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1.1       Background to the study

            The term verb serialisation has been called by various names such as “combination of verbs” (Christaller, 1875), “verbs in series” (Westermann, 1930), “serial verb construction (SVC)” (Stewart, 1963), “strings of verbs” (Ansre, 1966), “compressed sentence construction” (Awobuluyi, 1967) and “serial verbs” (Stahlke, 1970). Verb serialisation is “essentially a surface sentence containing a row of two or more verbs or verb phrases without any overt connective word between them” (George, 1975:1). It is a complex structure, and Stahlke (1970: 60) describes it as “a very perplexing type of surface structure”. This type of construction was first identified by Christaller (1875) in Twi, a Ghanaian language and later reported by Westermann (1930) in Ewe, another Ghanaian language.  The phenomenon of verb serialisation is widely found in the languages of West Africa, Southeast Asia, Amazonia, Oceania, New Guinea, as well as in many pidgins and creoles (Aikhenvald, 2006). According to Dixon (2006:338), verb serialisation is not restricted to a particular linguistic typology. It is widespread, clearly recognisable robust grammatical construction found in perhaps one-third of the languages of the world. However, there appears to be none in Europe, north or central Asia, and rather few in North America or Australia.

A historical account of the studies on verb serialisation from 1875 when it was identified by Christaller in Twi till date would reveal a period of about one hundred and thirty nine (139) years of continued relevance and sustained interest in this aspect of grammar of language. The question is, why the sustained interest in verb serialisation? Interest in verb serialisation persists because of the intricacies and the multi-dimensional nature of the issues surrounding the phenomenon in languages as well as the cross-linguistic variations identified with such constructions. Lord (1993:1), Creissels (2000:240) and Ameka (2005:1) claim that the following four situations encouraged a blossoming of claims and counterclaims about verb serialisation. First, there are some spurious serial verb constructions in some languages. Secondly, there are various types of verb serialisation in a single language. Thirdly, there is cross-linguistic variation such that the properties of verb serialisation in one language may not map wholly unto those of another language, and finally, most of the times, there is no obvious distinction between verb serialisation proper and other verb sequence constructions (such as consecutive constructions) even in one language. Based on these problems, the question concerning the nature of serial verb constructions in languages arises again and again for over a century.

It is not surprising, however, that a linguistic phenomenon, attested in nearly one-third of the languages of the world has no universally applicable defining features. Defining verb serialisation cross-linguistically is a rather complex enterprise. As Sebba (1987:1) observes, “there are a lot of profound disagreements about the nature of verb serialisation, and even about what range of constructions that are entitled to be called serial verb constructions”. Nevertheless, there are some basic diagnostic features of languages with verb serialisation as we shall see in Bodomo (1998) and Ndimele (1996) in sections (2.1. 2) and (2.2) respectively.


  •      Statement of the problem

There is disagreement among scholars on whether Igbo is a serialising language or non-serialising language. Hyman (1971), Lord (1975) and Stewart (1998) claim that Igbo is unlike other members of  the West Africa Kwa (Benue Congo) group of languages in that Igbo does not serialise. Conversely, Welmers (1973) and Déchaine (1993) argue that Igbo indeed is a serialising language. Welmers (1973) claims that Igbo has two basic types of serialisation. According to him, in the type one, “verbs after the first are in the verbal noun forms” while “the second type of serial verb construction uses the consecutive form for verbs after the first” (Welmers 1973:368); Déchaine (1993), on the contrary, states that Igbo has four types of SVCs: instrumental, manner, comitative and multi-event types. Déchaine also claims, “there are no dative/benefactive and resultative serial constructions in Igbo. Instead, these semantic types can only surface as V-V compounds” (Déchaine, 1993:809). The problem of this study, therefore, is to determine the semantic types of SVCs found in Igbo.

Furthermore, another controversial aspect of Igbo syntax is whether the verb sequences found in Igbo sentences constitute instances of serialisation or consecutivisation. This problem is not peculiar to Igbo. According to Ameka (2005:1), “one of the problems that have exercised the minds of many analysts concerns the distinction between SVCs proper and other verb sequence constructions even in one language”. Put differently, in the words of Creissels (2000:240), “there is most of the time no obvious distinction between serial verbs and verb sequences in which each verb constitutes a distinct predicate, in particular consecutive constructions.” According to Uwalaka (1982: 63), “the difficulty is evidently the reliance on semantic criteria to define consecutivisation, while serialisation is for some scholars a residual category with partly semantic, partly structural features”. In other words, the problem emanates from the bases of the definitions of these phenomena. Welmers (1973) and Uwalaka (1982) attempt to distinguish between Igbo verb serialisation and consecutivisation, and  claim that perhaps a more satisfactory approach would be in terms of the subject or subjects involved. Based on this, they conclude in their respective studies that serialisation may ultimately be preferable for all verb combinations, in which a single subject is obligatory, while the term consecutivisation would be reserved for cases in which a new subject could optionally be introduced after the first verb. The present study determines if the number of subjects involved in all verb combinations is actually the only satisfactory distinguishing factor between verb serialisation and consecutivisation or whether there are other factors apart from the number of subjects. In addition to determining the type of SVCs in Igbo and the distinguishing factors between verb serialisation and consecutivisation, this study uses revised extended standard theory of transformational generative grammar to analyse the syntactic structures of verb serialisation and consecutivisation in Igbo with the support of Semantic Component Rule since no one has used these theoretical frameworks to analyse these verb combinations.


1.3       Purpose of the study

The main purpose of this research is to analyse the syntax of Igbo serialisation and consecutivisation. Serialising typology varies from language to language; hence, the study proposes defining features of verb serialisation and consecutivisation in Igbo and establishes the exact number of types found in Igbo. Subsequently, the study focuses on the verb sequences in Igbo sentences with a view to establish their status as either serialisation or consecutivisation. The syntactic analysis examines the mechanisms of argument sharing, tense and aspect marking, negation marking and derivation of the verb sequences. The specific objectives of the study are to:

  1. determine the semantic types of verb serialisation and consecutivisation in Igbo.
  2. establish the syntactic structures of verb serialisation and consecutivisation in Igbo within Revised Extended Standard Theory (REST).
  • find the differences and similarities between verb serialisation and consecutivisation in Igbo.


1.4       Scope of the study

A study of this kind cannot exhaustively cover all the issues surrounding verb serialisation and consecutivisation, particularly the verbal categories that is involved and the functions they perform such as adverbial or prepositional functions. The explanation of what a main verb and a subordinate verb are also not covered by the study. The above mention areas are excluded from the study for an in-depth investigation to be carried out on the topic. The scope of the study, therefore, is to determine types of serialisation and consecutivisation in the language. It also establishes the syntactic structures of verb serialisation and consecutivisation, therefore, the elicited data are to be examined according to the syntactic categories under investigation such as argument sharing, tense and aspect marking and negation marking. The analysis of how serialisation and consecutivisation are derived within Revised Extended Standard Theory (REST) is also part of the scope of the study.

1.5       Research questions

To actualise the objectives of this study, the following research questions are formulated to guide the research:

  1. How many types of verb serialisation and consecutivisation does Igbo have?
  2. What are the syntactic structures of verb serialisation and consecutivisation in Igbo?
  • What are the differences and similarities between verb serialisation and consecutivisation in Igbo?


1.6       Significance of the study

The analysis of verb serialisation and consecutivisation has not been given adequate attention in Igbo syntax. Many of the few works that exist are incidental comments on the phenomena. They are Hyman (1971), Welmers (1973), Déchaine (1993), Stewart (1998) and Emenanjo (2010).  Some of these scholars are of the view that verb serialisation and consecutivisation are not in the language (Hyman, 1971, Lord, 1975, and Stewarts, 1998). Welmers (1973), Déchaine (1993), Stewart (1998) and Emenanjo (2010) provide non-detailed works on how the phenomena operate in Igbo syntax. Welmers (1973), Déchaine (1993) and Emananjo (2010) in their respective studies present a few number of the kinds of these constructions while Welmers (1973) and Uwalaka (1982) give one factor as a more satisfactory distinguishing feature of these phenomena. In the same vein, none of these linguists carried out a study of the syntactic structures of verb serialisation and consecutivisation in Igbo within the Revised Extended Standard Theory. Therefore, this research fills the gap and presents a clear picture of verb serialisation and consecutivisation in Igbo syntax in addition to the distinction between them.

As an area that has not been adequately investigated in Igbo, this work is an open way for more research on verb sequences in Igbo syntax. Specifically, the study determines the types of serialisation and consecutivisation in the language; it establishes the syntactic structures of verb serialisation and consecutivisation in Igbo; it provides how serialisation and consecutivisation are derived within the Revised Extended Standard Theory and finds out the differences and similarities between verb serialisation and consecutivisation. The above mentioned objectives address the research questions formulated for the study in section (1.5) above. It is therefore hoped that the present work will contribute to our knowledge of Igbo verbs in general and verb sequences in particular; and understanding the verb sequences will go a long way to facilitate our understanding of Igbo grammar.  Similarly, researchers in syntax and comparative linguistics will find this work a useful contribution to the status of verb sequences in Igbo syntax.

Hopefully, the present work provokes further research that will point to its limitations as well as proffer new methods and theoretical frameworks for discussing verb sequences, their nature and development in Igbo and other languages, especially in languages of West Africa where serialisation and consecutivisation are prominent.


1.7       Limitations of the study

The researcher was constrained by some factors during her preliminary search for data collection. Some of the constraints encountered in the study have to do with the controversial nature of the topic under investigation. As stated in the statement of the problem in section (1.2) above, only a few scholars admit that there are SVCs in Igbo; there is no consensus on the number of types of SVCs in Igbo and most especially, there is no clear distinction between verb serialisation and consecutivisation. Based on these unresolved issues, there is paucity of materials on the topic under investigation. The additional fact that is no in-depth study of the syntactic structure of verb sequences and specific works in relation to the present topic was also a constraint for the study.


1.8       Methods of data collection

            The design of the study is descriptive-analytical. The data were collected from primary and secondary sources. The primary sources comprise personal experiences as a native speaker of Igbo.  As a native speaker of Igbo, principles which native speakers intuitively employ in speech are adopted. However, the study does not rely solely on this method in order to avert being subjective (rather than objective), which is a major disadvantage of sole reliance on intuition, hence, the additional personal interviews from the eight major dialect clusters of Igbo. Eight respondents from each of the clusters were purposively selected and engaged in informal narrative discussions. Relevant syntactic structures were elicited from the discourse and compared with similar structures derived intuitively.

Secondary sources were drawn from books and materials from the internet. Library and internet were consulted severely in search of useful materials that are related to the research topic. Books, journals, seminar and conference papers, which are relevant to the study constitute the source of secondary data collection that were juxtaposed with data generated from the primary sources.

1.9       Tone marking convention

The tone marking convention adopted in this study is the convention used in Emenanjo (1978) and Williamson (1979).  This convention recommends the following:

1  a. leave all syllables with high tones unmarked

  1. mark all syllables with low tones
  2. mark all syllables with step tones

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