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Classification of copular verbs

Copula verb constructions in Afrikaans contain a copula verb, a subject and a complementive (or predicate). The classification of the construction is mainly based on the semantic contribution of the complementive, which relates to the subject. For this reason, the complementive is often called the subject complement. Copula verb constructions also allow a wider range of possible syntactic realisations of both the subject (noun phrase or complement clause), and the complementive (noun phrase, adjective phrase, complement clause or adverbial) in comparison to typical dynamic verb constructions.

The semantic analysis of the copular verbs themselves is set out elsewhere. This section zooms in on the meanings that the complementive contributes to the clause as a whole, and on the possible syntactic realisations of the subject and complementive.

Copula verbs are also used in a number of specific constructions with complement clauses, which have their own grammatical properties and semantic possibilities. The use of subject clauses and complementive (or predicate) clauses are presented elsewhere, in terms of the complement clause type: declarative subject, and declarative predicate clauses, interrogative subject and interrogative predicate clauses, and infinitive complement clauses.

A number of aspectual constructions in Afrikaans, such as [aan die NOM wees] [to be X-ing] make use of the copular verb wees to be, which are explained as part of the exposition of aspect.

[+]Semantics of complementives

The complementive attributes a range of possible specifications or meanings to the subject (Ponelis 1979:218-227). Some of these meanings are restricted to particular syntactic realisations, but others allow different ways of expression in syntactic categories.

A description of the subject, typically encoded by an adjective phrase or a noun phrase, is one of the most typical meanings that a complementive encodes. These are illustrated in example (1a) and (1b). Noun phrases used descriptively as complementives are typically indefinite.

Example 1

a. Johannes Calvyn Luther Willems is bang vir enigiets in die wêreld.
Johannes Calvyn Luther Willems is [(AP) bang vir enigiets in die wêreld].
John Calvin Luther Williams is afraid of anything in the world.
b. Die kleedrepetisie is 'n fiasko.
Die kleedrepetisie is [(NP) 'n fiasko].
The dress rehearsal is a fiasco.

The complementive can relate to the subject as an identifier, rather than a descriptor, in which case the complementive is a definite noun phrase, as illustrated by example (2a), including a proper noun, as in (2b).

Example 2

a. Die gewig van 'n liggaam is die krag waarmee die aarde dit aantrek.
Die gewig van 'n liggaam is [(NP) die krag waarmee die aarde dit aantrek].
The weight of a body is the force with which the earth attracts it
b. Die Springbokke se kaptein is Siya Kolisi.
Die Springbokke se kaptein is [(NP) Siya Kolisi].
The Springbok captain is Siya Kolisi.

It is often possible to invert the subject and complementive without noticeable difference in meaning, and without loss of grammaticality, as shown by example (3a), but this is a marked option for descriptors and used only in emphatic ways, usually restricted to poetic language, as illustrated by (3b).

Example 3

a. Siya Kolisi is die Springbokke se kaptein.
[(NP) Siya Kolisi] is [(NP) die Springbokke se kaptein].
Siya Kolisi is the Springbok captain.
b. O koud is die windjie en skraal
O [(AP) koud] is [(NP) die windjie] en skraal
Oh cold is the wind and slight
E. Marais: "Winternag"

Some complementives, both adjectival and nominal, express measurements. These measurements can be spatial, temporal, or even cover the cost of something.

Example 4

a. Die ledigheid kos die maatskappye etlike miljoene dollars.
Die ledigheid kos die maatskappye [(NP) etlike miljoene dollars].
The idleness costs the companies several million dollars.
b. Die rus duur nooit lank nie.
Die rus duur nooit [(AP) lank] nie.
The peace never lasts long.
HCSA, adjusted
c. Die gewig van een liter water is een kilogram.
Die gewig van een liter water is [(NP) een kilogram].
The mass of a liter of water is one kilogram.

Locative meanings are conveyed by adverbials, either indicating a place or a direction, as illustrated by the examples in (5). In the case of direction, the postposition toe towards is often used to distinguish mere location from the intended goal of the movement, without using a dynamic verb to denote the actual movement.

Example 5

a. Ons bly in 'n veiligheidskompleks.
Ons bly [(PP) in 'n veiligheidskompleks].
We live in a security complex.
b. Ons is hier by die huis.
Ons is [(AdvP) hier by die huis].
We are here in our house
c. Pappa is al kamer toe.
Pappa is al [(PP) kamer toe].
Daddy has already gone to the room.

Complementives can be used to express temporal meanings, mainly a point in time. Usually, a dummy subject dit is used, with the copular verb wees to be or word to become, as illustrated by the examples in (6).

Example 6

a. Dit is mos Vrydag.
Dit is mos [(NP) Vrydag].
It is Friday indeed.
b. Dit word altyd weer aand.
Dit word altyd weer [(NP) aand].
It always becomes evening again.
[+]Syntax of complementives

Noun phrases, adjective phrases, adverb phrases and preposition phrases are all used as potential complementives, alongside complement clauses.

In the analysis presented in this section and in the more detailed discussion of the use of complementives, adverbials (including adverb phrases and preposition phrases) are regarded as complementives and therefore the copular construction is interpreted to include adverbials that encode spatial meanings. Another possible analysis is to analyse the copular verbs as independent verbs, a special subtype of the intransitive, when combined with a compulsory adverbial, as is done in the discussion of complementive predication of adpositions.

The noun phrase remains the most typical complementive in copular verb constructions, just like it is in other argument constructions for dynamic verbs. It can be used to convey a range of meanings: identifying (in which case it has to be definite) – example (2), descriptive (in which case it has to be indefinite) – example (1b), measure (where the head noun has to denote a unit of measurement or some generalised notion of measuring a quantity) – example (4a, 4c), and adverbial meanings place and time (where the noun has to indicate a place or delineate a point in time ) – example (6).

An adjective phrase is mainly used to describe a noun, as in example (1a) and (3b). Such use of the adjective is called a predicative adjective, and stands in contrast with an attributive adjective, that does not combine with a noun to form a clause, but rather serves as a premodifier within a noun phrase. The contrast is exemplified in (7).

Example 7

a. Hier is 'n lekker koppie koffie.
Hier is [(NP) 'n lekker koppie koffie].
Here is a nice cup of coffee.
b. Die koppie koffie is lekker.
[(Clause) Die koppie koffie is [(AP) lekker]].
The cup of coffee is nice.

The use of adverbials, either in the form of adverb phrases or preposition phrases, as illustrated by the examples in (5), has to be distinguished from the use of adverbials as optional adjuncts in clauses. The adverbials in (5) cannot be omitted, otherwise the sentences become ungrammatical. The distinction is illustrated by the pair of examples in (8), where the primed examples indicate the consequences of omitting the adverbial.

Example 8

a. Die bom het gebars op Vrydagmiddag.
The bomb exploded on Friday afternoon.
[Optional adverbial use]
a.' Die bom het gebars.
The bomb exploded.
b. Die wedstryd was op Vrydagmiddag.
The game was on Friday afternoon
[Compulsory complementive use]
b.' *Die wedstryd was.
The game was.
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
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