• Dutch
  • Frisian
  • Afrikaans
Show full table of contents
Modal constructions

Two perfect constructions play an important part in expressing factuality/ counterfactuality, epistemicity and evidentiality. One such construction, consisting of a modal or modals followed by a perfect (i.e. past participle plus the auxiliary het have, has) (see Construction 1), commonly expresses counterfactuality, e.g.

Example 1

Hy moes  gister die pakkie afgelewer het, maar het nooit.
he must.AUX.MOD.PRT yesterday the parcel deliver.PST.PTCP have.AUX but.CNJ have.AUX never
He had to deliver the parcel yesterday, but never did.

Another construction, with the auxiliary het have, has in verb-second position, followed by a modal and infinitive (see Construction 2), which may be considered to be a modal controlled by or qualifying a perfect, expresses modality within the framework of factuality, e.g.

Example 2

Hy het gister die pakkie persoonlik moes aflewer.
he have.AUX yesterday the parcel personally must.AUX.MOD.PRT deliver.INF
He had to deliver the parcel personally yesterday, and did so.

Though Construction 1 is the most common way of expressing counterfactuality, it is beset with ambiguity as it may also have an epistemic interpretation, or is employed to express past tense as such, particularly when modals without preterite forms are used. Construction 2 starts off as a declarative and is therefore factual by default. A modal subsequently adds modal meaning. This construction is grammatically restricted by not occurring in subordinate clauses and not having a passive variant, and is restricted in use by not forming part of the competence of all speakers. It is, however, a fixed expression when used in the negative (signalled by min little or nooit never) and with dink think or droom dream as main verb, as in:

Example 3

Maar min het ons kon dink dat tant Grietjie skaars 'n jaar later begrawe sou word.
but.CNJ little have.AUX we can.AUX.MOD.PRT think that.COMP aunt Grietjie only a year later bury.PST.PTCP will.AUX.MOD.PRT be.PASS.AUX.PRS
We would not have thought that Aunt Grietjie would be buried only a year later.

The modal preterite sou is used alone or with complementisers such as as or indien if in subordinate clauses, as in:

Example 4

a. Sou sy hart ophou klop, roep dadelik die dokter.
shall.AUX.MOD.PRT his heart stop.LINK beat.INF call.IMP immediately the doctor
Were his heart to stop beating, call the doctor immediately.
b. As sy hart sou ophou klop, roep dadelik die dokter.
if.COMP his heart shall.AUX.MOD.PRT stop.LINK beat call.IMP immediately the doctor
If his heart were to stop beating, call the doctor immediately.

Two constructions which combine the use of modal verbs with the perfect tense serve as important vehicles for making factuality (the realis) and counterfactuality (the irrealis) explicit, as well as expressing epistemic and evidential meanings. Fleischman (1989) shows how past tense expression is employed in many languages to express distance from present reality, as past and non-actuality combine in the expression of distal meaning. The constructions in question are:

(1): modal verb(s) (present or preterite) + perfect (past participle(s) + het have.AUX), e.g.

Example 5

Petra moes eintlik die pannekoeke gebak het.
Petra must.AUX.MOD.PRT really the pancakes bake.PST.PTCP have.AUX
Petra should really have baked the pancakes, but didn’t.

and (2): het have.AUX + modal verb (preterite/present) + infinitive, e.g.

Example 6

Petra het die pannekoeke moes bak.
Petra have.AUX the pancakes must.AUX.MOD.PRT bake
Petra had to bake the pancakes, and did so.

In the first, the modality expressed by the modal verb(s) which is the main focus of the proposition is modified to an irrealis by the addition of a perfect, while in the second the proposition is a past tense declarative and as such realis by default, with subsequent modal modification. Though the first construction provides the most explicit way of expressing counterfactuality in Afrikaans, it also has a number of other functions and is therefore beset by ambiguity. The second construction, again, is grammatically restricted and obsolescent

[+]Construction 1: Modal(s) plus perfect

Two tense forms incorporating the perfect are distinguished by De Villiers (1971:27): the present-perfect and the preterite-perfect (imperfect-perfect in his terminology), e.g. kan gedoen het and kon gedoen het, respectively. Since the Afrikaans modals do not have marked infinitive forms such as Dutch kunnen, moeten, willen, zullen, etc., and some do in fact still have preterite forms, e.g. kon, moes, wou, sou and mog (obsolescent), respectively, they may be considered to be finite forms. Likewise the final auxiliary, het, is a finite form – in contrast to the infinitive . A construction such as the following may therefore be regarded as a dual finite system, each part with its own variability. The independent present-preterite alternation of the modal and main verb plus or minus het, as in kan x konsien x gesien het, produces combinations such as kan sien, kon sien, kan gesien het and kon gesien het. The following sentences exemplify the contribution of the two parts. Counterfactuality (non-realisation of a past action) is expressed by a modal preterite and the perfect:

Example 7

a. Met die geld van daardie diamant sou ons nooit weer hoef te gewerk het nie.
with the money of that diamond shall.AUX.MOD.PRT we never again need.AUX.MOD PTCL.INF work.PST.PTCP have.AUX PTCL.NEG
With the money from that diamond we would never have needed to work again.
K. Marais: Keiservoël, 2016, 347
b. Ek wou vir jou die helfte gegee het.
I want.to.AUX.MOD.PRT for you.2SG the half give.PST.PTCP have.AUX
I wanted to give you half.
c. 'n Mens moes dit seker nie geëet het nie, maar ek het.
a person must.AUX.MOD.PRT it probably not eat.PST.PTCP have.AUX not but.CNJ I have.AUX
I suppose I shouldn’t have eaten it, but I did.
J. Fouché: Verstevlei, 2013, 10
d. Maar jy kon darem met hom gepraat het.
but.CNJ you.2SG can.AUX.MOD.PRT surely with him speak.PST.PTCP have.AUX
Surely you could have spoken to him.
O. Schoeman: Swartskaap, 2009, 9
e. Ek sou gesien het as die koekoek by my verbygekom het.
I will.AUX.MOD.PRT see.PST.PTCP have.AUX if.CNJ the cuckoo by me past.come.PST.PTCP have.AUX
I would have seen if the cuckoo came past me.

The epistemic preterite kon may express diminished likelihood of the proposition:

Example 8

Hy kon wel die boom afgekap het, ons weet nie.
he can.AUX.MOD.PRT indeed the tree off.chop.PST.PTCP have.AUX we know not
He could indeed have cut down the tree, we don't know.

The preterite sou suggests external evidence; the perfect situates the action in the past:

Example 9

Sy sou al die juwele met haar saamgeneem het toe sy landuit gevlug het.
she shall.AUX.MOD.PRT all the jewels with her along.take.PST.PTCP have.AUX when.CNJ she land.out flee.PST.PTCP have.AUX
She reportedly took all the jewels with her when she fled the country

Construction 1 also has passive correlates:

Example 10

Die boom kon wel deur hom afgekap gewees het.
the tree can.AUX.MOD.PRT indeed by him off.chop.PST.PST be.PST.PTCP have.AUX
The tree could have been cut down by him

Table 1. Functions of modal only vs Construction 1

Table 1
Modal only Modal + perfect
(i) counterfactuality / irrealis (proposition not true) root sense; preterite indicates past tense (sou, moes, kon, wou) perfect indicates counter-factuality
(ii) epistemic sense (likelihood of proposition) epistemic sense; preterite lowers likelihood (kon) perfect indicates past tense of embedded factual proposition
(iii)evidentiality (reported truth) root sense (sou: past tense) perfect indicates past tense of embedded factual proposition

Though this construction provides the most explicit way of expressing an epistemic or evidential sense with a past tense proposition, or counterfactuality as such, there are a number of factors which may introduce ambiguity. When a modal, such as mag may or hoef (te) need, has no preterite, the past tense can only be expressed by the perfect, and counterfactuality is not implied:

Example 11

a. Ek onthou hoe ek altyd Woensdagaande ... later mag wakker gebly het.
I remember how.CNJ I always Wednesday.evenings later may.AUX.MOD awake stay.PST.PTCP have.AUX
I remember how I was always allowed to stay awake longer on Wednesday evenings.
I. Salzwedel: Onvertelde stories, 2012, 21
b. Ek mag nie in die kring van die manne gekom het nie.
I may.AUX.MOD not in the circle of the men come.PST.PTCP have.AUX PTCL.NEG
I wasn’t allowed to come into the circle of the men.
D. Matthee: Pieternella, 2000, 518
c. Hulle hoef nie soveel moeite te gedoen het nie.
they need.AUX.MOD not so.much trouble PTCL.INF do.PST.PTCP have.AUX PTCL.NEG
They needn’t have gone to so much trouble.
A.P.Brink: Donkermaan, 2000, 205
d. Vir hom hoef sy nooit dramatiese stories te vertel het nie.
for him need.AUX.MOD she never dramatic stories PTCL.INF tell.PST.PTCP have.AUX PTCL.NEG
She never needed to tell him dramatical stories.
R. Rust: Lyf onthou, 2012, 139

Older speakers who still make use of the preterite mog may add a perfect to reinforce past reference:

Example 12

a. daardie tyd mog jy nie laat gekom het nie.
that time may.AUX.MOD.PRT you.2SG not late come.PST.PTCP have.AUX PTCL.NEG
in those days you were not allowed to be late
M. de Klerk on radio, 1998/4/28
b. hy mog nie bestuur het nie.
he may.AUX.MOD.PRT not drive.PST.PTCP have.AUX PTCL.NEG
he wasn’t allowed to drive
D. Serfontein: Vrypas, 2009, 24

Even when the modal has a preterite, like wou wanted to or kon could, some speakers would prefer indicating past tense by means of the perfect instead of the modal:

Example 13

a. Ansie se pa wil Greundal ook gekoop het destyds.
Ansie POSS dad want.to.AUX.MOD Greundal also buy.PST.PTCP have.AUX at.the.time
At the time Ansie’s dad wanted to buy Greundal too.
J. van Tonder: Sagie, 2013, 76
b. Kán jy nie gebly het nie, Kanna?
can.AUX.MOD you.2SG not stay.PST.PTCP have.AUX PTCL.NEG, Kanna
Couldn’t you have stayed on, Kanna?
A. Smal: Kanna, 1965, 17

Some speakers indicate past tense redundantly even in factual propositions:

Example 14

hy moes ook die toets gedoen het
he must.AUX.MOD.PRT also the test do.PST.PTCP have.AUX
he also had to past the test
P. de Lille on RSG radio

The previous examples demonstrate that the addition of the perfect after a modal need not indicate counterfactuality, but may serve to express past tense or merely to reinforce past reference. A proposition containing a modal preterite may therefore have several interpretations: irrealis (15a), realis, with redundant perfect (15b), and epistemic modal (15c):

Example 15

a. Hy moes die probleem opgelos het, maar het nie.
he must.AUX.MOD.PRT the problem solve.PST.PTCP have.AUX but.CNJ have.AUX not
He should have solved the problem, but didn’t.
b. Hy moes die probleem opgelos het.
he must.AUX.MOD.PRT the problem solve.PST.PTCP have.AUX
He had to solve the problem.
c. Hy moes die probleem opgelos het.
he must.AUX.MOD.PRT the problem solve.PST.PTCP have.AUX
It is likely that he solved the problem.

Therefore, while the addition of the perfect in a proposition containing a modal is an important mechanism to signal counterfactuality, the perfect may also be pressed into service merely to signal or reinforce past reference.

[+]Construction 2: Perfect with internal modal

Declaratives with positive polarity but without modal verbs, are by implication factual, as the speaker may be expected to impart meaningful information; Thompson (2014:55) states that the basic function of the Finite is to orient the listener towards the kind of validity being claimed for the proposition . (Note that the term finite here includes reference to the sentential subject and its relationship to what is traditionally referred to as the finite verb.) Thus the default interpretation of the following proposition is factual:

Example 16

Petra het die pannekoeke gebak.
Petra have.AUX the pancakes bake.PST.PTCP
Petra baked the pancakes.

When a modal is introduced into a declarative such as the above, factuality is retained, as in:

Example 17

Petra het die pannekoeke moes bak.
Petra have.AUX the pancakes must.AUX.MOD.PRT bake
Petra had to bake the pancakes and did so.

The Afrikaans construction, which may also have a present tense / infinitival modal such as moet must in the same meaning, derives from a Dutch pair explicitly contrasting factuality, as in (18a) and counterfactuality, as in (18b):

Example 18

a. Petra heeft de pannekoeken moeten bakken.
Petra have.AUX the pancakes must.AUX.MOD.INF bake.INF
Petra had to bake the pancakes (and did so).
b. Petra had de pannekoeken moeten bakken.
Petra have.AUX.PRT the pancakes must.AUX.MOD.INF bake.INF
Petra should have baked the pancakes (but didn’t do so).

The counterfactual construction in example (18b) above left no reflex in Afrikaans owing to the loss of had as preterite,  but is nevertheless encountered sporadically:

Example 19

had ek kon weet waarvan dit 'n begin was
have.AUX.PRT I can.AUX.MOD.PRT know.INF REL.from this a beginning be.PRT
if only I could know what this was a beginning of
J.C. Steyn: M.E.R., 2004, 440

The Afrikaans factual construction differs from the Dutch by typically employing a modal preterite (though occasionally also a present). The preterite may be viewed as an adaptation to perfect tense context.

Example 20

a. Ek het min boeke by hom kon bekostig.
I have.AUX few books at him can.AUX.MOD.PRT afford.INF
I could afford few of his books.
H. Aucamp: In die vroegte, 2003, 114
b. Ek het dit ook kon smaak. 'n Kosbare eerste liefde.
I have.AUX it also can.AUX.MOD.PRT taste.INF a precious first love
I could also experience it. A precious first love.
J. Miles: Voetstoots, 2009, 190
c. Hier het hy van voor af moes begin.
here have.AUX he from front of must.AUX.MOD.PRT begin
Here he had to start from the beginning.
J. Miles: Buiteveld, 2003, 217
d. Reeds die eerste aand het hy ... op die dek wou slaap.
already the first evening have.AUX he on the deck want.to.AUX.MOD.PRT sleep.INF
On the first night he already wanted to sleep on deck.
E. Joubert: Twee vroue, 2002, 12
e. Hoekom het daardie manne 'n dooie so stilletjies wou wegvat?
why have.AUX those men a dead.one so quietly want.to.AUX.MOD.PRT away.take.INF
Why did those men want to remove a dead body so quietly?
K. Brynard: Tuisland, 2016, 274
f. al het ek op my tone op die tafel mog kyk
even.though have.AUX I on my toes on the table may.AUX.MOD.PRT look.INF
even though I was permitted to look onto the table on my toes
B. Breytenbach: Windvanger, 2007, 118

Modal presents/ bare infinitives are also used:

Example 21

a. So het hy ook sy vrou en kinders 'n paar dae kan gaan besoek.
so have.AUX he also his wife and children a couple.of days can.AUX.MOD go.LINK visit.INF
In this way he could also visit his wife and children for a few days.
C. de Wet: Lewensbeskrywing, 1920, 28
b. Ons het later twee bakkies moet afsit en roei.
we have.AUX later two fishing.boats must.AUX.MOD down.let.INF and row.INF
Later on we had to launch two small fishing boats and row.
E. Kotze: Toring, 2009, 123

The combination het kon droom, often with a negative, is a fixed expression:

Example 22

Sy het net kon droom van so 'n gemakstoel.
she have.AUX only can.AUX.MOD.PRT dream.INF of such an easy.chair
She could only dream of an easy chair like this.
E. Kotze: Toring, 2009, 118

The use of Construction 2, an explicitly factual construction, is however restricted in several ways. It is grammatically restricted by not having a passive,  as in (23a) and by being excluded from subordinate clauses, as in (23b):

Example 23

a. * Die pannekoeke het deur Petra gebak kon word.
the pancakes have.AUX by Petra bake.PST.PTCP can.AUX.MOD.PRT be. AUX.PASS.PRS
To mean: The pancakes could be baked by Petra.
b. * Ek weet dat Petra die pannekoeke het kon bak/kon bak het.
I know that.COMP Petra the pancakes have.AUX can.AUX.MOD.PRT bake / can.AUX.MOD.PRT bake have.AUX
To mean: ‘I know that Petra could bake the pancakes.

(23b) is to be distinguished from (24), which formally requires a past participle (gebak bake.PST.PTCP) and semantically expresses counterfactuality rather than factuality.

Example 24

Ek weet dat Petra die pannekoeke kon gebak het
I know that.COMP Petra the pancakes can.AUX.MOD.PRT bake.PST.PTCP have.AUX
I know that Petra could bake the pancakes.

Apart from its grammatical restriction, Construction 2 is probably idiolectally restricted (i.e. not used by everyone) and falling into disuse (considered by F. Ponelis to be recessive). In sum: Though many speakers avail themselves of this construction to add a modal qualification to a factual declarative, it is grammatically restricted and probably not part of the competence of all speakers.

[+]Conditional and hypothetical statements

Conditional clauses may be introduced by complementisers such as as or indien if, by sou, the preterite of sal (with inversion), or by both (without inversion):

Example 25

a. Indien sy hart ophou klop, roep dadelik die dokter.
if.CNJ his heart stop.LINK beat.INF call.IMP immediately the doctor
If his heart stops beating, call the doctor immediately.
b. En sou ek te lank vat om te loop, sou Nanna naderhand vra...
and shall.AUX.MOD.PRT I too long take for.COMP PTCL.INF walk.INF will.AUX.MOD.PRT Nanna later.on ask.INF
And if I were to take too long to go, Nanna would begin to ask ...
C.J. Bakkes: Norre vøk, 2008, 11
c. As sy hart sou ophou klop, roep dadelik die dokter.
if.CNJ his heart shall.AUX.MOD.PRT stop.LINK beat.INF call.IMP immediately the doctor
If his heart were to stop beating, call the doctor immediately.
  • De Villiers, M1971Die grammatika van tyd en modaliteit.Balkema
  • Fleischman, Suzanne1989Temporal distance: a basic linguistic metaphorStudies in Language131-50
  • Thompson, Geoff2014Introducing Functional GrammarRoutledge
This is a beta version.