Serial verb construction

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The serial verb construction, also known as (verb) serialization, is a syntactic phenomenon common to many African, Asian and New Guinean languages. Contrary to subordination, where one clause is embedded into another, verb serialization strings two verbs together in a sequence in which no verb is subordinated to the other.[1] Serial verb constructions are often described as coding a single event [2] [3]

The phenomenon[edit]

The following example of serialization comes from Nupe:


Musa bé lá èbi.
Musa èbi.
Musa came took knife
"Musa came to take the knife."[1]

In the English translation, the verb "came" takes an infinitival complement headed by the infinitive "to take". In the Nupe original, however, the two verbs are in the same clause, forming a sole predicate.

Serial verb constructions exhibit the following recurrent properties:

(i) Strings of serial verbs share the same subject.

(ii) Subject agreement is often cross-referenced on the two verbs.

(2) (Baré)

nu-takasã nu-dúmaka
nu-takasã nu-dúmaka
1SG-deceived 1SG-sleep
"I pretended (that) I was asleep."[1]

In other cases, there is only one subject marker, but it is shared by the two verbs, as in the following example from Yoruba.


ó mú ìwé wá
ó ìwé
3SG took book came
"He brought the book."[1]

Both verbs are understood as third person singular.

(iii) The only constituent that can intervene between the two verbs is the object of one of them, and only in a subset of serial verb languages – cf. example (3).

(iv) There is only one negation marker for the whole construction.

(4) (Baré)

hena nihiwawaka nu-tšereka nu-yaka-u abi
hena nihiwawaka nu-tšereka nu-yaka-u abi
NEG 1SG:go 1SG-speak 1SG-parent-FEM with
"I am not going to talk with my mother."[1]

(v) Serial verbs cannot be marked independently for tense/aspect/mood categories. Either the relevant (identical) markers appear on all verbs in the clause, or a sole marker is shared by them (as they can share a subject marker, cf. example 3).[1]

Contrast with compound verbs[edit]

The term serial verb is sometimes distinguished from compound verb or complex predication:

  • Serial verbs stack up several predicates in a single clause. For example, Ewe trɔ dzo, (lit. turn leave), "turn and leave"; Hindi फ़ोन उठा-कर कहा fon uṭhā-kar kahā (lit. phone pick.up-CONJPART say.PAST), "...picked up the phone and said...". In Chinese and in languages of Southeast Asia the direct object of a transitive first verb is the subject of the second verb: lǎo.hǔ yǎo-sǐ le zhāng (lit. tiger bite-die PERF Zhang) "the tiger bit Zhang to death" where zhang is the direct object of yǎo (bite) and the subject of (die). In the homologous serial verb in Hindi the one who dies would be the tiger, not Zhang. Analogously to prepositions serial verb constructions may be used to introduce an actant:
Aémmaá de sikaá maá Kofä
Amma take money give Kofi
"Amma gives Kofi money." (Akan, W. Africa)
  • Compound verb (also known as complex predicate): Here the first verb is the primary, and determines the primary semantics and also the argument structure. The second verb, often called a vector verb or explicator verb, provides fine distinctions, (usually in speaker attitude or aspect), and carries the inflection (tense / mood / agreement markers). Usually the main verb appears in conjunctive participle form (or, in Hindi and Punjabi, as a bare stem). For example, Hindi: सत्तू खा लिया sattū khā-liyā lit. parched.grain eat-TOOK, "ate up the sattu" (completive action) versus बच्चे.को खा डाला bacce.ko khā-ḍālā lit. child eat-THREW, "devoured the child" (violent or unwanted action). In these examples, खा khā is the main or primary verb, and लिया liyā (TOOK) and डाला ḍālā (THREW) are the vector verbs. Both खा लिया eat-TOOK and खा डाला eat-THREW alternate with the corresponding simple verb खाया 'ate' under partly specifiable semantic and pragmatic conditions. For instance, negation often suppresses compound verbs in favor of their non-compound counterparts: सत्तू खा लिया '(X) parched.grain eat TOOK' versus सत्तू नहीं खाया '(X) parched.grain not ate'.
  • Alternating examples (2a) and (2b) from the Turkic language Tatar translate identically into English even though the compound verb sat-yp al-d-ym "buy-CP TAKE-Pst-1sg" has been replaced by its simple counterpart sat-t-ym "buy-Pst-1sg" in (2b):
(2a) китап сатып алдым
. . . kitap satyp aldym
. . . book buy.CP TOOK.1sg
(2b) китап саттым
. . . kitap sattym
. . . book bought.1sg
. . . "I bought a book." (Tatar, Russian Federation)

Compound verbs are very common in northern Indo-Aryan languages like Hindi and Punjabi. They are less common in other Indo-Aryan languages and are also found in Dravidian, Turkic, Korean and Japanese, some Tibeto-Burman languages, some Northeast Caucasian languages, and in Quichua. Serial verbs are found in all of these languages and, in addition to them, are found in Chinese, Mon–Khmer, Tai–Kadai, Kwa, and in many pidgins and creoles. (See V.S. Naipaul's use of the Trinidadian serial verbs insure-and-burn, choke-'n'-rob, etc.)


Ewe language:

Kofí trɔ dzo kpoo  
(Kofi turn-PERF leave-PERF quietly)
Kofi turned and left quietly.

Mandarin Chinese:

(I) (sit) 飞机(aircraft) (depart) 上海(Shanghai) (arrive) 北京(Beijing) (travel)
I travel from Shanghai to Beijing by aircraft.


With the first verb in the continuative form (連用形 ren'yōkei):

押し通る (oshitōru, push through) in which oshi is the 'continuative' form of osu (push) and tōru (pass; get through) is the finite form whose present tense and indicative mood get read back onto oshi.
飛び込む (tobikomu, jump in) tobi (jump, from tobu) + komu (go/push in)
出来上がる (dekiagaru, be completed) deki (be able to be done, from dekiru) + agaru (rise, be offered)

No verb arguments can come between the two verbs.

With the first verb in the -te form (gerund or conjunctive participle):

開く (aku, to open [intransitive] ) → 開いている (aite iru, has opened and is still open)

This sequence is similar to the English be sat: 'John is sat on a chair.'

Serial verbs can also be used to tie together any arbitrary string of verbs, often as a looser connection indicating causal or temporal relations, similar to English "and". A pair of examples from Hayao Miyazaki's Mononoke Hime:

足跡をたどって来た (ashi-ato o tadotte kita) 'I followed him here' (Lit: 'Following his foot prints I came.') in which the actions of following (辿る) and of coming (来る) are simultaneous.
恨みをのんで死んだ亡者 (urami o nonde shinda mōja) '...the dead, who died swallowing their resentment' in which nonde is in the -te conjunctive participial form of nomu (swallow) and expresses an action prior to that of shinda (died).

The second verb can also take its own arguments, making this construction a way of connecting entire clauses.


Despite the frequency of the phenomenon, there is no universally accepted definition of "serial verb construction" or standard view on the proper analysis of serial verb constructions. This is a current subject of debate among syntacticians.

One challenge with defining serial verb construction, as highlighted by Sebba (1987), is that in some languages shown to demonstrate verb serialization, it is often difficult to tell the difference between sequences of verbs that are serial and sequences of non-serial verbs, in which one is dependent on the other; this results when the language does not mark dependent verbs with affixation.[4]

As Tallerman (1998) points out, the serial verb construction is not totally unfamiliar to speakers of English, and can be found in a very limited set of expressions surviving from Early Modern English, such as Let's go eat.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Tallerman, M. (1998). Understanding Syntax. London: Arnold, pp.79–81.
  2. ^ Aikhenvald, A. and Dixon, R.M.W. (2005). Serial Verb Constructions: A cross-linguistic typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  3. ^ Lord, C. (1991). Historical Change in Serial Verb Constructions. Amsterdam: John Benjamins
  4. ^ Sebba, Mark (1987). The Syntax of Serial Verbs: An Investigation Into Serialisation in Sranan and Other Languages. John Benjamins Publishing. pp. 3–4. ISBN 902725222X. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. and R.M.W. Dixon. 2006. Serial Verb Constructions: a cross-linguistic typology. (Explorations in Linguistic Typology, 2.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Crowley, Terry. 2002. Serial Verbs in Oceanic: A Descriptive Typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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