Coverb is a grammatical term which can have several different meanings, but generally denotes a word or prefix that in some way resembles a verb or operates together with a verb. (Coverbs should not be confused with converbs, which are non-finite verb forms used to express subordination.)
In languages which have the serial verb construction, coverbs are a type of word that shares features of verbs and prepositions. A coverb takes an object (or complement), forming a phrase which appears in sequence with another verb phrase in accordance with the serial construction; however, a coverb appears to be subordinate to a main verb, thus fulfilling a function similar to that of a preposition. Some words that may be classed as coverbs can also function as independent verbs, but this is not always the case. Coverbs in this sense are found in Asian languages such as Chinese and Vietnamese, as well, for example, West African languages such as Yoruba. For illustration, see the Examples section below.
The term coverb (like preverb) is also sometimes used to denote the first element in a compound verb or complex predicate. Here the coverb supplies significant semantic information, while the second element (a light verb) is inflected, thus conveying mainly grammatical information. The term is used in this way in relation to, for instance, North Australian languages.
In relation to Hungarian, coverb is sometimes used to denote a verb prefix. These are elements which express meanings such as direction or completion, and thus have a function corresponding to that of certain types of adverbs.
The following examples demonstrate the use of coverbs in Standard Chinese. This illustrates the first, and probably most common, of the three meanings of the term coverb as listed above.
- 我帮你找他 (traditional script: 我幫你找他)
- wǒ bāng nǐ zhǎo tā
- I help you find him
- "I will find him for you."
The above sentence represents a typical Chinese serial verb construction, with two consecutive verb phrases meaning "help you" and "find him", sharing the same subject ("I"), and essentially referring to the same action. The meaning of the "help you" phrase, however, is closer in this context to the English prepositional phrase "for you". Thus the word bāng, while it may be analyzed as a verb meaning "help", actually has a function closer to that of a preposition meaning "for". It is words like bāng, as used in the above sentence, that are referred to as coverbs in descriptions of Chinese (and of other languages, like Vietnamese and Yoruba, which have analogous structures).
- 我坐飞机从上海到北京去 (我坐飛機從上海到北京去)
- wǒ zuò fēijī cóng Shànghǎi dào Běijīng qù
- I sit aircraft from Shanghai arrive Beijing travel
- "I travel from Shanghai to Beijing by aircraft."
In the above example, there are three coverbs: zuò (here having the prepositional meaning "by"); cóng (meaning "from"); and dào (here meaning "to"). It should be noted that, while certain Chinese coverbs can also be used as main verbs, others are not normally so used. Of those that appear here, zuò can also be a verb meaning "sit", and dào can be a verb meaning "arrive", whereas cóng is almost always used as a coverb meaning "from", not as a verb.
Since coverbs precede their complement (object), and perform essentially a prepositional function, some linguists simply refer to them as prepositions. In Chinese they are called 介词 (traditional: 介詞; pinyin: jiè cí), a term which generally corresponds to "preposition" (or more generally, "adposition"). The situation is complicated somewhat by the fact that Chinese also has location markers which appear after a noun, and are often called postpositions. The meaning of an English locational preposition is often conveyed by a coverb and location marker in combination, as in 在桌子上 zài zhuōzi shàng, "on the table", literally "at table-on". However, in most situations the grammatical behavior of the location markers resembles that of nouns rather than verbs or adpositions.
- Ho-Dac Tuc, Vietnamese-English Bilingualism: Patterns of Code-Switching, Routledge 2014, p. 68.
- Mengistu Amberber, Brett Baker, Mark Harvey, Complex Predicates: Cross-linguistic Perspectives on Event Structure, CUP 2010, p. 59.
- Carol H. Rounds, Hungarian: An Essential Grammar, Routledge 2013, p. 74ff.
- "Word order is important in Chinese". Department of Linguistics and Oriental Languages, San Diego State University. Retrieved 2009-12-21.