. Oumie sal met breekbeen en al uit die bed opstaan oor so ’ n sodabrood.”
“Hey, no, wait, get out of my kitchen. Granny, broken leg and all, will get out of bed over such a soda bread.”

In such cases, it is assumed that the reader will be able to determine from context who the speaker is, and there is also no need to add further information about either the manner of speaking or the activities a character is engaged in.

A third option observed in the passage is the parenthetic insert placement of the reporting clause, as shown in (10).

“Ja,” kla Lotjie, “maar die meel trek klimaat daar bo op die solder. Die dak moes toeka al oorgedek gewees het, maar op hierdie plaas praat 'n vroumens mos teen klippe vas.”
“Yes,” complained Lotjie, “but the climate gets into the flour up there in the loft. The roof should really have had some new thatch ages ago, but on this farm, a woman might just as well be talking to a stone wall.”

An inspection of similar cases in the data from the Taalkommissiekorpus reveals that typically, this option is used with reporting verbs that incorporate manner of speaking meanings (e.g. mompel to mumble, mor to grumble, paai to placate, prewel to murmur, toesnou to snap) and relatively little further adverbial elaboration of the kind exemplified in (8).

The use of the Initial variant is attested in fiction, but is reasonably infrequent. Its use is similar to its use in other contexts, which is to introduce the speaker unambiguously before reporting his/her words.

Example 11: Extract from a fiction text

Dit was nie net Oumie wat deur die koue geraak is nie. Donderdagaand na ete, toe Lotjie 'n holte in die meel in die bakkis maak om in te suur, is sy pessimisties. “Ons kan maar uitskei. In dié weer rys die suurdeeg nie,” sê sy swartgallig.

“Bog met jou, die kombuis is dan so lekker warm. Wat wil 'n suurdeeg dan meer hê?”

“Ja,” kla Lotjie, “maar die meel trek klimaat daar bo op die solder. Die dak moes toeka al oorgedek gewees het, maar op hierdie plaas praat 'n vroumens mos teen klippe vas.”

Tjommel-tjommel klop sy die meel in die warm water in en sny nog 'n aartappel in die helfte deur en dompel dié ook by, en 'n eetlepel suiker ook, om die rysproses aan te help.

“Pas net op dat jy jou pasiënt nie dood doseer nie,” skerts Alida, wat die gedoente gadeslaan.

Die volgende oggend staan die suurdeeg morsdood met 'n blink watertjie op die afgesakte meel, sonder 'n enkele ou gisblasie. Dis om van te huil, as jy Lotjie se gesig aanskou.“

'n Kaal pot varkkos, dis wat dit is,” pruttel sy toe sy mismoedig na die pot suurdeeg kyk.

“Oorsuur,” moedig Alida aan, en staan nader met die skepbeker warm water en 'n handvol growwe meel. “En dan klop ons 'n bietjie koeksodatjies in, net so 'n mespuntjie vol.”

Voor die onmenslike vergryp wil Lotjie neerslaan. “Haai, nee wag, uit my kombuis uit. Oumie sal met breekbeen en al uit die bed opstaan oor so 'n sodabrood.”

“Wat die oog nie sien nie, deer die hart nie, sjuut jy net. Oumie is nie nou hier nie. Nou maak ons 'n slag soos ons wil. 'n Mens het mos nie nodig om van alles 'n omstand te maak nie. Ons gee hom net so 'n ligte skoppie, dan sien jy waar rys suurdeeg se kind.” En met dié werk sy behendig die mespuntjie soda in die kastrol.


It wasn’t just Granny who was affected by the cold. Thursday evening after dinner, while Lotjie was making a little hollow in the flour in the bowl for the yeast, she was pessimistic. “We might as well not bother. In this weather, yeast doesn’t rise,” she said glumly.

“Oh nonsense. The kitchen is so nice and toasty. What more could a bit of yeast want?”

“Yes,” complained Lotjie, “but the climate gets into the flour up there in the loft. The roof should really have had some new thatch ages ago, but on this farm, a woman might just as well be talking to a stone wall.”

Grudgingly she beat the flour into the warm water, sliced another potato in half and dunked this in too, and a spoonful of sugar, to help the leavening along.

“Just be careful that you don’t dose your patient to death,” joked Alida, observing the whole scene.

The next morning, the yeast lay stone-dead, with a bit of clear water atop the sedimented flour, and not a single yeast bubble in sight. It’s to weep for, judging by Lotjie’s face.

“A bare bowl of pig food, that’s what it is,” she grumbled, looking dejectedly at the bowl of yeast.

“Too acid,” Alida said, encouragingly, bringing a jug of warm water and a handful of coarse flour. “And then we beat in a little bit of baking soda, just a knife-tip.”

In the face of this monstrous offence, Lotjie wanted to fall down. “Hey, no, wait, get out of my kitchen. Granny, broken leg and all, will get out of bed over such a soda bread.”

“Out of sight, out of mind, just you hush. Granny isn’t here right now. So for once we do as we please. One doesn’t have to fuss about everything. We just give it a little nudge, then you’ll see how the yeast rises.” And just like that, she deftly mixed the knife-tip of soda into the bowl.

  • Broekhuis, Hans, Corver, Norbert & Vos, Riet2015Syntax of Dutch. Verbs and verb phrasesComprehensive grammar resourcesAmsterdam University Press
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