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Introduction to the verb phrase

Afrikaans, like all other languages, has a category of main verbs. The main verb encodes the state of affairs represented in each clause from a semantic point of view, and also forms the head of the clause from a syntactic point of view. The main verbs in Afrikaans should be distinguished from a number of other sub-categories that can be grouped together as non-main verbs. The non-verbs can be divided into the auxiliary verbs for tense and voice, the modal auxiliaries, and a group of verbs traditionally called skakelwerkwoorde (literally linking verbs) in the terminological tradition of grammatical description in Afrikaans.

Semantically speaking, main verbs convey what the state of affairs represented in a particular clause is, such as the activity taking place, or that a particular state that obtains, in which case there is often supplemental information about the state in the form of an adjectival or nominal predicate. Typical activities are expressed by the verbs doen to do en skryf to write in example (1), while the verb is to be in example (2) points to the existence of a particular state, although what that state entails, is spelled out by the copular predicate in remainder of the sentence: vol blomme covered by flowers.

Hier kan ek nog breiwerk doen en briewe skryf aan my familie en vriende.
Here I can still do knitting and write letters to my family and friends.
Namakwaland is vol blomme.
Namaqualand is covered by flowers.

The finite (but not closed) set of non-main verbs add additional information about the state of affairs being represented.

  • The most grammaticalised of the auxiliary verbs are used in constructions that convey meanings of past tense (het have.AUX.PST) or passive voice (is be.AUX.PASS.PST, word be.AUX.PASS.PRS).
  • The modal auxiliaries convey epistemic, deontic and dynamic modal meanings.
  • The linking verbs convey temporal (gaan go) and aspectual meanings (begin begin, aanhou continue, loop walk, sit sit, staan stand). In the analysis of some, such as Ponelis (1979), the meanings of the linking verbs extend to causative (laat let) and hortative (basta don't, beter had better) meanings.

The morphological characteristics of Afrikaans verbs are relatively few. Compared to its early modern Dutch ancestor and its contemporary Dutch sibling, Afrikaans has lost verb inflection for person and number, and has lost most of the inflections for the past tense. The only exceptions are the modal verbs and the copular verb wees to be, which contrasts a present tense form is be.PRS with a past tense for was be.PRT.

The verb base form usually functions as the infinitive and the present tense form, which are therefore identical, except for wees to be and to have, which have infinitive forms that differ from the present tense, respectively is be.PRS and het have.PRS. A periphrastic perfect construction, consisting of an auxiliary (het have.AUX.PST in the active and is be.AUX.PASS.PST in the passive) and the past participle form, with prefix ge- and the base form of the verb, is the usual form for conveying the past tense meaning.

Verbs can be identified syntactically by their distribution. In declarative main clauses, the first of all the verbs occurs in second position, whether this is a (single) main verb, as highlighted in (3a), or an auxiliary verb as highlighted in (3b). When more than one verb occurs, only the first (non-main) verb occurs in the second position, and all remaining verbs cluster together in the verb-final position, as highligted in (3c) and (3d).

a. Jy het 'n vierwielvoertuig.
you have.PRS a four.wheel.vehicle
You have a four-wheel drive vehicle.
b. Jy moet 'n vierwielvoertuig hê.
you must.AUX.MOD a four.wheel.vehicle have.INF
You must have a four-wheel drive vehicle.
c. Jy sal 'n vierwielvoertuig moet hê.
you will.AUX.MOD a four.wheel.vehicle must.AUX.MOD have.INF
You will need to have a four-wheel drive vehicle.
d. Jy moes 'n vierwielvoertuig gehad het.
you must.AUX.MOD.PRT a four.wheel.vehicle have.PST have.AUX
You must have had a four-wheel drive vehicle.

In subordinate clauses, all verbs occur in the clause-final position, as shown by example (4), with specific fixed positions for the relative order of the non-main and main verbs.

Nou het elkeen sy eie werk [wat hy op die boot moet doen].
now have.PRS everyone his own work [that he on the boat must.AUX.MOD do.INF]
Now everyone has their own job that they must do on the boat.

In main clauses other than declaratives, verbs can occur in the initial position, as shown for yes/no (general) interrogatives in example (5) or imperatives in example (6). In WH (specific) interrogatives, the verb is still found in the second position, after the WH-pronoun, as illustrated in (7).

Gaan jy dit doen?
go.PRS you it do.INF
Are you going to do it?
Maak die punt om jou lyf vas.
make.IMP the point around your waist tight
Tie the point around your waist.
Wie gaan dit doen?
who go.PRS it do.INF
Who is going to do it?

Verbs are used in syntactic constructions with various complementation patterns – intransitive, transitive, ditransitive, and a range of other more specialised options. These syntactic options relate to the semantic properties of verbs and the nominal arguments that they select, but the relationship is not always transparent, with some degree of conventionalisation in the way verbs combine with complements. Furthermore, while nominal complements are typical, certain verb types, such as those that denote mental or communicative processes, are often associated with complement clauses rather than noun phrase complements.


The semantic, morphological, and syntactic characteristics of Afrikaans verbs are presented in the following sections:

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