LINGUIST List 12.243

Tue Jan 30 2001

Review: Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil

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  1. tyoon, Review of Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil

Message 1: Review of Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil

Date: Sun, 28 Jan 2001 17:18:28 -0600
From: tyoon <>
Subject: Review of Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil

Schiffman, Harold (1999) A Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil.
Cambridge University Press. 232 pages

Reviewed by Tae-Jin Yoon, University of Illinois at Urbana-

1. Introduction

Schiffman's 'A Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil' is a
reference grammar of the standard spoken variety of Tamil.
After presenting brief description of the Tamil language and
its varieties, revealing what the author aims to show the
readers, I will review some aspects of the sound, the
classification of major lexical categories, and the structure
of sentences. I close with some additional commentaries.

Tamil is one of the oldest of the Dravidian languages. Literary
works in Tamil date back to the tenth century B.C. (Christdas 1988).
Other Major languages of this family include Telugu, Malayalam,
and Kannada. It is said that there are approximately 65 million
speakers in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore. Among
them, some forty-three million live in the southern state of
Tamilnadu in Southern India, which has Madras as its capital
and Tamil as its official language (Asher 1985).

There are two main varieties of Tamil: Standard Literary Tamil
(henceforth, LT), and Standard Spoken Tamil (hereafter, SST).
Even though LT is taught in schools and acquired as a second
language. It is never used in conversation, whether formal or
informal. LT is used only in formal situations, for example,
political speeches, lectures, news broadcasts and formal talks,
and to a certain degree by teachers in the classroom (Christdas
1988). There exist a variety of dialects based on regional, social,
and religious characteristics. Consequently, many researchers
and speakers of Tamil call into question the existence of 'SST.'

However, the existence or at least the emergence of 'SST' is
justified by Schiffman. He claims that even though Spoken Tamil,
ST, must be described as being variable and fluid, becomes
standardized by a process of informal consensus in such a way
that most Tamil speakers agree that certain forms are preferred
over others. Schiffman's "A reference grammar of Spoken Tamil"
is a grammar of the standard spoken language used by educated
people in their interactions with peoples from different
regions and different social settings as well as employed in
films, plays and the media. The book contains examples obtained
from his close observations of Tamil usage and from close study
of film and broadcasts acceptable to most Tamil speakers.

2. Synopsis

The book consists of 8 chapters, which can be divided into
phonology (chapter 1), morphology (chapters 2 to 5), syntax
(chapters 6 to 7), and LT equivalents of ST paradigms discussed
in the preceding chapters (chapter 8). I will summarize some
aspects of the sound pattern, grammatical categories and their
paradigms, and the structure of sentences.

2.1. The phonology of ST

In Chapter 1, Schiffman presents the vowel and consonant
inventory of ST, together with phonological alternations, often
contrasting the pronunciation of ST with that of LT. Here, I
present the sound inventory and some examples of the
phonological alternations, without considering the difference
between the two varieties. Note that the phonetic alphabets
employed here are ASCII symbols: t[ stands for dental stops; tr,
for palatal retroflexed stops; lr, for retroflexed liquids; rr,
for retroflexed rhotics; and nr for retroflexed nasals.

ST has ten vowels, five of which are short and long as in
i, e, a, o,u (long vowels are represented as double letters).
As for the consonants, there are voiceless stops (p, t[, t, tr and k),
nasals (m, n, and nr), Liquids (l and lr), glides (j and v),
and rhotics (r and rr) both in the form of singleton and
geminate consonants (note that the rhotics are exceptions for
the gemination). As in other Dravidian languages, Tamil has a
series of six stops in terms of place of articulation. However,
unlike other Dravidian languages which usually have a four-way
contrast in terms of the glottalic status, native Tamil only
possess voiceless stops. Voiced stops are only found in
postnasal position and in loanwords borrowed from Indo-Aryan
languages, Arabic, Portuguese, Telugu, and English. Furthermore,
stops may spirantize in intervocalic position; there are no
underlying fricatives.

Among the numerous phonological phenomena discussed in
Schifmman, some are as follows: The high short vowels i and u
are lowered to mid-vowel position if they occur in the word-initial
syllable. For example, /id[am/ becomes [ed[am].
Second, all words end in vowel. Thus, the so-called 'epenthetic'
vowel u serves to make a word end in a vowel. For example,
the phonetic relaization of /nil/ is [nillu].
Third, a glide is inserted when words or morphemes ending in vowels
are followed by morphemes beginning with vowels. For example,
when two morphemes nari 'fox' and aa 'interrogative morpheme' are
combined, glide j is inserted as in narijaa 'a fox?'

2.2. The morphology of ST

Schiffman presents in chapters 2 to 5 the Tamil nominal and
verbal system, pronouns and adjectives. Whereas the morphology
of the noun, pronoun, and adjective is quite regular, the
classification of Tamil verbs is quite complex.

2.2.1. The nominal and case system of Tamil

The noun consists of the noun stem plus case suffixes. Most
nouns in Tamil end in -am, as in maram 'tree'. When a case
follows, all such -am ending nouns change this to -att(u), as
in maram vs. marattu. According to Schiffman, this form is
referred to as the oblique stem of the noun. There are other
smaller classes of nouns such as those ending in -ru and those
ending in -dru. the nouns ending in -ru become -ttu, and those
ending in -du become -trtru when a case is affixed. A noun stem
is followed by one of seven cases, which are nominative(zero
form, as in maram), dative (-ukku or -ykki, as in marattukku
'to the tree'), locative(-le as in marattule 'in the tree') ,
ablative(-rundu, as in marattulerundu 'from the tree'),
associative/instrumental (-ood[e or ood[u, as in marraoode
'with/by means of the tree'], and accusative cases (-e, as in
maratte). The distinction between associative and instrumental
cases is not clear-cut.

2.2.2. The pronouns of Tamil

Tamil has personal pronouns which distinguish first, second,
and third persons (both in singular and plural forms). The
first plural may be inclusive (i.e. the addressee is included
in the reference, as in naanga(l)), or exclusive (i.e. speaker
exclude the addressee, as in naama). Furthermore, Tamil has
honorific masculine/feminine singular pronouns for the first
person. As for demonstrative pronouns, a prefixed phonetic
element indicates whether one is referring to something
proximate (i-, as in idu 'this thing'), distant (a-, as in adu
'that thing'), or whether a question is being asked about
something or someone (e-, as in edu 'which thing'). The Tamil
pronoun is also followed by a case marker as in the noun.
Pronouns in the nominative case may often be deleted from a
sentence on the condition that the semantic information can be
recovered from the agreement marker of the verb. Thus, in a
sentence like naan pooreen 'I am going,' the naan can be

2.2.3. The adjectives in Tamil

With a very few exceptions (8 lexical items such as periya
'big,' cinna 'small, etc), Tamil does not have what are
considered to be true adjectives Most adjectives are derived
from verbs or from nouns, and most of them have a final -a.
Note that there are also no true adverbs in Tamil. All adverbs
are formed by adding -aa(y) to nouns or adjectives.) Adjectives
can be preceded by a noun, or they can be in the predicate, as
in English 'it is new.' When an adjective is used as a
predicate, it must be nominalized by adding du or su. Thus, the
adjective pedu 'new' becomes nominalized, as in pedusu ' a new
one', when is used as predicative in a sentence inda viid[u
pususu 'this house is new.'

2.2.4. The complexity of the verb classification of Tamil

Schiffman extensively discusses various aspects of Tamil verbs
in chapter 3 such as finite, non-finite verbs, verbal usage in
terms of social classes, transitivity, causativity, and modal
and aspectual verbs, etc. I will briefly present the
classification of verbs.

Schiffman mentions that Tamil verbs have been classified in a
number of different ways, on the basis of the morphemes used to
mark tense. Some lexicographers divide verbs into 13 classes,
while some scholars propose smaller number of classes. However,
the proposed classification always involves subclasses and
there are always exceptional forms that do no fit nearly into
any kind of scheme.

What is proposed in Schiffman's is a modification of the seven-class
scheme which is known in the literature as Dr. Graul's classfication.
 Of course, Schiffman is aware of the fact that his own classificatory
scheme does not work perfectly for ST, requiring additional
subclassification for certain of Graul's classes. The criterion of
Graul's verb classification is based on the form of the tense markers
used with different stems. For example, vaangu 'buy' which belongs
to Class III require as its tense marker -r- for the present
(as in vaangur-), -in- for the past (as in vangin-), and -v- for the
future (as in vanguv-). Roughly speaking, Classes I to III are the
so-called weak verbs (those verbs possessing single consonants as tense
markers), Classes VI and VII is strong verbs (those verbs possessing
geminate stops as tense marker), Classe IV is intermediate between the
weak and strong verb. Classes V verbs, which usually contain sonorants
(laterals, nasals, and rhotics) in stem final position, is a problematic
one, containing a number of verbs that are weak in the present but strong
in the future, and unpredictable things happening to these sonorants.

2.3. Syntactic structure of Tamil

Chapters 6 and 7 are concerned with syntax. The basic word
order is Subject-Object-Verb, like many other languages in Asia.
The simplest sentence can consist of just two noun phrases,
with no verb (even linking verb) present. Thus, when a pronoun
idu 'this' is followed by a noun pustaham 'book', the sequence
becomes a so-called equational sentence, roughly translated
into English 'This (is) a book.' Schiffman notes that Tamil
syntax is the mirror-image of the order in an English sentence,
especially when there are relative clauses, quotations,
adjectival and adverbial clauses, conjoined verbal
constructions, and aspectual and modal auxiliaries, among
others. I will present some simplest constructions such as
negative, and interrogative sentences.

Even though negation in Tamil is a rather complex phenomenon,
not simply a matter of taking some negative element and adding
it to a sentence, the simplest kind of negative verbal formed
by adding -lle to the infinitive of a verb. For example, the
English sentence 'This is not my house' is idu en viid[u ille
in Tamil, which literally corresponds to 'this my house not'.
And 'didn't go' corresponds to pooha-lle 'go not.'
Interrogative sentences are formed in a number of way. But the
most common way is to add a clitic. For example, yes-no
question is formed by adding ?aa to the last element in the
sentence, as in raaman vandaaru-aa 'Raman came+Q? or Did Raman


Overall, the book is very helpful for both language learners
and researchers. The book covers extensive aspects from sound
to meaning. Even though Schiffman does not include a chapter
for the semantics, he mentions the lexical and sentential
meaning (and even, pragmatic considerations), wherever
necessary. Furthermore, he compares the ST with the LT variety
carefully, so as not to confuse the readers. The author also
takes foreign readers into consideration, suggesting the best
possible usage for non-native speakers of Tamil, and sometimes
comparing the Tamil construction with the English counterpart.
What attracted me the most is that he includes the Tamil script
in the book, so I came to know what the Tamil scripts look like.

On the downside, some of the indices referring to other
chapters and subsections (such as section 6.1, or section
2.1.1) are not correct, making the reader confused. Also, the
organization of the book is a bit complex for those who do not
know about the Tamil language to comprehend. Thus, while
reading through the book, I often had to go back to the
previous part or had to look through the chapter to figure out
what the author is trying to propose. It would have been better
to summarize what the author will consider, or describe how the
chapter is organized in the first part of the chapter.

Asher, R. 1985. Tamil. London: Croom Helm
Christdas, P. 1988. The Phonology and Morphology of Tamil. Ph.D.
dissertation, Cornell University
Daniels, P. and W. Bright. 1996. The World's Writing Systems.
Oxford: Oxford University Press

Tae-Jin Yoon is a graduate student at the Department of
Linguistics in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
(UIUC). He has completed his M.A. at the University of Seoul,
Korea, in the Spring 2000 and began to pursue his Ph.D. at the
UIUC in the Fall 2000. His research interest lies in phonetics
and phonology, as well as other aspects of both applied and
theoretical (both functional and formal) linguistics.
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