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Coverb is a term in theoretical linguistics most often applied in languages with serial verb construction, but also for complex predicates consisting of two verbs with one of them being an auxiliary verb contributing different kinds of information like modality, direction or aktionsart. It fulfills a similar function as adpositions would in many Indo-European languages like Dutch or Russian. Coverbs exist in a number of east and south-east Asian languages (e.g. Chinese), as well as west African languages (e.g. Yoruba). (Note: the verb prefixes in Hungarian are sometimes called coverbs, however, their function is entirely different: they originally express merely directions or completion, like adverbs, rather than actions, as it could be expected from what used to be a verb.)
In Chinese linguistics, the coverb is a part of speech that includes words that are lexically verbs, but are generally used to convey the meaning of prepositions. The term preverb is also sometimes used to refer to coverbs; however, that term has its own separate meaning as well.
Whether prepositions exist in Chinese is sometimes considered an open question. The role of prepositions in Chinese is fulfilled by localizers appearing as postpositions, and by coverbs. For this reason, coverbs are often referred to as prepositions because they appear before the noun phrase they modify. In Chinese, both prepositions and coverbs are referred to as 介詞 (pinyin: jiè cí). However, unlike prepositions, coverbs can sometimes stand alone as main verbs. The use of coverbs is part of the serial verb construction, which is a basic feature of Chinese grammar. For instance:
literally: I help you find him.
I will find him for you.
The coverb phrase, "help you" (bāng nǐ), is used in conjunction with the main verb "find" (zhǎo) and functions the same way as the English prepositional phrase "for you" in this context.
Certain verbs in Chinese can function as coverbs, taking on an idiomatic prepositional meaning. For instance, when used as a standalone verb, 到 (dào) means "to arrive." However, when used as a coverb, it can mean "to." Many coverbs are often used only in their prepositional sense, such as 从 (cóng), which is almost always seen as a coverb meaning "from." Here is an example showing a serial verb construction involving several coverbs:
literally: I sit aircraft originate Shanghai arrive Beijing go/hence.
I go from Shanghai to Beijing by aircraft. (Note: the use of qu 去 and lai 来 is comparable to German hin (to there, cf. "hence") and her (from there, to this proximity, cf. "here").]
Many coverbs can be used as the main verb in a sentence, usually with the addition of modal particles.
I have arrived in Beijing.