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Classification of PPs: Prepositions

A preposition (glossed as PREP)is an adposition that precedes its complement. In the example below, the preposition in in, is found in front of its NP complement die tafel the table.

Example 1

Die kat sit op [die tafel].
the cat sit on.PREP the table
The cat sits on the table.

Three aspects of prepositions are discussed here, namely i) the meaning of prepositions, ii) the mapping of prepositional arguments onto syntactic structure, and iii) the combinatorial properties of prepositions.

[+]Meaning of prepositions

Prepositions express a relation between two entities, for example a containment relation, usually in space or time. The meaning of prepositions is illustrated by means of the following sentence:

Example 2

Stoffel is in die kombuis.
Stoffel be.PRS in.PREP the kitchen
Stoffel is in the kitchen.

The preposition in in denotes a two-place relation, that is, it relates two things to each other, Stoffel and the kitchen. Furthermore, the preposition expresses that Stoffel's location is contained in or subsumed by the location of the kitchen.

The preposition can express containment in various dimensions. The following example involves temporal containment by expressing that the temporal location of Frederick's birth is contained in or subsumed by the year 1948.

Example 3

Frederick is in 1948 gebore.
Frederick be.PST in.PREP 1948 born
Frederick was born in 1948.

Prepositions can refer to relations involving location (see example (1)), time (see example (2)), mental states (see example (3)), cause and agency (see example (4)), comparison, direction, possession, purpose, source and so on. The following example features the preposition in in, which expresses a relation between an individual and a mental state: Breggie’s mental state is subsumed by the mental state of being delighted.

Example 4

Breggie was in die wolke.
Breggie be.PRT in.PREP the clouds
Breggie was delighted (/on cloud number nine).

The following example features the preposition deur by, which is used for cause and agency:

Example 5

Die brand is veroorsaak deur kerse wat op die verhoog gebruik is.
the fire be.AUX.PASS.PST cause.PASS by.PREP candles that.REL on the stage use.PASS be.AUX.PASS.PST
The fire was caused by candles which were used on the stage.

The preposition deur by expresses a causal relation between the candles which were used on the stage and the event of the fire, so that the event of the fire is causally subsumed under the event of the candles having been lighted. Thus, the preposition expresses a containment relation between two things along a specific dimension. The meaning of other prepositions can be described in a similar fashion.

[+]Mapping of prepositional arguments onto syntactic structure

A preposition generally has two arguments. In case a PP is used in a copula structure, one argument is realised as the prepositional complement; put differently, it is realised inside the PP. The other argument is realised external to the PP, in the position of subject or object. An example is given below:

Example 6

Stoffel is in die kombuis.
Stoffel be.PRS in.PREP the kitchen.
Stoffel is in the kitchen

The preposition expresses a relation between two elements which participate in a containment relation in a dimension. Thus one element is the container, and the other the containee. The container is expressed syntactically as the prepositional complement. The preposition forms a syntactic phrase, a PP, with the argument that is semantically the container. It can, for example, be preposed by the argument referring to the container:

Example 7

In die kombuis is Stoffel.
in.PREP the kitchen be.PRS Stoffel.
In the kitchen is where Stoffel is.

The containee is realised as the subject of a predication, that is, it is realised external to the PP. A copula is used in the above example to provide a syntactic position for the containee. This external position is the position of subject in the example above. The following example features an external argument that is realised as a direct object (kuikens chicks):

Example 8

Sy hou [kuikens] aan in die kombuis.
she keep chicks on in.PREP the kitchen
She keeps chicks in the kitchen.

The object position may be subject to restrictions which are pragmatic or aspectual in nature and which are not well understood. Thus, the following sentence is odd:

Example 9

?Jy het Stoffel in die kombuis.
you have.AUX Stoffel in the kitchen
You have Stoffel in the kitchen.

In case a PP is used in a NP, the external argument is realised as a NP. An example is given below:

Example 10

die lang kraak in die voorruit
the long crack in.PREP the front.window
the long crack in the windshield

The preposition expresses a relation between the container, realised as prepositional complement, and the containee, realised as a NP. Similarly, the external argument of a PP may also be the sentence:

Example 11

In 1970 [het hy in die Parlement gewerk].
in.PREP 1970 [have.AUX he in.PREP the Parliament work.PST]
In 1970 he worked in Parliament.

In this sentence, the external argument of the PP is the sentence minus the first PP.

[+]Combinatorial properties of prepositions

The prepositional complement may be realised as the following syntactic categories:

  • Noun phrase
  • Preposition phrase
  • Postposition phrase
  • Circumposition phrase

As a noun phrase, the preposition complement may be realised as in the examples below:

Example 12

agter die berg
behind.PREP the mountain
behind the mountain
Example 13

ná middagete
after.PREP lunch
after lunch

It may be realised as an preposition phrase, as in the example below:

Example 14

Die toebroodjies is vir langs die pad.
the sandwiches be.PRS for along.PREP the road
The sandwiches are for the journey.

It may be realised as a postposition phrase, bracketed as in the example below:

Example 15

vir varsheid [die hele dag deur]
for.PREP freshness [the whole day through]
for freshness throughout the day

It may also be realised as a circumposition phrase, bracketed as in the example below:

Example 16

'n ideale kajak vir [langs die rivier af] roei
an ideal kayak for.PREP [along.PREP the river down] row
an ideal kayak for rowing down the river
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Multi-word prepositions or group adposition

Some adpositional phrases can be regarded asgroup adposition constructions, also referred to as multi-word prepositional constructions, or multi-word prepositions. These constructions are prepositional phrases that act as semantic and syntactic units, and can, in other words, take the place of a simplex preposition (compare (De Villiers 1983:117). Multi-word prepositions therefore also show similarities to simplex prepositions. Compare the following examples. In the first example the multi-word constructions in terme van in terms of, corresponds to the use and meaning of the preposition ooreenkomstig according.

Example 17

in terme van hierdie opdrag
in terms of this assignment
in terms of this assignment
Example 18

Ooreenkomstig hierdie opdrag
according this assignment
in terms of this assignment

According to (Ponelis 1979:173), these multi-word prepositional constructions can be analysed as consisting of three parts:

Table 1
First part Second part Third part
aan die aand on the hand according van to die voorbeelde the examples
met betrekking with relation regarding tot to my opdrag my assignment
in oorleg in consultation met with die bestuur the management
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The use of the preposition vir for in object PPs

The preposition vir for, with its postpositional pendant voor, is arguably the most frequently used of all prepositions in Afrikaans (almost 2 million cases in the TK corpus, in comparison to the 1.8 million for met with, 1.2 million for aan to, and approximately 900.000 in the case of na to).

As an adposition, vir occurs in PPs in the various structures for which such phrases are used, such as a postdeterminer, as illustrated by the two examples below. In the first, vir combines with the noun phrase die hongerte the hunger to form the PP which acts as the postdeterminer of the indefinite pronoun ietsie little something:

Example 19

Ek wou net ietsie vra vir die hongerte.
I want.AUX.MOD.PRT only something.DIM ask for the hunger
I only wanted to ask a little something for the hunger.

In the second, the PP vir moord for murderimmediately follows the preceding noun phrase:

Example 20

lewenslange tronkstraf vir moord
lifelong jail.punishment for murder
lifelong imprisonment for murder

Finally, vir can also be used as a postposition (but then as voor) in cases such as this:

Example 21

'n Beter dag kon ek nie voor gevra het nie.
a better day can.AUX.MOD.PRT I not for ask.PST have.AUX NEG
I could not have asked for a better day.

In this section, however, the focus will fall on the use of the vir before indirect and direct objects, in which case it could better be defined as an object marker, and not the head of a PP. It should be noted that, depending on the syntactic sequence of the sentence as a whole, vir can be used either as a compulsory or as an optional component of the structure vir with NP.

Vir is compulsory before indirect objects, when the indirect object follows an adverbial phrase, as illustrated by the pair of examples below:

Example 22

a. Een ou het gister vir my gesê...
one chap have.AUX yesterday for me tell.PST
One guy told me yesterday...
b. *Een ou het gister my gesê...
one chap have.AUX yesterday me tell.PST
One guy told me yesterday...

Vir is also compulsory before direct objects when the direct object follows an adverbial phrase, as illustrated by the two examples below:

Example 23

a. Hy vra hom toe of die preek darem vir hom gehelp het.
he ask him then if the sermon after.all for him help.PST have.AUX
He then asked him if the sermon did help him after all.
b. *Hy vra hom toe of die preek darem hom gehelp het.
he ask him then if the sermon after.all him help.PST have.AUX
He then asked him if the sermon did help him after all.

Position in the sentence: no preceding adverbial phrase

Vir is optional before indirect objects when it is not preceded by an adverbial phrase, as illustrated in the following example:

Example 24

Kom ek gee (vir) jou 'n voorbeeld.
come I give (for) you a example
Come, let me give you an example.

Vir is also optional before direct objects when it is not preceded by an adverbial phrase, as illustrated in the following example:

Example 25

Die dogter help (vir) haar moeder.
the girl help for her mother
The girl is helping her mother.

From the examples above, it should be clear that the position of the object in the sentence could render the use of vir compulsory (in the cases above, after the adverbial phrase). However, the occurrence of vir as object marker in syntactic structures which allow for optionality, depend on factors such as (a) the grammatical nature of the object and (b) pragmatic functions. The origin of this variable phenomenon could arguably be traced to the so-called “personal a” in Portuguese, for example, where a to, for serves as an object marker, comparable with vir in the case of human objects:

Example 26

Pois quem não ama a seu irmão, ao qual viu, como pode amar a Deus, a quem não viu?
for he.who not loves to/for hs brother to/for.the whom (he) sees how can (he) love for/to God to/for whom (he) not sees
For he who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, how can he love God, whom he has not seen?
A Bíblia Sagrada Almeida Corrigida Fiel, 1994, 1 João 4:20

This is sometimes linked to the influence of the speakers of Creole Portuguese, or Malay Portuguese, on incipient Afrikaans (Den Besten 2012:289). However, according to Hildo do Couto, a Portuguese creolist (personal communication), it is a peripheral feature of Portuguese, and mainly confined to a limited number of verbs in Standard Portuguese. In Spanish, however, which is not regarded as of interest for the formation of incipient Afrikaans, this phenomenon is a consistent feature when the direct object of a transitive verb is a specific person (or animal), whether named or not.

Example 27

Ella ama a sus padres.
she love to/for her parents
She loves her parents.

The nature of the object
The object marker vir occurs with human rather than nonhuman direct objects. Furthermore, proper nouns and pronouns, rather than common nouns, combine with vir.

  • Human objects:
    Example 28

    a. Ons kon (vir) Petrus tussen almal raaksien.
    we can.AUX.MOD.PRT (for) Petrus among everybody touch.see
    We could spot Petrus among everybody else.
    b. Kan jy (vir) hom help?
    can.AUX.MOD you (for) him help
    Can you help him?
  • Non-human direct objects:
    Example 29

    *Kan jy vir die lughawe (die Alpe) daar onder sien?
    can.MOD.AUX you for the airport (the Alps) there below see
    Can you see the airport there below?

    Note that when the direct object precedes an indirect object, only the indirect object is marked by vir:

    Example 30

    a. Hy gee 'n nuwe woordeboek vir Karen.
    he give a new dictionary for Karen
    He gives a new dictionary to Karen.
    b. Hy gee (vir) Karen 'n nuwe woordeboek.
    he give (for) Karen a new dictionary.
    He gives Karen a new dictionary.
    c. *Hy gee vir Karen vir 'n nuwe woordeboek.
    he give for Karen for a new dictionary
    He gives to Karen a new dictionary.
  • Proper nouns and pronouns:
    Example 31

    Die kelner het (vir) Jan-hulle eerste bedien.
    the waiter have.AUX (for) Jan-they first serve.PST
    The waiter served Jan and his companions first.
    Example 32

    Sal jy (vir) hom werk toe neem?
    will.AUX.MOD you (for) him work to take
    Will you take him to work?
    Example 33

    Sy kon (vir) ons gouer help as verlede week.
    she could.AUX.MOD.PRT (for) us faster help than last week
    She could help us faster than last week.
  • Common nouns:
    Example 34

    *Hy het vir die skulpies langs die see opgetel.
    He have.AUX for the shells next.to the sea pick.up.PST
    He picked up shells at the seashore.

Variable use before direct objects

The use of vir as object marker with direct objects is characteristic of Afrikaans, in comparison with Dutch and other Germanic languages. In addition to the syntactic position of vir before the direct object, as discussed above, its occurrence can be ascribed to non-grammatical, or pragmatic, factors. Vir before the direct object can perform the following functions, which may overlap:

  1. disambiguation
  2. emphasis
  3. style (informal vs. formal speech)
  4. affect

Each of these aspects is illustrated below by means of appropriate examples.

  • Disambiguation:

    Because there is no difference of form between the plural personal pronouns in Afrikaans, syntactic ambiguity can occur in a sentence such as this:

    Example 35

    Piet ken ons baie goed.
    Piet know we very well
    Piet knows us very well / We know Piet very well.

    The sentence above is ambiguous, since ons we/us can be either object or subject. The use of the object marker makes an unequivocal reading possible:

    Example 36

    Vir Piet ken ons baie goed.
    for Piet know we very well
    We know Piet very well.

    Note, however, that the passive in (especially) relative clauses can also neutralise the potential ambiguity in the following sentence:

    Example 37

    a. Die man wat ons ondervra. (ambiguous)
    the man that.REL we interrogate
    The man whom we interrogate / the man who interrogates us
    b. Die man wat deur ons ondervra word. (unambiguous)
    the man that.REL through us interrogate.PASS be.AUX.PASS.PRS
    The man who is being interrogated by us
  • Emphasis

    Although singular personal pronouns in Afrikaans can be distinguished both in terms of number and gender (unlike plural pronouns), the object marker vir may add emphasis to a distinction between two objects.

    Example 38

    Hulle het vir hom gevang en nie vir haar nie.
    they have.AUX for him catch.PST and not for her PTCL.NEG
    They caught him and not her.

    In the absence of such emphasis, there is obviously no need for the use of the marker:

    Example 39

    Hulle het hom gevang.
    they have.AUX him catch.PST
    They have caught him.
    However, another kind of emphasis can be achieved if thematic prominence is required, namely the use of preposing, reinforced by the use of the marker:
    Example 40

    Vir hom ken ons baie goed.
    for him know we very well
    Him we know very well.
  • Informal vs. formal style:

    The use of vir can mark informal style, while the sentence without vir can be neutral, or more formal.

    Example 41

    a. Hulle het toe vir hom besoek. (informal)
    they have.AUX then for him visit.PST
    They visited him then.
    b. Hulle het hom toe besoek. (not informal)
    they have.AUX him then visit.PST
    They visited him then.
    Example 42

    a. Ek ken vir Koos goed. (informal)
    I know for Koos well
    I know Koos well
    b. Ek ken Koos goed. (not informal)
    I know Koos well.

    Often the informal style can be marked by additional syntactic features, as exemplified by the use of the verb kom come in the introduction to this sentence above.

  • Affect:

    The use of vir before the NP expresses affect (emotive value):

    Example 43

    Hulle het vir hom gevang. (with affect)
    they have.AUX for him catch.PST
    They have caught him.

    In neutral, or unmarked speech, vir is not required:

    Example 44

    Hulle het hom gevang. (unmarked)
    they have.AUX him catch.PST
    They have caught him.
    Example 45

    a. Ek sal vir jou hof toe vat! (with affect)
    I will.AUX.MOD for you court to take
    I will for you court to take
    I will take you to court!
    b. Ek sal jou hof toe vat. (unmarked)
    I will.AUX.MOD you court to take
    I will take you to court.
  • De Villiers, M1983Afrikaanse grammatika vir volwassenes.Nasou
  • Den Besten, H2012Creole Portuguese in South Africa: Malayo- or Indo-Portuguese?Bundels
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
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