Serial verbs

This section deals with the most important and most powerful mechanism of the verbal complex and the main reason why it’s called the verbal complex.

Serial verbs are, in essence, a shortcut mechanism. They are like compounds in that they create new meanings by putting words together. But unlike compounds, the meaning of a serial verb is completely predictable from the words that compose it, and the order they appear in. This means that a serial verb is understandable to anyone who knows the words that make it up and knows how serial predicates work, without requiring a dictionary.

While compounds are new lexemes and thus add entirely new meanings to the dictionary, serial verbs do not create new meanings, they merely combine words efficiently to express a more complex meaning and make sentences a lot shorter in the process. And, the more complex a serial verb, the less complex the rest of the sentence!

To understand serial verbs, it is useful to have some understanding of complementizer phrases.

The following very simple example illustrates the idea behind serial verbs:

The first sentence contains a simple verb tua ”to bring about something” whose arguments are ”I” and the content clause jâı nháo ”that they are happy”. The second sentence, while looking very similar, has both verbs in the front, and the second argument is not a content clause but just nháo ”they”. By moving the verb out of the content clause into the verbal complex of the matrix clause, the content clause is no longer needed, and a level of nesting is eliminated.

This process can be applied to any polyadic verb whose last argument place selects for a non-interrogative complementizer phrase. This can be a content clause:

or a property:

Serial verbs can be stacked ad infinitum:

This example makes the difference in complexity very apparent: while the first sentence contains two levels of nesting and an explicit lambda variable, the second sentence contains no nesting and only uses simple pronouns. One could liken the difference to that between the pseudo-English “I try that I make that they happy” and “I try make happy them”.

Genitival serial constructions

Genitival serial constructions are a mechanism which is available for dyadic verbs which select for determiner phrases (i.e. not , because then the normal serial verb rules apply) in their second argument place. joaı “to look for” is one such verb:

The latter example is exactly equivalent to the following sentence using a genitival construction:

The expansion (i.e. the semantically equivalent paraphrase not involving a genitival construction) always involves a baq phrase, making these constructions fully generic and thus widely applicable.

Adjectival constructions

Adjectives are verbs in Toaq. They fall into three classes: predicative adjectives, attributive adjectives, and alienans adjectives. These types determine how to interpret different A B constructions, where A is an adjective and B is the modificand.

Predicative adjectives

Predicative adjectives are characterized by the following logical property: for any x, the fact that “x is an A B” allows the inference “x is A and x is B”. Even though this is the simplest possible interpretation for adjectives, it applies to surprisingly few.

jỉbo chảo X. “X is my car.” → “X is a car and X is mine”

kỉa shảtı X. “X is a red shirt.” → “X is a shirt and X is red”

A much more commonly applicable interpretation of adjectives is the next one.

Attributive adjectives

Attributive adjectives are characterized by failure of the following test, where A is the adjective, and B and C are modificands:

Any x which is a B is a C.
Therefore, any x which is an A B is an A C.

Plugging in kıa “red”, shatı “shirt” and fuq “item of clothing” yields:

Any x which is a shatı “shirt” is a fuq “item of clothing”.
Therefore, any x which is a kıa shảtı “red shirt” is a kıa fủq “red item of clothing”.

As this inference is valid, the adjective “red” is not attributive but predicative. On the other hand, plugging in nuı “small”, elu “elephant” and nıaı “animal” gives a different result:

Any x which is an elu “elephant” is a nıaı “animal”.
Therefore, any x which is a nuı ẻlu “small elephant” is a nuı nỉaı “small animal”.

This is not a valid inference. The adjective “small” is attributive.

As it turns out, most adjectives are attributive.

While both predicative and attributive adjectives are monadic verbs in Toaq, the next type is better handled by dyadic verbs.

Alienans adjectives

Both attributive adjectives and alienans adjectives fail the above test. However, alienans adjectives differ in the following way:

While something that satisfies nuı ẻlu “small elephant” must also be an elu ”elephant”, the same cannot be said for alienans adjectives. From kuqnu mủaqtua “x is an alleged killer”, one cannot infer muaqtua “x is a killer”. The adjective changes the nature of the modificand, making it unclear what it is. This is the characterizing trait of alienans adjectives.

In Toaq, alienans adjectives are dyadic verbs whose second argument place is a property place. Because of this, they actually fall under true serial verbs and don’t require special adjectival semantics.

joe nỏaq “skilled reader” → “to be skilled at reading”

luı cảqche “former director” → “to be one who has been a director”

jaq sảo “very large” → “to be extreme in largeness“


For an adjective A and modificand B, the construction A B has the following behavior:

if A is predicative → x is an A B implies the conjunction (A and B)

if A is attributive → x is an A B does not imply the conjunction, but only implies the modificant (B)

if A is alienans → x is an A B implies neither A nor B

Predicative and attributive adjectives are monadic verbs. They invoke special adjectival semantics.

Alienans adjectives are dyadic verbs. They use the normal serial verb machinery.

Previous section Next section