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I learned that Chinese uses coverbs instead of prepositions. But it's not 100% clear to me what the difference is between coverbs and prepositions, as the Wiki page and several sites are hand-wavy, saying "they take the place of prepositions but they are kind of like pretty much prepositions anyways". Hard to grasp from statements like that.

So in English we might have sentences like:

I walked around the tree.
The tree is behind me.
I am about to walk to the tree.

I am not 100% sure, here, either, that I am using around and about as a preposition, but if I am not please correct me with valid sentences using these prepositions. But I know the behind is a preposition.

How would you write those in Chinese? Not only the Chinese writing, but the literal linguistic gloss (or something close to it, a pseudo gloss so-to-speak). That way, I can see where these "coverbs" are actually coming into play. But not only that! Please write the gloss using ONLY VERBS where the coverbs are supposed to go. Wikipedia makes this extra confusing when they do this:

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They put "cóng" as "from"!!! Well, from isn't a verb in English. What is the appropriate verb that should be used to clearly show this is a coverb?? They do slightly better with "arrive(to)", but still, they throw that "to" in there to create more confusion.

Using my examples, how do you conceptualize of "behind" as a verb? I would think, "to be behind", but there "be" is the verb, not the "behind fact". If I were to try harder, I would say "the tree be [position is back of me] me" or something like that. Still not getting it. Same with "about", how would that be thought of as a verb?

I am working on a fantasy language and I don't like the idea of prepositions at all in English, so I am looking for how other languages get around the problem. It turns out Chinese is one language which seems to avoid them for the most part. But I don't get it at an intuitive level yet. Please help illuminate how they work.

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2 Answers 2

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Prepositions come in two types: where and whereto.

In my opinion, there will never be language without prepositions, because they locate things in time and space, or spacetime. Our brains are hard-wired to do that.

"coverb" is a linguistic fantasy used to try to explain something that linguists don't understand. It is deliberately couched in vague terminology so that no one can say, "That's wrong."

"Coverb is a grammatical term that can have several different meanings but generally denotes a word or prefix that resembles a verb or co-operates with a verb."

If you will accept that all words 'cooperate' with verbs after some fashion, then all words are coverbs.

Your three sentences in Chinese:

I walked around the tree.
我绕着树走。
I moved around tree walk

The tree is behind me.
树在我的后面。 tree in I 的 de behind side

I am about to walk to the tree.
我即将要走到树。
I aboutto want walk to tree

Merry Christmas!

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  • I am fascinated by this idea that ""coverb" is a linguistic fantasy used to try to explain something that linguists don't understand." What is it that isn't understood? What is the problem that the notion of coverb tries to solve?
    – Buddy L
    Mar 7 at 17:48
  • Assume John de Francis is correct. Then you need only ascertain what is the "main verb" and you may identify your "coverb" every time. 我用筷子吃饭。1. " 我用筷子。I use chopsticks." 2. " 我吃饭。 I eat my meal.: "main verbs" in 1. and 2. you will say are here "use" and "eat". Now, 3. "I use chopsticks to eat my meals." Identify the "main verb"! 我用筷子吃饭。 By which criteria will you rank the verbs here? Do linguists think it is not possible to do two things at the same time?
    – Pedroski
    Mar 8 at 1:04
  • I think your question goes better as a comment to the answer provided below, as it references that answer directly. The answer, however, is that the coverb always precedes the main verb. 吃 is never used as a coverb to my knowledge, and it would not make any sense to say *我吃饭用筷子,unless you are topicalizing "我吃饭", in which case you would probably use a comma to separate the clauses. I am still curious (sincerely, no sarcasm), if in your estimation coverbs are something entirely made up to explain something that linguists don't understand...what is it that linguists don't understand?
    – Buddy L
    Mar 8 at 15:18
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John DeFrancis (1946) says "Coverbs are transitive verbs which do not stand alone but precede and are secondary to the main verb of the sentence. Some coverbs are sometimes used as full verbs. A few are never anything but coverbs. All can be translated as prepositions in English." DeFrancis

In my estimation coverbs are sometimes more like adverbs than prepositions: 我是明天去. I am tomorrow going. Here 是 behaves like an adverb meaning "really", or [emphatic].

Sometimes, they are used when we would otherwise use a normal verb in English: 我用筷子吃饭. I use chopsticks eat. English might use a preposition here: "I eat with chopsticks", or a verb: "I use chopsticks to eat".

An example of a sentence that in English would almost certainly use a preposition, but in Chinese it is clearly a verb that fills the same function: 我坐车去 = I sit/take a car to go. In English: I go by car (using a preposition, "by").

So coming to the Wikipedia sentence: 我坐飞机从上海到北京去。 I would pseudo-gloss it as follows: I sitting[on] plane move[from] Shanghai move[with the destination of]Beijing go.

坐 can be used as a verb or a coverb. It means to sit, or when its object is a mode of transportation, it means to take. It's use as a regular verb is quite intuitive: 我坐飞机 = I take a plane. However, here it is specifying the way in which the main verb of the sentence, 去, is being done, so it is considered a coverb.

从 can only be a coverb applied to verbs that involve movement, and it modifies that movement-verb to mean "move[from]". This feels very prepositiony when translated to English, as the sentence from Wikipedia demonstrates. It doesn't really feel like a verb to an English speaker. However, it behaves as one: its object is 上海.

到 can be used as a verb or a coverb. 我到了 = I have arrived. As a coverb, it is similar to 从 in that it modifies a movement-verb, but in this case it means "move[with the destination of]". Compare it to another coverb (which cannot be used as a regular verb): 往, meaning "move[in the direction of]". In my opinion the distinction between direction and intended destination is a distinction of intention, not a question of spacetime, and in the languages that I speak, no preposition would be capable of drawing this distinction.

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