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The serial verb construction: Comparative concept and cross-linguistic generalizations

Haspelmath, Martin

ABSTRACT: Since the 1970s, serial verb constructions (SVCs) have been discussed widely in African, Oceanic and many other languages throughout the world. This article gives an overview of the most important generalizations about SVCs that have been proposed and that do seem to hold if a sufficiently restrictive definition of the concept is adopted. The main problem with the earlier comparative literature is that the notion of an SVC has not been delimited clearly, and/or has been formulated in much too wide terms. As a result, some linguists have despaired of finding a coherent cross-linguistic concept of SVC. For example, one scholar asked ‘Are there any universal defining properties of serial verb constructions? Probably not . . .’. These problems can be seen as a result of the confusion between comparative concepts and natural kinds: Serial verb constructions have (most often implic- itly) been regarded as natural kinds (universal categories), so that phenomena in additional languages were regarded as SVCs even when they had somewhat different properties. This procedure inevitably leads to a fuzzy and very broad understanding of the concept, with a prototype (or ‘canonical’) structure that does not allow falsifiable claims. Here I propose a narrow definition of SVC and formulate 10 universals that are apparently true of all serial verb constructions in this narrow sense. The claim that these are universally true of (narrowly defined) serial verb constructions is based on a thorough reading of the comparative and theoretical literature, not on a systematic sample of language—the latter would not have been practical, because SVCs are rarely described in sufficient detail in descriptive grammars. No attempt is made at explaining these generalizations in the present article, but I claim that we finally have a good idea of what it is that needs to be explained in a general way.

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