Volume 3 (2012) Issue 1 - Article Hofmann
JLLT Volume 3 (2012) Issue 1.pdf

Journal of Linguistics and Language Teaching

Volume 3 (2012) Issue 1 (PDF)

pp. 139-156

The Features of Verb Classification (concrete) vs. (abstract) in a Typological Comparative Study of German, Russian, English and Spanish


Viktor Hofmann (Berlin, Germany)

Abstract

The focus of this article is the semantic opposition (concrete) vs. (abstract). The place of this opposition in the verb classification and the way it manifests itself on grammar level in English, Spanish, German and Russian are shown. This semantic opposition is claimed to be one of the most important in verb classification. To substantiate this claim, relevant examples from modern grammars of English, Spanish, German and Russian are given. A new way of teaching Russian grammar on the basis of this opposition is suggested: German and Russian verbs should be grouped according to the semantic feature (abstract) or (concrete). This new grouping will have a positive influence ot the teaching and learning of Russian.

Key words: semantic opposition, concrete, abstract, grammar, Russian, English, German, Spanish.

1 Introduction

In the present article, a new semantic opposition of “concrete” vs. “abstract” and its place in the classification of verbs will be elaborated. Once the meaning of this opposition on the semantic level becomes clear, the way it manifests itself will be shown at the grammar level in German, Russian, English and Spanish. This approach has both a theoretical relevance for the new classification of verbs and practical consequences for language teaching.

2 The Place of the Opposition “concrete” vs. “abstract” in the Verb Classification

Bondarko shows how a grammatical category presents the core of a semantic-grammatical field (Bondarko 1971; 1983). According to his theory, grammatical categories are primary and semantic features are secondary. However, in the given context, we side with other linguists such as Vendler (1967 Steinitz (Steinitz 1981: 75), Weise (1983), Schopf (1969), Lucko (1986) and Quirk (1991) who oppose Bondarko and maintain exactly the opposite: certain semantic features or binary oppositions represent core, deep structures of the language that are expressed on the surface - on a grammatical or lexical level.

Vendler (1967) and Kenny (1963) draw our attention to the fact that a differentiated description of verbs is necessary. In their opinion, even state verbs are not homogeneous and should be described in a more precise way.

Schopf (1969: 225) maintains that there are two types of semantic features: variable and constant. Thus, semantic binary oppositions are constant semantic features that are the same in the four languages considered in the present article.

Lucko (1986: 40) offers a detailed verb classification which shows a differentiation between 32 situational types or verb classes. However, Lucko’s classification is not exhaustive because it does not contain an important semantic opposition (concrete/ abstract).

The basis for Lucko’s detailed verb classification is the semantic opposition (dynamic) vs. (static) (Lucko (1986: 40a). Quirk (1991:201) represents the same approach in his verb classification. According to Quirk and Lucko, all other verbal classes are subordinated to this semantic opposition.

It is here suggested that a new semantic opposition be introduced into verb classification, i.e. the features (concrete) vs. (abstract). The feature (+abstract) presupposes the absence of the feature (concrete); correspondingly the marker (-abstract) presupposes the presence of the feature (concrete).

The division between concrete and abstract nouns takes root in English grammar. Quirk offers the following definition:

Cutting across the grammatical and semantic count / non-count distinction, there is a semantic division into nouns like pig which are concrete (i.e. accessible to the senses, observable, measurable, etc.) and nouns like difficulty which are abstract (typically non-observable and non-measurable) (Quirk 1991: 247).

The difference between verbs and nouns is not as big as it seems at first glance as can, for example, be seen in the English lexeme date (noun; a romantic meeting) vs. date (verb; to have a romantic relationship with sb) (Hornby 2010: pp 387–388). Both words are similar on the level of expression and described on a semantic level in a similar way. Similarly, such common lexemes as seller, driver and, worker, which are nouns in English and German, are verb forms in Arabic (Krahl 2005: 342).

In the present article, a similar definition to verbs is applied. Henceforth, those verbs are abstract which denote actions that cannot be perceived, observed or measured by man. Correspondingly, concrete verbs are those that denote the actions that can be perceived, observed or measured by man. Verbs that denote basic human activities that can be easily represented through a drawing, belong to this category (cf. the development of language from pictograms to verbal language). Henceforth, there are two main verb groups: abstract and concrete.

The opposition (abstract) vs. (concrete) represents the most important concept in semantic verb classification because the opposition (dynamic) vs. (static). is subordinate to it as abstract and concrete verbs can be both static and dynamic, i.e.:

I have to think about it (+ abstract) (- dynamic) (if the examples are not specifically marked then they were made up by the author of this article; V. H.).

The storm made her situation more difficult (+ abstract) (+ dynamic) (Lucko 1986: 40).

The man is standing at the corner (- abstract) (- dynamic) (Lucko 1986: 38).

He wrote a letter (- abstract) (+ dynamic) (Lucko 1986:40).

The semantic opposition (transitive) vs. (intransitive) can also be found in various verb classifications. The feature (transitive) presupposes an object which follows the verb directly or by way of a preposition; this construction can always be turned into a passive one, i.e.:

to throw a stone, to shoot an arrow, to deliver a blow, to take into consideration.

The semantic opposition (transitive) vs. (intransitive) has its place in Quirk’s verb classification, i.e.

to drink, to sew, to write (Quirk 1991: 201).

However, the opposition (transitive) vs. (intransitive) is also subordinate to the opposition (concrete) vs. (abstract) because concrete and abstract verbs can be both transitive and intransitive, i.e.

I am thinking (+ abstract), (- transitive);

She has made up a courageous plan (+ abstract), (+ transitive);

He threw a stone (- abstract), (+ transitive);

The earth goes around the sun (- abstract), (- transitive)

The verb classes which are the focus of this study are marked by semantic features (concrete) vs. (abstract). The opposition (transitive) vs. (intransitive) is only relevant for chap. 4.1.

Thus it can be claimed that the semantic opposition (concrete) vs. (abstract) is prior to all other semantic oppositions.


2 Peculiarities of Abstract and Concrete Verb Objects on a Semantic Level

Two verb classes are relevant for this study:

  • verbs with the semantic feature (- abstract), i.e. to throw, to hit, to sow, to sharpen, and
  • verbs with the semantic feature (+ abstract) which can also be called interactive or cognitive verbs, i.e. to congratulate, to thank, to forgive, to understand, to tell, which usually denote speech acts, cognitive actions or interaction between two people.

On a semantic level, concrete transitive verbs have the following peculiarities:

1) The object of concrete transitive verbs has a semantic feature (- animated). In fact, the object of concrete transitive verbs is either a thing or an animal, i.e. to make an axe, to kill a bear.

The following anthropological explanation can be offered for this peculiarity: it can be assumed that hunting secured man’s livelihood at the earliest stage of his existence. Thus hunting can be viewed as a primary activity. Many secondary subordinate activities can be derived from this primary activity, i.e. to sharpen a stone, to make an axe, to process a buffalo hide, to throw a spear / a stone). All such concrete verbs also have semantic features (+ transitive), (+ dynamic), (+ agentive), the feature “agentive” being defined as follows:

We distinguish between the description of situations that involve human activity and situations that do not involve any human activity. The semantic features (+ agentive) and (- agentive) describe such situations. (Lucko 1986: 34).

2) Concrete agentive verbs are always dynamic. Verbs of this group denote actions caused by man, so we use the marker (+ agentive). Concrete verbs are used in conjunction with sensible human movements pursuing a certain goal, from which the feature (+ dynamic) results. Thus the semantic features (- abstract), (+ agentive) always require the marker (+ dynamic).

Man’s movements and concrete actions were meant to secure his survival. The goals of his actions had to be achieved, be it hunting or the production of tools or clothes. The goal of these basic actions was the qualitative change of the state of the object: a stone had to be turned into a stone axe; a buffalo hide had to be turned into clothes. The presence of an object that had to be affected by man in order to secure his survival explains the semantic feature (+ transitive), which is typical of concrete verbs.

Abstract verbs with the semantic feature (+ agentive) denote cognitive and interactive human actions as well as speech acts, i.e. to congratulate, to understand, to explain, to thank, to promise, to think. On the semantic level abstract agentive verbs have the following peculiarities:

1) Abstract transitive verbs with the feature (+ agentive) require an object with the semantic feature (+ animated), i.e. I warn you, I recommend to you. This peculiarity of abstract agentive verbs can be explained in the following way: apart from cognitive human actions, such verbs can be used to represent human interaction or to specify speech acts.

Abstract agentive verbs can also take the object with the semantic feature (- animated), i.e.

The team is improving the work discipline. (Lucko 1986: 40)

2) Abstract agentive verbs can have the semantic feature (+ dynamic), i.e. Humanity constantly enlarges its knowledge (Lucko1986:39).

However, verbs of this class can also have the feature (- dynamic), i.e. to congratulate sb, to understand sth, to wait for sb, to observe sth.

These examples contradict and refute Lucko’s statements according to which “every human activity is beyond doubt dynamic”, (Lucko1986:23) or “the feature (+ agentive) always implies the feature (+ dynamic)” (Lucko 1986:34). In criticising Lucko’s statements, we share Quirk’s opinion, who lists the static verbs to love, to resemble, to think in his classification of situational types; these verbs have the features (+ agentive) and (- dynamic) (Quirk 1991:201).

4 The Expression of the Semantic Opposition (concrete) vs. (abstract) in Russian, German, English and Spanish

4.1 The Expression of the Semantic Opposition (concrete) vs. (abstract) in Russian and German

The semantic opposition (concrete) vs. (abstract) is expressed in the grammar of German (Ger.) and Russian (Russ.) on the syntactic level. It can be clearly demonstrated if we consider the object relations in German and Russian There are two types of object relations:

  • Objects which immediately follow the verb (direct objects) i.e. Ger. einen Pfeil abschießen (to shoot an arrow) – Russ. выпустить стрелу. Besides, there are objects which follow the verb with a preposition (indirect objects), i.e. Ger. um Verzeihung bitten (to ask for forgiveness) – Russ. просить прощения (Gladrow 1998:157).

The semantic feature (+ transitive.) was dealt with extensively in chap. 2. On a semantic level, this semantic feature requires an object which can be turned into a passive construction; this semantic relation is syntactically expressed through the accusative case.

If we compare the accusative forms in German and Russian, we can establish the following rule:

Concrete German verbs in an accusative form which are followed by a direct object have Russian verbs in accusative forms as counterparts, i.e. Ger. ein Haus bauen (to build a house) (- abstract) – Russ. строить дом, cf. Gladrow (1998:157),

Several hundred verbs from Kafka’s novel Der Prozess were analyzed, proceeding from German and comparing the Russian equivalents (Hofmann 2003: pp. 34-35; Kafka 1990: 11 - 157).

The translation of every German verb form into Russian was registered and then the statistics were analyzed (Hofmann 2003: 35).

The causes of this total congruence of German and Russian accusative forms are:

  • the same semantic feature (- abstract) which both German and Russian verbs share;
  • the same semantic feature (+ transitive) which both German and Russian verbs share;
  • the same syntactic structure:: German and Russian objects both follow the verbs directly or without a preposition

If one of these conditions is not fulfilled, there will be a divergence of cases: the German accusative will not correspond with the Russian accusative:

1) the semantic feature (+ abstract) with German and Russian verbs

Examples:

Ger. die Freunde beneiden (Acc) – to be envious of friends – Russ. завидовать друзьям (Dat)

Ger. das Leben riskieren (Acc)- to risk one’s life Russ. рисковать жизнью (Instr.)

Ger. Erfolge erzielen (Acc.)- to reach success – Russ. добиваться успехов (Gen.)

Ger. sich an etwas erinnern (Acc.)- to recall something – Russ. вспомнить что- либо (Acc.)

2) the semantic feature (- transitive) with German and Russian verbs

Examples:

Ger. zur Post gehen (Dat) – to go to the post-office – Russ. пойти на почту (Acc.),

Ger. zur Bank gehen (Dat.) – to go to the bank – Russ. пойти в банк (Acc.),

Ger. zur Schule gehen (Dat.) – to go to school – Russ. идти в школу (Acc.),

However, there are also parallel German forms in the accusative.

Examples:

Russ. идти на почту – Ger. zur Post gehen (Dat.)Ger. auf die Post gehen (Acc.) – to go to the post-office

Russ. идти в банк – Ger. zur Bank gehen (Dat.)Ger. auf die Bank gehen (Acc.) – to go to the bank

Russ. идти на богослужение – Ger. zum Gottesdienst gehen (Dat.)Ger. in den Gottesdienst gehen (Acc.) – to go to church

Russ. идти в школу – Ger. zur Schule gehen (Dat.)Ger. in die Schule gehen (Acc.) – to go to school

3) Indirect objects (via a preposition) on a syntactic level in German and Russian

Examples:

Ger. jemanden anfassen (Acc.) – Russ. дотрагиваться до кого-либо (Gen.) – to touch smb.

Ger. an die Tafel schreiben (Acc.) – Russ. писать на доске (Prepositional) – to write on the blackboard

In the last example, only the second object takes a different case in Russian, while the first object, which is explicit or implicit, takes the same case, namely the accusative, cf.:

Ger. etwas an die Tafel schreiben – Russ. написать что-либо на доскеto write something on the blackboard

The concrete intransitive and transitive German and Russian verbs with indirect objects show a strong tendency to be used in the accusative, which testifies to the supremacy of the factor (- abstract) among the three factors considered above, cf.

Ger. ins Zimmer treten – Russ. войти в комнатуto come into the room, (Kirschbaum 2001:292)

The understanding of the reasons for convergence of the accusative in Russian and German can be used in foreign language teaching. So far, the grouping of Russian verbs which take objects in different cases or prepositional objects occurs according to case or preposition (Kirschbaum (2001: pp. 286 – 287 and pp. 293 - 299). However, it can be recommended to group the Russian verbs which take an object in the accusative according to the feature (+ abstract) or (- abstract). In this way, the complete overlap among Russian and German concrete verbs can be used effectively.

Such examples as:

Ger. um das Haus herumlaufen – Russ. обежать дом – to run around the house,

or

Ger. Volleybal spielen – Russ. играть в воллейболto play volley-ball

are described by Gladrow as “non-congruent relations” because they require a preposition in one language but do not require it in another (Gladrow 1998:157). Gladrow uses the same term, “non-congruent relations”, when describing constructions in Russian and German which require the same case but different prepositions, i.e.

Germ. auf Hilfe verzichten – Russ. отказываться от помощи – to refuse help,

Germ. sich an eine Sache machen – Russ. браться за дело – to get down to business (Gladrow 1998:157).

However, he misleadingly uses the same term, non-congruent relations, to describe object relations which require different cases in Russian and German, i.e.

Ger. die Freunde beneiden (Acc.) Russ. завидовать друзьям (Dat.) – to be envious of friends

Ger. das Leben riskieren (Acc.) Russ. рисковать жизнью (Instr.) – to risk one’s life

Ger. Erfolge erzielen (Acc.) Russ. добиваться успехов (Gen.) – to score a success ) Gladrow 1998:157)

These examples show that a stricter terminological differentiation is necessary. The term “non-congruent relations” should only describe the object relations that require a different case in German and Russian, i.e.

Ger. die Freunde beneiden (Acc.) Russ. завидовать друзьям (Dat.) – to be envious of friends

In the following three cases, concrete verbs in German and Russian take an object in the same case, namely in the accusative form. Therefore, it is here suggested that the term “partially congruent relations” be used for the following uses:

1) An object in German follows the verb immediately whereas an object in Russian is linked to the verb via a preposition, i.e.

Ger. Volleyball spielen – Russ. играть в воллейболto play volley-ball

2) An object in German is linked to the verb via a preposition whereas an object in Russian immediately follows the verb, i.e.

Ger. um das Haus herumlaufen – Russ. обежать домto run around the house

3) Both German and Russian use the same case (the accusative); however, different prepositions are used:

Ger. ins Konzert gehen – Russ. идти на концертto go to the concert

In the chain “verb – preposition – case”, the preposition cannot play the key role: by its nature a preposition has a simpler meaning than a verb; similarly, a case - as a grammatical category - has a more complex meaning than a preposition.

Henceforth, the usage of the wrong verb or of the wrong case is a serious grammatical error leading to a misunderstanding whereas the usage of a wrong preposition usually does not seriously impair the meaning of the statement, i.e.

Ger. ins Konzert gehen – Russ. *идти в концерт – to go to the concert

The Russian statement with a wrong preposition is not perceived as absolutely correct, but the general meaning of the statement is understood.

In Russian, the same meaning is duplicated: first, it is expressed through a preposition, second, it is expressed though the ending of the case form. So if the case form is used correctly and the preposition is wrong, the general meaning will still be understood correctly.

It can therefore be maintained that the accusative convergence rule with concrete verbs in German and Russian can also be applied to the cases of partially congruent relations.

In contrast, there are concrete verbs which are immediately followed by an object in the accusative form, and there are concrete verbs which take an object via a preposition and have a semantic feature (- transitive). This explains the few exceptions with the divergent cases, cf.

Ger. zur Post gehen (Dat) – Russ. пойти на почту (Acc.) – to go to the post-office

Ger. zur Bank gehen (Dat.) – Russ. пойти в банк (Acc.) – to go to the bank

When we analyse the divergence of object cases in German and Russian, the following reasons for this divergence can be ascertained:

1) a highly developed case system in Russian: “Object in Russian can be in Genetive, Dative, Accusative, Instrumental, or Prepositional case” (Gladrow 1998: 157);

2) the divergence of objects, which is most conspicuous with abstract verbs, i.e.

Ger. die Freunde beneiden (Acc.) – Russ. завидовать друзьям (Dat) – to be envious of friends

Ger. das Leben riskieren (Acc.) – Russ. рисковать жизнью (Instr.) – to risk one’s life

Ger. Erfolge erzielen (Acc.) – Russ. добиваться успехов (Gen.) – to score a success, cf. Gladrow (1998:157)

Ger. die ewige Freundschaft schwören (Acc.) – Russ. клясться в вечной дружбе (Präp) – to swear eternal friendship, cf. Kirschbaum (2001:293)

Ger. auf Unterstützung hoffen (Acc.) – Russ. надеяться на поддержку (Acc.) – to hope on support, cf. Gladrow (1998:158)

Conversely, a strong tendency towards the convergence of the accusative concrete verbs can be ascertained in both languages, cf.

Ger. einen Schlag versetzen – Russ. нанести удар – to deliver a blow

Ger. eine Karte hinter den Schrank werfen – Russ. забросить карту за шкаф – to throw a map behind the wardrobe

Ger. Volleyball spielen – Russ. играть в воллейбол – to play volley-ball

Ger. um das Haus herumlaufen – Russ. обежать дом – to run around the house

Ger. ins Konzert gehen – Russ. идти на концерт – to go to the concert

Consequently, the following grammatical rule can be stated::

If a concrete German verb takes a direct object in the accusative, a corresponding Russian verb also takes an object in the accusative.

4. 2. The Expression of the Semantic Opposition (concrete) vs. (abstract) in English

The semantic opposition (concrete) vs. (abstract) becomes visible in English at the grammatical level of tense and mode.

4.2.1 Peculiarities of Abstract Verbs in the Progressive Tense

Quirk points out that a number of verbs cannot be used in the progressive tense: Further, some verbs cannot normally be used with the progressive aspect and therefore belong to the stative rather than the dynamic category (Quirk 1991:75).

Quirk gives a complete list of such verbs; it is noteworthy that all of them have the semantic feature (+ abstract):

“(a) Intellectual states (e.g.: know, believe, think, wonder, suppose, imagine, realize, understand) …

I understand that the offer has been accepted.

(b) states of emotion or attitude (e.g.: intend, wish, want, like, dislike, disagree, pity) …

She likes to entertain the students.

(c) states of perception (e.g.: see, hear, feel, smell, taste, seem, appear)

I can see the house.

(d) states of bodily sensation (e.g.: hurt, ache, tickle, itch, feel cold).

My backaches

(Quirk 1991:203).


4.2.2 Peculiarities of Abstract Verbs in the Subjunctive Mood

Quirk points out to certain semantic limitations which govern the usage of the mandative subjunctive:

The mandative subjunctive is productive in that it can be used with any verb in a that-clause when the subordinate clause satisfies the requisite semantic condition, viz that the that-clause be introduced by an expression of demand, recommendation, proposal, resolution, intention, etc.

They recommended that this tax be abolished

(Quirk 1991: 156).

Quirk gives a complete list of verbs which can be followed by the subjunctive mood; all of these verbs have the semantic feature (+ abstract), i.e.

People are demanding that she leave / should leave the company. (Quirk 1991:203)

4.3 The Expression of the Semantic Opposition (concrete) vs. (abstract) in Spanish

In Spanish, the semantic opposition ‘concrete* vs. ‘abstract’ becomes visible on the level of the verb mood (subjuntivo). In the que-clause, the Conjunctivo has to be used if there are certain verbs in the preceding main clause. Such verbs belong to the group of volition (will, desire, permission, prohibition); it is noteworthy that all of them have the semantic feature (+ abstract), i.e.

Le he dicho a Juan que no se desanime I told Juan he should not lose courage

Mi padre insiste en que termine mis estudios – “My father insists that I complete my studies,” cf. Reumuth/ Winkelmann (1991:168)[1]

5 Conclusion

It is here suggested that a new semantic opposition be introduced into the verb classification, i.e. the features (concrete) vs. (abstract). It can be claimed that the semantic opposition (concrete) vs. (abstract) be prior to all other semantic oppositions.

For accusative forms in German and Russian, the following rule can be established:

If a concrete German verb takes a direct object in the accusative, a corresponding Russian verb also takes an object in the accusative.

The causes of this total congruence of German and Russian accusative forms are:

  • the same semantic feature (- abstract) which both German and Russian verbs share;
  • the same semantic feature (+ transitive) which both German and Russian verbs share;
  • the same syntactic structure: German and Russian objects both follow the verbs directly or without a preposition.

The understanding of the reasons for convergence of the accusative in Russian and German can be used in foreign language teaching. So far, the grouping of Russian verbs which take objects in different cases or prepositional objects occurs according to case or preposition (Kirschbaum 2001: pp. 286 – 287 and pp. 293 - 299). However, it is recommendable to group the Russian verbs which take an object in the accusative according to the feature (+ abstract) or (- abstract). In this way, the complete overlap between Russian and German concrete verbs can be used effectively in teaching these languages.

References

Bondarko, A. V. (1971). Grammaticeskaja kategorija i kontext. Leningrad.

Bondarko, A. V. (1983). Principy funkcional’noj grammatiki i voprosy aspektologii. Leningrad.

Gladrow, W. (Hrsg.) (1998). Russisch im Spiegel des Deutschen, Frankfurt am Main.

Hofmann, V. (2003). Analyse der Übersetzung deutscher Verben mit nicht-präsentischer Bedeutung ins Russische. Lebende Sprachen, Heft 1/2003, 24-36).

Hornby, A. S. (2010). Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Oxford University Press.

Kafka, F. (1990). Der Prozeß, New York.

Kafka, F. (1965). Process, in the translation of R. Rait-Kovaleva, Moscow.

Kenny, A. (1963). Action, Emotion and Will. London.

Kirschbaum, E-G (2001). Grammatik der russischen Sprache, Berlin 2001.

Krahl, G. (2005). Lehrbuch des modernen Arabisch. Langenscheidt.

Lucko, P. (1986). Aktionalität und Aspektualität im Englischen und im Deutschen, Dissertation, Berlin.

Quirk, R. (1991). A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, London 1991.

Reumuth, W. & Winkelmann, O. (1991). Praktische Grammatik der spanischen Sprache, Wilhelmsfeld.

Schopf, A. (1969). Untersuchungen zur Wechselbeziehung zwischen Grammatik und Lexik im Englischen. Berlin (West).

Steinitz, R. (1981). Der Status der Kategorie „Aktionsart“ in der Grammatik (oder : Gibt es Aktionsarten im Deutschen?). – In: Linguistische Studien (Berlin), Reihe A, 76, S. 1-122.

Vendler, Z. (1967). Linguistics and Philosophy. Ithaka, New York (first published in 1957 as an article “Verbs and Times” in Philosophical Review 66).

Weise, G. (1983). Zum Ausdruck des Vergleichs in der englischen und deutschen Wissenschaftssprache. – In: K. Hansen (Hrsg.). Studien zur Sprachkonfrontation (Englisch – Deutsch), Berlin, Humboldt.

Author:

Viktor Hofmann

Independent Researcher

Wriezener Str. 29

13359 Berlin

Germany

E-mail: Kiwi32@gmx.net

[1] The complete list of all the abstract verbs which demand the use of the subjuntivo can also be found in Reumuth / Winkelmann (1991: 168).