LINGUIST List 30.4351

Fri Nov 15 2019

Review: Anthropological Linguistics; Morphology; Syntax; Typology: Aikhenvald (2018)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 24-Jul-2019
From: Thomas Schwaiger <>
Subject: Serial Verbs
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald
TITLE: Serial Verbs
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2018

REVIEWER: Thomas Schwaiger, Institute of Linguistics, University of Graz


The monograph “Serial verbs” by Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald is an up-to-date stocktaking and expansion of typological research into serial verb constructions (SVCs) or, simply, serial verbs. In line with the book’s constituting a further entry in the “Oxford Studies in Typology and Linguistic Theory” series, the author aims at providing “a thorough cross-linguistic account of serial verbs in their impressive diversity” (p. 13), whereby “[t]he analysis is cast in terms of basic linguistic theory” (p. 14).

Chapter 1 (“Serial verbs: The framework”) sets the scene by presenting and exemplifying several typological key aspects of SVCs (all to be investigated in more detail in later chapters), giving a continuum-style definition of the phenomenon and completing the picture through brief outlines of the treatment of serial verbs in the history of linguistics as well as in the formally and functionally oriented theoretical literature.

Chapter 2 (“Recognizing a serial verb”) expands on the (often interrelated) definitional properties of a prototypical SVC, i.e. two or more verbs with no mark of dependency between them which could all also function on their own as the sole verbs in a clause, additionally characterized by monopredicativity, monoclausality, monoverbal prosody, a sharing of grammatical values (e.g. tense, aspect, mood, polarity, etc.) and arguments (e.g. subjects and objects) as well as the expression of a single event.

Chapter 3 (“Serial verbs: Their composition and meanings”) differentiates SVCs in terms of their compositional (a)symmetry. Asymmetrical serial verbs involve components of different status: a ‘major’ verb from an unrestricted open class (the ‘semantic head’ of the construction) and a ‘minor’ verb from a semantically or grammatically limited and closed class (e.g. motion and posture verbs, stative verbs, intransitive verbs, etc.). The minor component endows the semantics of the major component with various specifications like direction, orientation, aspect or a change of valency. Symmetrical SVCs combine verbs of any semantic type and of which none can be considered the construction’s ‘head’. Their meanings include, inter alia, related sequential or concomitant actions, cause-effect and resultative relationships or the expression of manner, and they are at most restricted by culturally induced considerations of semantic plausibility. Asymmetrical and symmetrical serial verbs can occur together in ‘nested’ structures of three or more verbs, and they differ further in that the former do not necessarily show iconicity in the sequencing of their verbal components and tend to grammaticalize, while the latter typically display iconic ordering and are prone to lexicalization. Nevertheless, the area between asymmetrical and symmetrical SVCs can sometimes be fuzzy and classificatory decisions may then rest with the particular analyses of individual languages.

Chapter 4 (“Formal properties of serial verbs”) discusses the forms of SVCs with regard to contiguity (whether the verbal components have to stand next to each other or not), wordhood (whether the verbal components constitute one or more grammatical and/or phonological words), the expression of grammatical categories (whether all verbal components are concordantly marked for person, tense, aspect, polarity, etc. or just one of them is; crucially, the question of marking is a different one from the values of such categories, as the latter are always shared within serial verbs according to their definition) and transitivity matching (whether all verbal components are required to have the same transitivity or not; the former state of affairs seems only to be found in languages with few or no ambitransitive verbs). Although these parameters are relatively independent from each other, certain limitations can be discerned: non-contiguous single-word SVCs are only rarely attested in the world’s languages (e.g. Cantonese, Northern Paiute and Tepehua) and single-word serial verbs always have single marking of grammatical categories.

Chapter 5 (“The limits of verb serialization”) first addresses different degrees of SVC productivity: productively serializing languages use both asymmetrical and symmetrical types, while limited serialization languages only have one, usually the asymmetrical, type. Double verb constructions in (Indo-)European languages like Estonian, Russian and Hittite, which can all be seen as instances of limited serial verbs, are also mentioned. Subsequently, SVCs are located within the broader context of clause sequences and other multi-verb constructions, where serial verbs need to be kept apart from superficially similar structures as in coordination and subordination, clause chaining, auxiliary and converb constructions or verbal compounding.

Chapter 6 (“The many facets of serial verbs”) starts out by looking at the properties of different SVCs occurring in one and the same language. Several wordhood and contiguity combinations are examined, uncovering the fact that most languages with more than one have two, sometimes three, kinds of serial verbs differing according to these parameters, whereby the intralanguage opposition is typically one between ‘looser, less tightly knit’ and ‘more tightly knit’ formal as well as semantic (i.e. event) structures. This tendency is explained by adducing the principle of iconicity. In a next step, the general likelihood of specific verb types in SVCs as well as of specific SVC types in languages is described. The presence of asymmetrical serial verbs is concluded to imply the presence of symmetrical serial verbs in a language. The minor verbs in asymmetrical SVCs preferably come from the class of basic motion verbs, while stative verbs are much less preferred. Languages prefer asymmetrical serial verbs of the directional type, while the valency-decreasing type is far less frequent. Symmetrical SVCs, on the other hand, show fewer restrictions, correlating with semantic acceptability.

Chapter 7 (“What are serial verbs good for?”) turns to the many grammatical, discourse-pragmatic as well as event-representational uses of SVCs. They cover all sorts of meanings that are expressed by different morphological and syntactic means in other languages; they can be recruited for the expression of discourse-related notions like definiteness, focus or politeness; and they may serve to portray events of all sorts in highly vivid detail, often with stylistic effects. Correlating serial verbs with the typological profiles and lexicons of their respective languages shows that SVCs always operate on a nominative-accusative basis and that they are common in--but not exclusive to--analytic and isolating language types as a compensation for a lack of inflectional morphology, while in other cases serial verbs may compensate for a closed class of verbs or a relative lack of semantic complexity in the verbal lexicon.

Chapter 8 (“The rise and fall of serial verbs”) is devoted to the questions of where serial verbs come from, including language contact and substratum influence, and where they go to in terms of grammaticalization and lexicalization, as well as their acquisition by children and their loss in language dissolution. Clause fusion, verbal modification and concurrent grammaticalization are suggested as three non-mutually-exclusive scenarios for the origin of SVCs. Inflectional loss and analytic spread are said to favor the development of serial verbs, likewise the reinforcement or enhancement of SVCs in language contact situations. Conversely, contact with non-serializing languages may lead to de-serialization. In many parts of the world, SVCs represent an areal linguistic feature (a very instructive case is discussed with respect to the Amazonian language Tariana). A limited number of studies on Cantonese, Mandarin, Morisyen and Seselwa demonstrate that serial verbs are acquired relatively early and in such a way that their complexity increases along with the language learning child getting older. The disintegration of SVCs in aphasia seems to be a concomitant of losing syntactically complex structures in general.

Chapter 9 (“The essence of serial verbs”) provides a summary of all the foregoing chapters, additionally offering an overview of the differences between SVCs, clause sequences and multi-verb predicates with converbs in Table 9.2 (p. 243), the latter not given in Chapter 5, where these constructions are originally contrasted.


Next to offering the most comprehensive treatment of serial verbs in the world’s languages to date, Aikhenvald’s monograph can also, according to its preface, “be used both as a sourcebook for further typological investigations, and a textbook” (p. ix). It probably goes without saying that, given the scope and breadth of the concepts and data covered in the chapters summarized above, recommendations for the latter use should definitely be narrowed down to advanced coursework in linguistics (see also the respective bibliographic entry annotated in Aikhenvald 2018). With that (nevertheless) said, the checklist in the addendum after the last chapter (“A fieldworker’s guide: Serial verb constructions--how to know more”) may also be used by students as a guide to the comprehension of the topics in individual chapters.

On a more general level, it is precisely the vast amount of material as well as the thoroughness of its discussion that together form one of the major strengths of the book. Thus, the goal of presenting the cross-linguistic diversity of SVCs is definitely met. The study is refreshingly grounded in classical typology in being “truly empirically based” and “not restricted to a sample of any type”, so that the ensuing qualitative “examination of about 800 grammars” easily compensates for any quantitative shortcomings which might result from the author’s choice “not to give any statistical counts” (p. 14). A minor drawback of the book’s explicit footing in basic linguistic theory has to do with the fact that many pertinent theoretical controversies surrounding serial verbs, pertaining to both formalist as well as functionalist theories of different kinds, are not reviewed in any depth and the reader is instead relegated to arguments like the ones in Durie (1997: 294-320) or Reid (2011: 179). In some places it is felt that a more detailed ‘in situ argumentation’, also addressing potential counterexamples, would have enriched the account at hand, especially concerning the Role and Reference Grammar distinction between ‘core’ and ‘nuclear’ serialization criticized on pp. 17-18.

To a large extent, the book under review may be directly compared to an earlier typological article by Aikhenvald (2006), of which it can be said to be a continuation and expansion. This is particularly evident from the parallel content and numbering over certain stretches of both studies (e.g. §§2.1-6, §§3.2.1-8, §§3.3.1-4, §§3.4.1-2, §§4.1-4 and §5.1). Minor differences can be spotted between Table 2.1 (p. 45) and Table 1 (Aikhenvald 2006: 15), both summarizing the properties of SVCs with non-identical subjects. More fundamental differences involve the attestation of non-contiguous single-word serial verbs on p. 97 still absent from Aikhenvald (2006: 39), as well as a slight change of heart on p. 36 concerning the status of multi-scene SVCs in Kalam as compared to Aikhenvald (2006: 10, note 4).

The overall discussion and exemplification throughout the book are coherent and easy to follow. Some readers might feel the repetitions found in several chapters to be somewhat redundant, though others (first and foremost the textbook users) might be appreciative of exactly this feature. There are only a few passages where a clearer understanding of the argumentation is potentially impeded. In Chapter 2, more space could have been devoted to the not so obvious question of in how far the criterion of a single polarity value is not contradicted by SVCs with different negation scope interpretations (see also Aikhenvald 2006: 8-10 and Haspelmath 2016: 301, note 6, who merely states “that single negatability does not mean that the negation can have only a single scope interpretation”). Similarly, the reference to secondary-A and secondary-B concepts in Chapter 3 could have benefited from a more extensive introduction of the terms as these do not seem to be part of standard linguistic terminology. Also, given that “[w]hat secondary verbs have in common is their semantic dependency: they cannot occur on their own without another verb for which they provide semantic modification” (pp. 61-62), the implications of this statement for the definitional property of serial verb components having to be able to be used on their own could have been further explored. Does this mean, for instance, that secondary verbs used outside of SVCs have to co-occur with other verbs that are in some kind of dependent form? Again in Chapter 3, the grammaticalization of asymmetrical serial verbs is held responsible for the latter’s non-compositional meanings, which is contrasted with the lexicalization and idiomatic meanings of symmetrical SVCs (see p. 84). But isn’t non-compositionality also, or even rather, a property of lexicalizations and idioms? A related question concerns the discussion of Paraguayan Guaraní serial verbs in Chapter 6, where it seems that both lexicalization and grammaticalization can have the same contiguous single-word symmetrical SVC as their point of departure (see p. 149). A final issue relates to the reiteration in Chapter 5 of the assertion that “a serial verb construction consists of two or more verbs each of which can be used as independent predicates in the very form they occur in a serial verb” (p. 136). In light of this stronger reformulation, one could of course wonder whether this is also true for an unmarked verb in single-marking SVCs.

By way of conclusion, mention should also be made of the several valuable passages of a more general linguistic relevance scattered throughout the study (and sometimes even hidden in an endnote), for example the “cautionary tale against building a theoretical argument based on one isolated language fact” (p. 120, note 8) or that “[t]he ability to have just one component [of a serial verb; TS] within its scope can be a means of differentiating inflectional categories--such as tense or aspect, with a clausal scope--from derivational categories, whose scope is just one word” (p. 114).

In sum, some minor points of criticism notwithstanding, the book under review not only captures an impressively diverse linguistic phenomenon, but its author achieves this in an impressively reader-friendly manner. Aikhenvald’s “Serial verbs” will thus equally appeal to advanced students of linguistics, linguists interested in SVCs or the syntax-semantics interface in general as well as anyone with a basic linguistic knowledge and a curiosity about the diversity of human languages.


Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2006. Serial verb constructions in typological perspective. In Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald & R. M. W. Dixon (eds.), Serial verb constructions: A cross-linguistic typology (Explorations in Linguistic Typology), 1-68. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2018. Serial verbs. In Mark Aronoff (ed.), Oxford bibliographies online: Linguistics. (26 October, 2018.)

Durie, Mark. 1997. Grammatical structures in verb serialization. In Alex Alsina, Joan Bresnan & Peter Sells (eds.), Complex predicates (Center for the Study of Language and Information Lecture Notes 64), 289-354. Stanford: CSLI Publications.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2016. The serial verb construction: Comparative concept and cross-linguistic generalizations. Language and Linguistics 17. 291-319.

Reid, Nicholas. 2011. Ngan’gityemerri: A language of the Daly River region, Northern Territory of Australia (Outstanding Grammars from Australia 6). Munich: Lincom Europa.


Thomas Schwaiger holds a master's and a PhD degree (dissertation title: ''The structure of reduplicants: A typological investigation of iconicity and preferred form in reduplication'') from the University of Graz, Austria, where he is currently working at the Institute of Linguistics as a postdoctoral researcher with a focus on morphology, syntax, semantics, typology, Functional Discourse Grammar and the history of linguistics. He has published on various aspects of reduplication and taught several courses in the core areas of linguistics.

Page Updated: 15-Nov-2019