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Semantic classification of main verbs

The semantic classification of main verbs can be approached in two different ways, both of which straddle classifications of the verb together with the entire clause construction. A well-established approach is to do semantic classification in terms of aspectuality, drawing on a classification that originated with Vendler(1957). Vendler draws distinctions among classes of verbs in terms of a number of temporal properties that he terms schemata:

  • Stative versus dynamic: whether or not the verb denotes an event with successive phases or just a single continuous state;
  • Among dynamic verbs – activities versus telic verbs: whether or not the verb denotes an event that lacks a defined end-point/completion or has a defined goal;
  • Among telic verbs – achievements versus accomplishments: whether the goal-state of the event is reached instantaneously or follows from a preparatory phase that has some temporal duration.

A typical refinement that Comrie (1976) adds, is to distinguish between achievements and semelfactives. Both these categories are non-durative, but where achievements have a defined goal, semelfactives lack such a goal, and simply refer to momentaneous events.

Another approach to verb classification is more substantive and directed at kinds of events. The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Biber et al. 1999:360-364) distinguishes seven major semantic domains, which are equally applicable to Afrikaans: activity verbs, communication verbs, mental verbs, causative verbs, verbs of simple occurrence, verbs of existence or relationship, and aspectual verbs.

[+]Lexical aspect

Vendler’s theory of lexical aspect, also known by the German name of Aktionsart, proceeds from the view that the verb meaning is closely related to time, not only in terms of the distinction between present and past (and future) tenses, but also in terms of the way certain very general temporal schemata underpin the use of verbs.

Lexical aspect should be distinguished from grammatical aspect, where the latter refers to the perfectivity or imperfectivity of the verb. Other terms for lexical aspect include: situation types, actionality, aspectual class, aspectual character, and eventuality type.

The first distinction drawn by Vendler is between stative and dynamic verbs. Dynamic verbs build on successive phases of events that unfold over the course of time, for instance speel to play, loop to walk, and kook to cook. In the case of kook, the agent needs to select ingredients, combine them in a suitable contained, apply a source of heat, and then let the heat cook the ingredients – liquid or otherwise. By contrast, as far as stative verbs are concerned, Vendler's idea is that they exist beyond an association with specific moments in time, for example states of being, usually encoded by is be.PRS in Afrikaans, but also mental status such as ken to know or liefhê to love. Successive phases cannot be differentiated within such existential or mental states.

Vendler does not distinguish further subtypes of states, but draws two further distinctions within the class of dynamic verbs. One distinction is whether the event leads to some defined goal or completion, on the basis of which a distinction can be drawn between telic and a-telic verb classes. The a-telic verbs that denote processes that continue for a period of time and then come to an end are regarded as activities, such as draf to jog, speel to play, or gesels to chat. The point of completion is not in focus in the construal. Verbs that denote processes that carry on for a period of time before they terminate in some defined goal or point of completion are regarded as accomplishments, such as hardloop ('n marathon) to run (a marathon), speel ('n rondte gholf) to play (a round of golf), or kook ('n maaltyd) to cook (a meal). He points to distinctions in terms of truth conditions: one can use activity verbs to describe all events that continued for a period of time in truthful ways, whereas accomplishments are only used truthfully if the goal or point of completion has been achieved. Thus, example (1a) will be true no matter how far the subject has run, while example (1b) will only be true if the subject completed the race, but not if s/he only participated without having reached the finish line.

Example 1

a. Ek het vandag lekker gehardloop.
I ran nicely today.
b. Ek het vandag 'n marathon gehardloop.
I ran a marathon today.

There are verbs that are usually only associated with one of the activity or accomplishment classes. Typical accomplishment verbs are gee to give, afhandel to finish off, maak to make, or vang to catch while typical activities are doen to do, werk to work, wandel to stroll, dans to dance, gesels to chat, or lag to laugh. In many cases, though, the same verb can be used either to denote an activity or an accomplishment, and the distinction follows from the entire clause, often whether or not there is a syntactic complement that identifies the goal explicitly, as the contrast between examples (1a) and (1b) show. Another contrasting example is:

Example 2

a. Dan skop hy daai bal oor die pale.
Then he kicks the ball through the posts.
PCSA, adjusted
b. Ja, ek skop ewe goed met albei voete.
Yes, I kick equally well with both feet.
PCSA, adjusted

A related way in which activities and accomplishments are distinguished is by the alternation of a PP or NP as complement, as illustrated by the following examples, where the prepositional use in (3a) occurs as part of an activity, while the NP in (3b) occurs as part of an accomplishment:

Example 3

a. Hy eet van die happies op die tafel.
Hy eet [(PP) van die happies op die tafel].
He eats some of the snacks on the table.
b. Hy eet al die kos in sy bord.
Hy eet [(NP) al die kos in sy bord].
He east all the food on his plate.

Whether the direct object is definite or indefinite also potentially contributes to the contrast between activities and accomplishments, where indefiniteness (or bare plural nouns) combines with activities, as in (4a), and definiteness with accomplishments, as in (4b).

Example 4

a. Hy eet graag afval / pruimedante.
He gladly eats offal / prunes.
b. Hy eet sy afval / die pruimedante.
He eats his offal / the prunes.

These examples show that the semantic properties and syntactic structure are closely related and need to be considered in conjunction for a comprehensive understanding of the use of verbs.

Where both activities and accomplishments have intrinsic duration (they continue for a period of time), there are verbs that denote events without temporal duration. These events occur in a single moment (at least in terms of everyday human perception: with scientific instruments, extremely small temporal spans can be measured and their duration quantified, but human language does not align with this type of scientific perspective). The momentaneous verbs can likewise be subdivided into those that have a goal, achievements, and those that do not have a goal, semelfactives. Typical achievement verbs are aankom to arrive, breek to break, val to fall, herken to recognise, ontdek to discover, and sterf to die while semelfactive verbs include klop to knock, piep to beep, and nies to sneeze. Semelfactives tend to be used iteratively, with multiple repetitions of the same activity. With achievements, there is a change of state from before to after the event – something is in working order, but if something like a dam wall breaks, then there is a new state without a functioning dam afterwards, as illustrated by (5), whereas there is typically no significant change of state before and after somebody sneezes, as illustrated in (6).

Example 5

Die ou dam het gebreek in neentien-vier-en-twintig.
The old dam broke in nineteen twenty four.
Example 6

Ek het net genies.
I just sneezed.
PCSA, adjusted

The investigation of lexical aspect in Afrikaans does not have an extensive history, but some work has been done by Breed (2012). She offered Afrikaans translations for the Vendler categories, which I have adjusted slightly, in consultation with her. We therefore propose the following terms: statief for stative, dinamies for dynamic, aktiwiteit for activity, oombliksgebeure for semelfactive, eindpuntgebeure for achievement, and puntgebeure for accomplishment. Breed (2012:32) originally also offered the following further translations: verwesenliking for achievement, and uitvoering for accomplishment.

[+]Process types

Where the lexical aspect approach to verb semantics focuses on the relationship between the event and its temporal profile, another way of approaching verb semantics is by considering a broad taxonomy of process types. Halliday and Matthiessen (2014) point out that children at age 3-4 months become aware of a differences between events going on in the world out there, and events taking place inside the human consciousness (perceptions, emotions, imagination). Later on, a third type of process also develops, where children develop the ability to relate things. Based on these three initial types of experiences, Halliday and Matthiessen (2014) propose a primary contrast between material, mental and relational processes, but they also extend that to include refinements in the grey areas between these primary types, such as verbal processes.

A similar intuition underlies the semantic classification of verb meaning proposed by the Longman Grammar of Written and Spoken English (Biber et al. 1999:360-364) into categories that they call major semantic domains. Such a classification aims to distinguish verb meanings in terms of how they present the events going on in the real world of experience, or an inner or imaginary world, and is at first glance further removed from grammatical concerns. However, especially in the way this classification is construed by Halliday and Matthiessen (2014), each process type typically requires the involvement of particular participants, which are the arguments involved in the events, and thus the semantic classification of process types does offer an insightful perspective on the relationship between verbs and their arguments. The classification set out here is based primarily on Biber et al. (1999) but also incorporates insights from Halliday and Matthiessen (2014) where applicable.

Activity verbs refer to processes that can be observed and involve some movement in the material world. Typical activity verbs include werk to work, gebruik to use, gee to give, staan to stand, neem to take, maak to make, loop to walk, sit to sit, aangee to pass, speel to play and bak to bake. A subtype of the activity verb, which Biber et al. (1999) treat as separate category, but Halliday and Matthiessen (2014) not, is the case of non-agentive material events, where something clearly happens, but a volitional agent is not the force behind the event. Such verbs include gebeur to happen, verander to change, groei to grow, and val to fall. Examples of activity verbs in context are:

Example 7

a. Hoe laat begin jy werk in die oggende daar op die plaas?
At what time do you begin to work there on the farm in the mornings?
b. Ek gebruik niks anders as Radox-badolie nie.
I don't use anything but Radox bath oil.
c. Gee vir my so 'n bietjie water.
Give me a little water.
d. Hulle maak vuur buite.
They are making fire outside.
e. Kyk dat jy nie afval nie.
See to it that you don't fall off.
PCSA, adjusted

Communication verbs denote activities that result in the production of utterances, rather than a more concrete product. Such utterances may be aural or physical, but the physical outcomes are not construed as material objects only, but as written marks that are to be interpreted in terms of their communicative intent. Typical communication verbs in Afrikaans include: to say, skryf to write, praat to talk, stel to state, bespreek to discuss, beskryf to describe, and vertel to tell. Examples of communication verbs in context are:

Example 8

a. Ek die lekkerste gedeelte was maar om met die kleinspan te werk.
I'd say that the nicest part has always been to work with the young ones.
b. Hy skryf vir my laasweek 'n brief.
He wrote me a letter last week.
c. Die eienskappe sal eers afsonderlik bespreek word.
The characteristics will first be discussed separately.

Mental verbs denote events that take place in the world of human consciousness, and require a human experiencer. Broadly speaking, a distinction can be drawn between emotional meanings (voel to feel, hou van to like, haat to hate, verpes to detest), cognitive meanings (weet to know, dink to think, leer to learn) and sensory perception (sien to see, hoor to hear). Usually the passive counterpart of a communication verb is also grouped with mental verbs as forms of sensory perception (e.g. luister to listen, lees to read). Some mental verbs denote processes that require volitional activity, such as besluit to decide, beplan to plan, deurdink to think through, lees to read, whereas often the event takes place without the experiencer having to intend or initiate the process, e.g. sien to see, hoor to hear, or voel to feel. Examples of mental verbs in context are:

Example 9

a. Ek dink hierdie petrolverhoging was buitensporig.
I think this petrol price increase was excessive.
b. Hulle sien daar sit 'n man met 'n kenbaard of 'n hoed op sy kop.
They see a man sitting there with a goatee or a hat on his head.
c. ...klere waarin 'n tiener tuis sal voel.
…clothes in which a teenager will feel at home.

In some cases, mental processes shade into states, rather than being activities that take place, e.g. ken to know, weet to know, verstaan to understand, as illustrated by the examples in (10).

Example 10

a. Ken julle so 'n speletjie?
Do you know such a game?
b. Het jy hulle taal nie lekker verstaan nie, of wat?
Did you not understand their language well, or what?

Causative verbs indicate a subject that acts to facilitate or cause some other event. They often take a complement clause (finite or non-finite), or else a noun phrase complement that contains a deverbal noun, to indicate the main event that is being caused by the subject. Examples of verbs that are used as causative verbs in Afrikaans are laat to let, help to help, sorg to ensure, stuur to send and maak to make, as illustrated by the examples in (11).

Example 11

a. Is daar mense wat jou help om te was en aan te trek?
Are there people who help you to wash and dress?
b. Nou laat hulle die veldperde kom.
Now they let the wild horses come.
c. Die droogte maak dat die mense meer hulle plek kan volstaan in die lewe en nie so maklik tou opgee nie.
The drought makes people be better more resilient and not give up so easily.

Aspectual verbs shade into the meaning of non-main verbs, and are in fact often used with another main verbs, although they are sometimes also used as main verb of a clause. These verbs profile one or more temporal phase of some process, to the exclusion of the entire event, for instance the verbs begin to begin, voltooi to complete, aanhou to continue, bly to stay, but also direct or indirect linking verbs such as staan to stand, loop to walk, and sit to sit. Verbs that are primarily aspectual are illustrated in (12), while linking verbs with aspectual meaning are illustrated in (13).

Example 12

a. En hoe het u nou begin belangstel in die familiegeskiedenis?
And now how did you begin to be interested in the family history?
b. Die ander outjie bly gelukkig staan.
The other guy luckily continued to stand.
c. Ons het die damme net verlede jaar voltooi.
We only completed the dams last year.
Example 13

a. Dit sal verhoed dat jy jouself sit en bejammer.
This will prevent you from just sitting and feeling sorry for yourself.
b. Daar moet jy darem jou oë oophou, nie loop en slaap en so aan nie.
You must keep your eyes open there, and not go and sleep or so.

The category of existence and relationship verbs identified by Biber et al. (1999) includes verbs that are used as copular verbs, in the case of Afrikaans wees to be – especially its present tense form is be.PRS, and also lyk to look, blyk to seem, and others, as well as verbs that are used as main verbs, such as lewe to live, beteken to mean, en dui to indicate. In these cases, a specific event does not unfold over time, but a construal is presented about a particular situation that is in existence, or a relationship is postulated between two different entities, including a relationship of possession, encoded by verbs such as het to have and besit to own. Typical examples of the use of existence and relationship verbs are:

Example 14

a. Daai grond is baie vrugbaar.
That land is very fertile.
b. Almal van hulle het 'n goeie kans.
All of them have a good chance.
c. Dan beteken dit daar's inmenging in die markstelsel.
Then it means there is interference in the market system.
d. Ons lewe nie meer vreedsaam nie.
We don't live peacefully anymore.
  • Biber, Douglas, Johansson, Stig, Leech, Geoffrey, Conrad, Susan & Finegan, Edward1999Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written EnglishHarlow, Essex: Pearson Education Ltd
  • Biber, Douglas, Johansson, Stig, Leech, Geoffrey, Conrad, Susan & Finegan, Edward1999Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written EnglishHarlow, Essex: Pearson Education Ltd
  • Biber, Douglas, Johansson, Stig, Leech, Geoffrey, Conrad, Susan & Finegan, Edward1999Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written EnglishHarlow, Essex: Pearson Education Ltd
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  • Halliday, M.A.K. & Matthiessen, C.M.I.M2014Halliday's Introduction to Functional GrammarRoutledge
  • Halliday, M.A.K. & Matthiessen, C.M.I.M2014Halliday's Introduction to Functional GrammarRoutledge
  • Halliday, M.A.K. & Matthiessen, C.M.I.M2014Halliday's Introduction to Functional GrammarRoutledge
  • Vendler, Zeno1957Verbs and timesThe Philosophical Review56143-160
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