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Nominal argument shift

In order to describe the movement or shift of nominal arguments in the middle field (MF) of a clause, the neutral or default order will be taken to be one in which the presupposition, topic or discourse-old information is located before the clause adverbials, and the focus, comment or discourse-new informationafter the clause adverbials.

When in MF, the subject follows verb-first or verb-second (V1 or V2) position or a complementiser, without the intervention of other constituents, be they arguments, complementives or adverbials, e.g.

Example 1

a. Het <*inderdaad> Ansie <inderdaad> 'n vlieglisensie?
have.PRS <indeed> Ansie <indeed> a pilot's.license
Does Ansie indeed have a pilot's license?
b. André vra of <*inderdaad> Ansie <inderdaad> 'n vlieglisensie het.
André ask.PRS if.COMP <indeed> Ansie <indeed> a pilot's.license have.PRS
André asks whether Ansie does indeed have a pilot's license.

The direct object (DO) can be positioned before or after clause adverbials. When the DO is a given or discourse-old information, as in (2a), it will be located before clause adverbials such as tog after all, and an appropriate question with (2a) as answer would explicitly mention the DO, as in (2b).

Example 2

a. Dit lyk asof hy die wrak tog gaan verkoop.
it seem as.if.CNJ he the wreck after.all go.AUX.MOD sell.INF
It seems as though he is going to sell the wreck after all.
b. Wat gaan André met die wrak maak?
what go.AUX.MOD André with the wreck make.INF
What is André going to do with the wreck?

No crossover of subject and object NPs is possible, as shown in (3).

Example 3

*dat haar André beslis hulp belowe het
that.COMP her André definitely help promise.PST.PTCP have.AUX
To mean: that André definitely promised her help.

In a clause with neutral or default ordering and stress, the new information will be situated after the clause adverbials, in non-verbal constituents such as objects, complementives and VP adverbials, as in (4a) and, in their absence, in the final lexical verb, as in (4b).

Example 4

a. dat Anja moontlik die tol betaal het.
that.COMP Anja possibly the toll pay.PST.PTCP have.AUX
that Anja possibly paid toll.
b. dat Anja die tol moontlik BETAAL het.
that.COMP Anja the toll possibly pay.PST.PTCP have.AUX
that Anja possibly paid toll.

The location of discourse-new information is easily altered by applying contrastive stress, as in:

Example 5

dat Anja die TOL moontlik betaal het.
that.COMP Anja the toll possibly pay.PST.PTCP have.AUX
that Anja possibly paid toll.

For more information, please refer to:


In this section the relative order of nominal arguments and clause adverbials such as waarskynlik probably is discussed. Broekhuis et al. (2015:1608-1609) assume that all nominal arguments arise in the lexical domain, i.e. to the right of the clause adverbial(s) from where those referring to new information shift to the functional domain to the left of the clause adverbials in the middle field (MF), having been base-generated in the lexical domain. In the present discussion it will only be assumed that in a neutral order nominal arguments displaying discourse-old information are generally found before or to the left of clause adverbials in MF, whereas those expressing discourse-new information occur after or to the right of clause adverbials.


In Afrikaans the subject is consistently juxtaposed to verb-first (V1), as in (6a) (where it can therefore only follow V1), or to verb-second (V2), where it either occurs before V2, as in (6b), or directly after V2, as in (6c), or directly after a complementiser, as in (6d). In (6a), (6c) and (6d) the subject is therefore the first constituent of MF.

Example 6

a. Het Ansie 'n rekenaar?
have.PRS Ansie a computer
Does Ansie have a computer?
b. Ansie het uiteindelik 'n rekenaar.
Ansie have.PRS at.last a computer
Ansie does at last have a computer.
c. Uiteindelik het Ansie 'n rekenaar.
at.last have.PRS Ansie a computer
At last Ansie has a computer.
d. dat Ansie uiteindelik 'n rekenaar het.
that.COMP Ansie at.last a computer have.PRS
that Ansie has a computer at last.
[+]Direct object

The phrase die nuwe rekenaar the new computer appears before the clause adverbial waarskynlik probably in (7a), and therefore refers to a particular computer which the speaker is familiar with, i.e. old information in the discourse context. It is an instrument which Albert is known to have access to, hence discourse-old information. However, in (7b), where die nuwe rekenaar appears after the clause adverbial, the thrust of the clause is that Albert chooses to make use of the new computer specifically. The computer therefore represents discourse-new information.

Example 7

a. Hulle sê dat Albert die nuwe rekenaar waarskynlik gaan gebruik.
they say that.COMP Albert the new computer probably go.AUX.MOD use.INF
They say that Albert is going to use the new computer probably.
b. Hulle sê dat Albert waarskynlik die nuwe rekenaar gaan gebruik.
they say that.COMP Albert probably the new computer go.AUX.MOD use.INF
They say that Albert is probably going to use the new computer.

The information structure of a clause can be gauged by formulating an appropriate question. Thus the sentences in (7) would be adequate responses to the questions posed in (8a) and (8b) respectively.

Example 8

a. Wat gaan Albert met die nuwe rekenaar maak?
what go.AUX.MOD Albert with the new computer make.INF
What is Albert going to do with the new computer?
b. Watter apparaat gaan Albert gebruik?
which appliance go.AUX.MOD Albert use.INF
What appliance is Albert going to make use of?
[+]Subject, object and crossover

The Afrikaans subject and object have the following ordering constraints:

  • As mentioned earlier, the subject is never separated by non-verbal material from V1 and V2, as is the case in (9a) and (9ai), respectively. This goes for any subject, whether definite or not and whether generic or not, e.g. 'n agent an agent, die agent the agent or agente agents.
  • Apart from object topicalisation, subject and object always occur in subject > object order, and never cross over, as in (9b).

Example 9

a. *Gister het die kode <waarskynlik> 'n agent <waarskynlik> ontsyfer.
yesterday have.AUX the code <probably> an agent <probably> crack.PST.PTCP
To mean: Yesterday an agent probably cracked the code.
a. *Het miskien 'n agent die kode ontsyfer?
have.AUX perhaps an agent the code crack.PST.PTCP
To mean: Has an agent perhaps cracked the code?
a.' *Gister het waarskynlik 'n agent die kode ontsyfer.
yesterday have.AUX probably an agent the code crack.PST.PTCP
To mean: An agent probably cracked the code yeaterday.
[+]Information structure, ordering and stress

Three default structures combining information structure, ordering and stress placement are posited as exmples (1) to (12) in the light of the following considerations:

  • The subject, which is sy she in the examples below, is not separable from the complementiser (or otherwise from V1 and V2).
  • Discourse-old information or presuppositions typically occur before a clause adverbial, such as dalk perhaps, in the MF, while discourse-new information containing the clausal focus would form part of the section after a clause adverbial.
  • A pronoun, such as dit it, is semantically less suitable as a carrier of new information and would therefore generally occur before the clause adverbial.
  • An indefinite NP is typically a carrier of new information and would therefore tend to occur after a clause adverbial.
  • Main sentence stress is usually placed on a non-verbal component immediately preceding the final lexical verb (FV), and in the absence of such component, on FV itself.
  • The focus, i.e. the section referring to new information, may be transferred to the another component such as the subject of the clause through the replacement of sentence stress by contrastive stress.

In example (10) the indefinite NP'n geheime kode a secret code is the focus and receives sentence stress naturally in that position.

Example 10

dat sy dalk'n geheime kode ontsyfer het
that.COMP she perhaps a secret code crack.PST.PTCP have.AUX
that she perhaps cracked a secret code.

In example (11a) it is shown that the definite NPdie geheime code the secret code can appear afterdalk as the focus of new information, in which case it also bears sentence stress, or before dalk as old information, creating an opportunity for the lexical past participle, ontsyfer cracked, to receive sentence stress, as in (11b).

Example 11

a. dat sy dalkdie geheime kode ontsyfer het
that.COMP she perhaps the secret code crack.PST.PTCP have.AUX
that she perhaps cracked the secret code.
b. dat sy die geheime kode dalkontsyfer het
that.COMP she the secret code perhaps crack.PST.PTCP have.AUX
that she perhaps cracked the secret code.

In example (12) both subject and object precede dalk as discourse-old information, and the way is paved for the past participle of the final lexical verb, ontsyfer, to receive sentence stress.

Example 12

dat sy dit / die geheime kode dalkontsyfer het.
that.COMP she it the secret code perhaps crack.PST.PTCP have.AUX
that she perhaps cracked it / the secret code.
[+]Direct and indirect object shift

If the direct and indirect object are NPs, the only possible order is indirect object (IO) > direct object (DO), irrespective of their placement vis-à-vis a clause adverbial such as dalk perhaps. If the IO is an NP, it has to be placed before (i.e. to the left of) the clause adverbial, as in (13a). If the IO is a PP, e.g. vir Anna / haar for Anna / her, it can occur before or after the clause adverbial, as in (13b). A cross-over of arguments, i.e. DO > IO, is only possible if the IO is a PP, as in (13c). In general, a pronoun such as dit it is slightly marked when positioned after a clause adverbial.

Example 13

a. dat hy <*dalk> Anna/haar <dalk> die kode / dit <dalk> gegee het.
that.COMP he <perhaps> Anna/her <perhaps> the code / it <perhaps> give.PST.PTCP have.AUX
that he perhaps gave Anna/her the code / gave it to Anna/ her.
b. dat hy <dalk> vir Anna / vir haar <dalk> die kode / dit <dalk> gegee het.
that.COMP he <perhaps> for Anna / for her <perhaps> the code / it <perhaps> give.PST.PTCP have.AUX
that he perhaps gave Anna/her the code / gave it to Anna/her.
c. dat hy <dalk> die kode / dit <dalk> vir Anna / vir haar <?dalk> gegee het.
that.COMP he <perhaps> the code/it <perhaps> for Anna / for her <perhaps> give.PST.PTCP have.AUX
that he perhaps gave Anna/her the code / gave it to Anna/her.
[+]Indirect object and subject shift

Even in passives, where an IO can precede the passive subject in Dutch, the sequence IO > SUB is unlikely as the IO assumes subject characteristics in the Afrikaans passive, cf. (14b).

Example 14

a. dat 'n sertifikaat Anna / haar dalk aangebied sal word.
[dat [(SUB) 'n sertifikaat] [(IO) Anna/haar] dalk aangebied sal word]
that.COMP a certificate Anna/her perhaps offer.PST.PTCP will.AUX.MOD be.AUX.PASS.PRS
That a certificate will perhaps be offered to Anna / her.
b. dat Anna/sy/*haar dalk 'n sertifikaat aangebied sal word.
[dat [(SUB) Anna / sy] dalk [(DO) 'n sertifikaat] aangebied sal word.
that.COMP Anna/she perhaps a certificate offer.PST.PTCP will.AUX.MOD be.AUX.PASS.PRS
that Anna/she will perhaps be offered a certificate.
  • Broekhuis, Hans, Corver, Norbert & Vos, Riet2015Syntax of Dutch. Verbs and verb phrasesComprehensive grammar resourcesAmsterdam University Press
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