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Cleft constructions

Afrikaans has two types of cleft constructions, that both serve to lay special emphasis on one element of a proposition, and thereby background the remainder of the information in the proposition. The first construction is the "dit" cleft, with the anticipatory pronoun dit it as subject in a copular clause that introduces the thematic focus as the predicate of the empty subject, and the remainder of the proposition attached as a relative clause introduced by wat that or a subordinate clause that is linked by dat that to the main clause, as illustrated by example (1), where the primed variants represent the regular word order. The "dit" cleft construction resembles left dislocation, but is more strongly grammaticalised and makes it easier to extract and thematise a constituent than left dislocation.

Example 1

a. Dit is 'n meneer Du Bruyn wat dit gedoen het.
it be.PRS a mister Du Bruyn who.REL it do.PST.PTCP have.AUX
It is a Mr de Bruyn who did it.
a.' Meneer Du Bruyn het dit gedoen.
mister Du Bruyn have.AUX it do.PST.PTCP
Mr Du Bruyn did it.
b. Dit is 'n hawerstrooi wat die hoender in sy bek het.
it be.PRS a hay.straw that.REL the chicken in its beak have.PRS
It is a piece of hay that the chicken has in its beak.
b.' Die hoender het 'n stuk hawerstrooi in sy bek.
the chicken have.PRS a piece hay.straw in its beak
The chicken has a piece of hay in its beak.
c. dit is xx dat yy

The second cleft construction is a wh-cleft (sometimes called a pseudo-cleft in the literature), which starts with a longer background clause (formally a subject clause), introduced by an interrogative form, followed by the copular verb and then the emphasised constituent, which formally operates as predicate of the copular construction. It is in some ways the mirror image of the "dit" cleft, and resembles right dislocation in that the element in focus is put right at the end of the sentence, as illustrated by example (2), with the regular word order once again reflected by the primed examples.

Example 2

a. Wat my egter onkant gevang het, was die heftigheid van sy reaksie.
what me however offside catch.PST have.AUX be.PST the fierceness of his reaction
What took me by surprise, however, was the fierceness of his reaction.
a.' Die heftigheid van sy reaksie het my egter onkant gevang.
the fierceness of his reaction have.AUX me however offside catch.PST
The fierceness of his reaction caught me by surprise, however.
b. Wat toe al die tyd omgewaai het, was die droë rangskikking voor die venster.
what then all the time over.blow.PST have.AUX be.PST the dry arrangement before the window
What turned out to be blown over by the wind, was the dry flower arrangement in front of the window.
b.' Die droë rangskikking voor die venster het toe al die tyd omgewaai.
the dry arrangement before the window have.AUX then all the time over.blow.PST
The dry flower arrangement in front of the window turned out to have been blown over by the wind.

There is a related construction in Afrikaans that shows surface syntactic similarities to the "dit" cleft, but it does not extract an element/a constituent from a proposition to put it in the focus position. Rather, it projects an evaluative or epistemic predicate onto the entire proposition in the embedded clause. This construction is the subject clause with "dit" extraposition. A comment on a particular state of affairs is encoded by the thematised position, and the entire proposition is encoded in the backgrounded clause, which is a complement clause, rather than a relative clause. The "dit" extraposition construction is exemplified in (3).

Example 3

a. Dit is belangrik dat ons die bedryf basies op produksievlak gesond hou.
it be.PRS important that.COMP we the industry basically on production.level healthy keep.PRS
It is important that we keep the industry healthy at production level.
b. Dit is skokkend dat die meeste leerlinge dié betrokke probleem met 'n sakrekenaar probeer oplos het.
it be.PRS shocing that.COMP the most learners this specific problem with a pocket.calculator try.LINK solve.INF have.AUX
It is shocking that most of the pupils tried to solve this particular problem with a calculator.
[+]"dit" cleft

The basic syntactic pattern of the dit cleft is as follows, where lower case letters represent specific words, and upper case letters represent general categories: [dit is FOCUS ELEMENT wat/dat SUBORDINATE CLAUSE] [it is FOCUS ELEMENT that SUBORDINATE CLAUSE]. The construction consistently begins with dit is, irrespective of the grammatical number (singular or plural) of the thematised focus element. If the element is an NP argument, then it is followed by a relative clause introduced by wat, as is exemplified by the examples in (4). The primed reformulations represent the regular syntactic equivalent of the emphatic construction.

Example 4

a. Dit is die Bulle wat my genader het.
it be.PRS the Bulls that.REL me approach.PST have.AUX
It is the Bulls who approached me.
a.' Die Bulle het my genader.
the Bulls have.AUX me approach.PST
The Bulls approached me.
b. Dit is die deurbraak wat ons nodig het.
it be.PRS the breakthrough that.REL we necessary have.PRS
It is the breakthrough that we need.
b.' Ons het die deurbraak nodig.
we have.PRS the breakthrough necessary
We need the breakthrough.

If the element in focus is an adverbial or a PP complementive or argument, then the subordinate clause can be introduced by wat that.REL or dat that.COMP, but it still resembles the syntax of a relative clause, as is exemplified in (5), rather than a complement clause, because the subordinate clause retains the gap that corresponds to the thematised element, unlike a complement clause that is syntactically complete in Afrikaans. The primed reformulations once again represent the regular syntactic equivalent of the emphatic construction.

Example 5

a. Dit is met dié vasbeslotenheid dat die Ligbloues die tweede rondte benader.
it be.PRS with this determination that.COMP the Light.Blues the second round approach.PRS
It is with this determination that the Blue Bulls approach the second round.
a.' Die Ligbloues benader die tweede rondte met hierdie vasbeslotenheid.
the Light.Blues approach.PRS the second round with this determiniation
The Blue Bulls approach the second round with this determination.
b. Dit is met 'n gevoel van verligting wat Richards die waghek nader.
it be.PRS with a feeling of relief that.REL Richards the security.gate approach.PRS
It is with a sense of relief that Richards approaches the security gate.
b.' Richards nader die waghek met 'n gevoel van verligting.
Richards approach.PRS the security.gate with a feeling of relief.
Richards approaches the security gate with a sense of relief.

Afrikaans allows a wide range of clausal constituents as focus element. The main constraint, according to Ponelis (1979:549), is that this element should be short, a single word or a single, relatively short phrase. A clause is possible, especially if it is an adverbial clause, but it remains a dispreferred option. The range of constituents is exemplified in (6). Ponelis (1979:551) only points to time adverbials that indicate a specific point in time, clausal adverbials and adjectival complementives that are not readily available as focus elements in the "dit" cleft construction, as exemplified by (7), while not all manner adverbs seem to yield equally felicitous results, although some of them are possible.

Example 6

a. Dit is die kinders wat die ding oopgeknip het.
It is the children who cut the thing open.
[Subject in focus]
b. Dit is daai kieme wat ek daar opgedoen het.
It is those germs that I picked up there.
[Direct object in focus]
c. Dit is iets waaroor hulle geweldig emosioneel voel.
It is something that they feel very emotional about.
[Prepositional object in focus]
d. Dit is op Lambertsbaai waar ons lorrie gery het.
It is in Lambertsbaai where we rode the lorry.
[Place adverbial in focus]
Example 7

a. *Dit is dalk wat die pasiënt sal herstel.
It is perhaps that the patient will recover.
(Ponelis 1979:551)
[Clausal adverbial]
b. *Dit is intussen wat die helikopter terugkom.
It is in the mean time that the helicopter returned.
(Ponelis 1979:551)
[Specific temporal adverbial]
c. *Dit is moeg wat ek raak.
It is tired that I get.
(Ponelis 1979:551)
[Copular predicate]

The basic syntactic pattern of the wh-cleft is [WH-CLAUSE is FOCUS ELEMENT]. The word order is largely the inverse of the dit cleft, except that there is no need for the dummy subject pronoun dit, since the subordinate clause, introduced by an interrogative pronoun or adverb (wh-word) occupies the subject position. The subject clause is followed by the copular verb is be.PRS, followed by the extracted element, which is formally presented as predicate of the copular construction.

Where the dit cleft construction shows a clear preference for a shorter element in the focus position, the wh-cleft allows for longer elements, even clausal rather than just phrasal. This is in accordance with the processing constraint that results in the placement of longer constituents towards the end of the clause and shorter constituents towards the beginning, that can be observed quite widely in Afrikaans, e.g. in the consistent preference to have nominal argument (complement) clauses right-dislocated to the post-verbal field, and split extraposition that also moves a subordinate clause to the end of the sentence, separating it from the constituent it may be dependent on.

The examples in (8) show the range of syntactic constituents that can be given special focus by the wh-cleft construction. All examples are taken from Ponelis (1979:555-559).

Example 8

a. Wat op haar gesig afgeteken staan, is jare se swaarkry.
What is etched on her face is years of suffering.
(Ponelis 1979:555)
[Noun phrase, subject function]
b. Wat nog in die weegskaal is, is of die manne gaan toer.
What is still in the balance, is whether the boys are going on tour.
(Ponelis 1979:555)
[Argument clause, subject function]
c. Wat jy verkondig, is net menings.
What you preach, are just opinions.
(Ponelis 1979:556)
[Noun phrase, direct object function]
d. Waaroor daar wel geredeneer kan word, is of so iets toelaatbaar is.
What can nevertheless be argued about, is whether such a thing is permissible.
(Ponelis 1979:556)
[Argument clause, prepositional object function]
e. Wanneer 'n baba op sy lastigste is, is saans vroeg.
When a baby is at its most difficult, is early in the evening.
(Ponelis 1979:557)
[Adverb phrase, adverbial function]
f. Hoekom dit gebeur het, is omdat julle nalatig was.
Why this happened, is because you were negligent.
(Ponelis 1979:557)
[Adverbial clause, adverbial function]

These constituents, phrases and clauses, can perform the full array of syntactic functions in the clause, such as subject, object, prepositional object, adverbial, exemplified in (8). A further possibility of the wh-cleft, which is not typically possible with "dit" clefts, is to put the verb, the entire predicate (verb+arguments), or an entire clause in focus, as is illustrated in (9). Generally, it is only activity verbs that can be placed in the focus position of the wh-cleft, in which case a dummy verb doen to do is used in the wh-clause to anticipate the main verb that follows, as shown in (9a). The focus clause is often an infinitiv clause, rather than a finite one, as in (9b). The same dummy verb doen can also be used to place an entire finite clause in focus, as in (9c).

Example 9

a. Wat ek nou wil doen, is slaap.
What I want to do now, is sleep.
b. Wat ek graag wil doen, is om my hoed hoog te lig.
What I would really like to do, is to raise my hat high.
c. Wat hulle doen is hulle haal net eenvoudig die are uit.
What they do is they simply remove the veins.

The wh-clause of the wh-cleft construction can also be used as if it is the relative clause that retains the same focal properties (Ponelis 1979:558). The construction uses an indefinite pronoun like al all or iets something, or a semantically empty shell noun like ding thing as subject, followed by the copular verb is, and then the focus element as predicate of the copular verb. The syntactic pattern that results is: [al +RELATIVE CLAUSE + is + FOCUS ELEMENT] [all + RELATIVE CLAUSE + IS + FOCUS ELEMENT]. In the place of al, other similar forms can be used as well, as shown by the examples in (10).

Example 10

a. Al wat Johann wil doen, is 'n eerbare paar rand verdien.
All that Johann wants to do, is to earn a few honourable Rand.
b. Nog iets wat ons kan doen, is om baie mooi te kyk na ons selfoonverbruik.
Something else (that) we can do, is look very closely at our mobile phone use.
c. Die laaste ding wat jy wil doen, is om jou arme kollega aan die huil te maak terwyl sy haar bes doen om net deur die werkdag te kom.
The last thing (that) you want to do, is to make your poor colleague cry while she is doing her utmost to just get through the day at work.
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
  • Ponelis, F.A1979Afrikaanse sintaksis.Van Schaik
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