[Lingtyp] languages lacking a verb for 'give'

Daniel Ross djross3 at gmail.com
Thu Jan 27 04:25:50 UTC 2022

Dear Matthew,

This is a common pattern for languages with serial verb constructions,
along the lines of "take book give him", etc. There has been a lot written
about the lack of argument structure in these languages (some claiming that
three arguments are not possible in some languages), and that SVCs can
supplement that argument structure (and possibly a small inventory of
verbs, according to some sources). I'm not as confident in some of the more
extreme claims about this, but it is clear that this pattern is widespread
among many of these languages (I know I've seen explicit claims for West
Africa and creoles, and probably elsewhere). At the same time, it is not
clear that these languages, strictly speaking, lack a lexical verb "give",
since one of the verbs in this construction can be translated as such,
although it is used with another verb (often 'take') to supplement it for
the full argument structure. Other patterns are found too, and probably
various other lexical verbs are used in a function like 'give', so it
becomes a question of lexical translation. (This more generally is related
to patterns of verbs in SVCs developing into prepositions.)

I'm sorry I don't immediately have any specific languages/references in
mind, but let me know if you'd like me to try to find some. I know that
Sebba 1987 discusses this in some detail, and here's one example:

ɔde sekaŋ no mãã me
he-take knife the give-PAST me
'S/he gave me the knife' [originally from Christaller 1875: 118]

Sebba, Mark. 1987. The syntax of serial verbs: an investigation into
serialisation in Sranan and other languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

(Tangential note: SVCs like this are generally considered *monoclausal*, by
a variety of metrics, so I wouldn't call this "two analytic clauses",
although the effect is the same. My dissertation thoroughly reviews the
issue of monoclausality: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.5546425 -- but I
don't discuss this specific question about 'give'.)

Finally, one extra comment, which is probably not what your colleague is
after, is that there are some languages where the lexical verb 'give' is
(at least in some cases) a zero root or null morpheme, i.e. indicated by
lack of phonological content plus other inflectional morphology. This is
discussed for some PNG languages here:


On Wed, Jan 26, 2022 at 7:43 PM Matthew Dryer <dryer at buffalo.edu> wrote:

> I am sending this query on behalf of a colleague.
> He wants to know whether anyone knows of a language that lacks a "give"
> type verb and would express something like "I gave him the book" instead as
> something like "I presented the book (to him) and he took it". That is, is
> there a language that can only express a give-type concept with two more
> analytic clauses?
> Matthew Dryer
> _______________________________________________
> Lingtyp mailing list
> Lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org
> http://listserv.linguistlist.org/mailman/listinfo/lingtyp
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