In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Serial Verbs

  • Introduction
  • Serial Verbs and Event Representation
  • Grammaticalization in Serial Verb Constructions
  • Serial Verbs in Language Acquisition and in Language Dissolution
  • Papuan Languages of New Guinea
  • Mixed Languages and Code-Switching

Linguistics Serial Verbs
Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0222


Serial verb constructions, or serial verbs, are sequences of verbs without any overt marker of coordination, subordination, or syntactic dependency of any sort. Serial verbs are monoclausal constructions describing what is conceptualized as a single event. They share prosodic properties with monoverbal constructions. A serial verb has one tense, aspect, mood, modality, and evidentiality value, that is, for example, one component cannot refer to past and another to present. Its components cannot be negated or questioned separately from the whole construction. Each component must be able to occur on its own, as the main verb of a clause. Prototypical serial verb constructions tend to share the subject and other core arguments. Serial verbs are a powerful means for a detailed portrayal of various facets of one single event. They often express grammatical meanings, including aspect and directionality, especially in languages where little inflection is available. A serial verb cannot be felicitously rephrased with a sequence of clauses. In terms of their composition, serial verbs divide into symmetrical and asymmetrical types. Symmetrical serial verb constructions consist of two or more verbs chosen from semantically and grammatically unrestricted verb classes. Their semantics covers sequences of sub-actions or concomitant actions related to each other; the order of components tends to be iconic. Symmetrical serial verbs tend to become lexicalized. Asymmetrical constructions include a “major” verb from an unrestricted class and a “minor” verb from a restricted verb class. They may express various grammatical categories, such as direction, orientation, aspect, change of state, adding an argument, and increasing valency. The order of components does not have to be iconic. The minor component tends to grammaticalize into an exponent of aspect or modality, directionality, etc. Then the erstwhile serial verb will lose its status as such. Grammatical categories of person-number, aspect, tense, modality, evidentiality, etc., may be marked just once per serial construction (single marking). Alternatively, they can be marked on each component (concordant marking). Further parameters for the classification of serial verbs include contiguity of components and wordhood of the construction. The components of some types of serial verbs may have to be strictly contiguous. Alternatively, other constituents may intervene between them. Some serial verbs may form one grammatical word, others will consist of several grammatical words. Verb compounding differs from single-word serialization: verbal compounds are nonproductive one-word verb-verb combinations whose meaning is only partly predictable, while serial verbs are a productive device with an array of meanings, as in Alamblak (see Bruce 1988 [cited under Serial Verbs and Event Representation]), Yimas: (see Foley 1991 [cited under Papuan Languages of New Guinea]), and Olutec (see Zavala 2006 [cited under Languages of North America, Including Meso-America]). Languages with multi-word serial verbs tend to be of analytic profile.

General Works

The phenomenon of serial verbs was first identified for Akan in Christaller 1875 (cited under Monographs and Grammars) as “syntactic combinations of verbs” used to express “many verbal notions that are expressed with a simple verb in English and other European and Asiatic languages” (p. 73). The term serial verb was first used in Balmer and Grant 1929, p. 115–128 (cited under Monographs and Grammars), and then reintroduced in Stewart 1963 (cited under General Articles). Serial verbs have been the focus of the studies of languages of West Africa, Mainland Southeast Asia, and Creoles since the early 1960s. Their general investigation is intertwined with research on individual languages and areas and reflects the history of different theoretical approaches. Important studies in the framework of the early transformational generative grammar are Stewart 1963, Bamgbos`e 1974, Bamgbos`e 1982 (all cited under General Articles), Schachter 1974, Stahlke 1970 (cited under Articles), and Wu 1992 (cited under Monographs). Attempts at the introduction of the Serialization Parameter and some predictions concerning serial verbs within the minimalist framework are in Stewart 2001 (cited under Monographs), Baker 1989, and Déchaine 1993 (both cited under Articles); critiques of the approach are in Durie 1997 and Aikhenvald 2006 (cited under Articles). The empirically based cross-linguistic studies in terms of functionalist approach and basic linguistic theory are reflected in Givón 1991 (cited under Serial Verbs and Event Representation), Durie 1997, Aikhenvald 2006 (both cited under Articles), Aikhenvald 2012 (cited under Languages of South America: Languages of Amazonia and Adjacent Regions), Aikhenvald 2018 (cited under Monographs), and Dixon 2006 (cited under Articles). The general terminological consensus on serial verbs was gradually established in Foley and Olson 1985 (partly cast in the framework of Role and Reference Grammar) (cited under Articles). Haspelmath 2016 (cited under Articles) offers a revised definition of serial verbs limiting the applicability of the concept. Putative correlations between serialization and the order of components are proposed in Schiller 1990 (cited under Articles). Sebba 1987 (cited under Monographs) is the first book-length study of serial verbs in a wide variety of languages outlining their general features and focusing on Sranan. Wu 1992 (cited under Monographs) offers a brief overview of serial verb constructions, with a focus on Chinese. Lord 1993 (cited under Monographs) discusses the general properties of serial verb constructions and their patterns of grammaticalization. Veenstra 1996 (cited under Monographs) focuses on specific features of serial verbs in Sranan, in the context of other languages, cast in generative framework. Jarkey 2015 (cited under Monographs) addresses serial verbs in White Hmong, offering a general perspective on the phenomenon of serialization. Aikhenvald 2018 (cited under Monographs) is the first monograph to date to provide a comprehensive typological overview of serial verbs worldwide. Edited collections like Joseph and Zwicky 1990, Lefebvre 1991, and Aikhenvald and Dixon 2006 (all cited under Edited Collections) cover a variety of case studies on serial verbs across languages of different types. Bradshaw 1993 (cited under Edited Collections) focuses on serial verbs in the Oceanic subgroup of Austronesian and their neighbors; Aikhenvald and Muysken 2011 (cited under Edited Collections) contains case studies from the Americas.

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