Linguistics and English Language

Meaning and grammar seminar

Speaker: Bert Remijsen (University of Edinburgh)

Title: Complex Predicates and Verb serialization in Shilluk


In Shilluk, a Nilo-Saharan language spoken in South Sudan, it is very common for the predicate heading a clause to display complexity in the sense that it includes more than just a single inflected verb form. In this presentation, I will present a descriptive analysis of these constructions, reporting on collaborative work with Akil Ismael (UC Berkeley) and Otto Gwado Ayoker (Shilluk Language Council). We distinguish between three major types of complex constructions in Shilluk. First, there are constructions in which the verb form heading the predicate has an accompanying particle which constrains the inflection on the verb. This is shown in (1), where the verb is preceded by the habitual marker ɲɪ́


kùl  ɲɪ́   gɛ̂́ɛr̄       a     lwʌ̀ʌʌk

Kul hab build:nt foc barn:pl

‘Kul builds barns habitually.’

Second, there are constructions in which the predicate is headed either by an auxiliary or by a light verb with a semantically bleached meaning, and the main verb is included as an infinitive nominalization. In (2), the predicate is headed by the light verb {ɟwâan}, and the semantically rich verb {gɛ̀ɛr} appears in a prepositional phrase.


kùl  ɟwâan            a    lwʌ̀ʌʌk      kɪ́ gɛ̂ɛɛr-ɔ̀

Kul  do.quickly:nt foc barn:pl prp build-inf

‘Kul builds barns quickly.’

Finally, there are serialization constructions, which are constructions involving the juncture of two or more verbs that lack any overt marking for coordination and subordination between them. As seen in (3), each of the constituent verbs is preceded by its subject.


kùl  kɛ́t̪     ɛ́        gɛ̂́ɛr̄       a   lwʌ̀ʌʌk

Kul go:nt pr.3sg build:nt foc barn:pl

‘Kul builds barns gradually.’

While these constructions diverge in their formal properties, there is considerable overlap with respect to their function. As seen from example (1-3), aspectual meanings can be expressed through a particle (1), a light verb construction (2), or through a serialization (3). There is no way to explain why some aspectual verbs are used in light verbs and others in serializations. 

I will pay special attention to the morphosyntactic properties of the infinitive nominalisation that expresses the semantically rich verb in auxiliary and light verb construction. This form presents a mixture of nominal and verbal properties. The infinitive nominalisation is morphologically marked for its argument in the same way as a head noun is marked for taking a possessor argument. In its voice and valency, however, it is akin to a verb.


Seminars are organised by the meaning and grammar research group.

Meaning and grammar research group

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Dec 05 2023 -

Meaning and grammar seminar

2023-12-05: Complex Predicates and Verb serialization in Shilluk

Room 1.17, Dugald Stewart Building, 3 Charles Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9AD